Surf and Rescue
Maui’s top helicopter pilot on saving skinny-dipping yogis and dodging 60-foot waves for Hollywood shoots
Don Shearer can fly his helicopter from the hangar at Maui’s Kahului Airport to the big-wave break known as Jaws in less than ten minutes. At the airport, he can hear the surf detonating on the island’s outer reefs, the waves doubling in size as they meet shallow water. Last year, Shearer spent two days at Jaws gathering action footage for this month’s remake of Point Break, the kitschy 1991 thriller-turned-cult-classic about a gang of bank-robbing surfers. On the first day of the shoot, the biggest swell in five years hit Maui, with waves taller than 60 feet and as wide as two city blocks.
Shearer, who has worked on films including Die Another Day, Waterworld, and Riding Giants, pilots a helicopter as if it were an extension of his body and can dodge oncoming waves by a matter of feet. On the Point Break shoot, he flew calmly, dropping his helicopter close to eye level with the surfers. The biggest wave of the day, which appears in a chase scene in the film’s climax, came early and nearly caught everyone off guard. Shearer had only one opportunity to capture the shot. The surfer who rode the wave, Ian Walsh, had just knocked the dust off a board he hadn’t used in four years when suddenly the enormous swell blocked out his view of the horizon. “In a situation like that, it’s so important to work with someone like Don,” says Walsh. “I can focus on my job because I know he’s gonna do his.”
In uncontrolled environments, directors use helicopters to hoist the ultraheavy cameras and gyrostabilizers needed to capture footage for the big screen. The stresses placed on pilots in those situations — in Shearer’s case, avoiding waves, salt spray, and disorienting wind conditions, all while negotiating the demands of the director and the movement of the actors — make it one of the most dangerous jobs in Hollywood. The director of Point Break’s surf sequences, Philip Boston, lost six figures’ worth of camera gear at the hands of a less seasoned pilot on his last feature-length project, Chasing Mavericks. Two other pilots have died in crashes on subsequent shoots with other directors. “There are a handful of pilots who are the best in the world when it comes to flying over the ocean,” says Boston. “But no one is better than Don Shearer.”
Shearer began working with helicopters straight out of high school after landing a job as a mechanic for Frank Robinson, the founder of Robinson Helicopter Company in Southern California. In the ’90s, shortly after moving to Maui, Shearer gained critical experience flying in adverse conditions during Operation Wipeout, a statewide drug bust with the DEA. Marijuana cultivation was rampant in Hawaii, and Shearer would drop federal agents on the end of a rope into remote areas. Knowing that one bad move could kill the man below taught him to fly by feel. Where other pilots might rely on their gauges, placing attention inside the aircraft, Shearer flies with no door on his helicopter and focuses on what’s happening around him. “Some experienced pilots might look at the things I do and think they’re absolutely ridiculous,” he says.
Shearer helped remove 90 percent of the marijuana grown on the islands, according to a DEA estimate. He wasn’t especially interested in eliminating the drug trade, but he saw marijuana growers wreaking havoc on the landscape. Today he says he misses the time when “everybody was happy, everybody was cool, and everybody was stoned.”
At 57 years old, Shearer runs his own helicopter company and is usually wearing his bright-orange flight suit. A lot of his business centers on removing invasive plants and animals. In one week, he might spray hundreds of miconia trees — a species brought from Latin America — with a rig attached to his helicopter and then carry a sniper to do population control on nonendemic species such as goats and boar. It tends to be a losing battle. “The state and conservation groups have given up on preserving anything below 3,000 feet,” he says.
Shearer also works as a rescue pilot. Many of the rescues and body recoveries involve tourists. “We get missing hikers. We get cars off cliffs. We get guys who haven’t had a snorkel on in 30 years who drown.” Pieces of clothing are sometimes all that are left. “Something ate them or they’re gone,” he says. (Though there have been three times in Shearer’s career that people have faked their deaths to escape angry spouses or troubled lives only to resurface years later, he says.)
These experiences have tainted some of Maui’s most beautiful sites for Shearer. He sees not only white-sand beaches but also the swimmers, paddleboarders, and kitesurfers taken out to sea. At the Haleakalā volcano, the highest point on the island, he sees not only breathtaking sunrises but also the bicyclists who tore down the side of the volcano too fast and lost control. “I’d be lying if I told you I haven’t had moments where I have to find somewhere to cry by myself,” he says. “You just learn to never cry in front of people you work with.”
Shearer’s team of four pilots broke its record for most rescues in a single day when a flash flood surprised 34 people, including 15 naked tourists skinny-dipping on a yoga retreat. Victims were scooped up two by two in the rescue net and, as Shearer remembers, “delivered from out of the sky to a bunch of horny-ass firemen.” In the middle of telling this story he pauses for an emergency dispatch — “Hang on,” he says, “I might have an ocean rescue right now” — before continuing.
Minutes later he runs off to his helicopter to take a call. Sometimes, though, Maui is just as serene as it appears, and his services prove unnecessary. “That happens a lot, too,” Shearer says. He even has time to go surfing some days — he rides a few waves, no rescue required, and gets back to work.