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Family makes high flying images for the movies

My Family Business

With Top Gun worthy stunts and style, pilot Nick McMahon looks like he belongs in the movies—and, in fact, his work from high up in the sky is often seen in the biggest blockbusters.

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“If it can be done with a helicopter, we’ll do it,” so goes the motto of McMahon Helicopters, run by the dashing young blonde, along with his dad Brian, a crew chief door gunner during Vietnam, and younger brother, Nate.

“Anything for a buck,” jokes Nick. “If it’s dangerous or stupid, it’s two bucks.”

All kidding aside, his father knows more than a thing or two about danger. After the war, Brian applied his combat experience shooting a machine gun out the door of a helicopter to pointing a camera instead. He invested time and money in gyro stabilization and was a pioneer in developing mounts that attached cameras to the exterior of a helicopter. That allows the operator to capture smooth aerial video and stills.

“If you’re not using a gyro stabilize system, it shakes. It goes up and down and side to side, and it can’t be corrected,” says Brian.

In 1982 Brian filmed Super Bowl XVI, the first major sporting event to utilize a stabilizing system. And their handiwork has been seen on the big screen in such box office hits as Beverly Hills Cop, Die Hard 2 and Gross Point Blank.

But keeping this Canton, Michigan-based business alive after 30 years requires a lot more than glitz and glamour.

“It’s been a very tough economy so we’ve been surviving so to speak, especially the last ten years,” says Nick. The company scaled back on the size of its fleet and the number of employees—operating leaner and more efficiently.

In addition to serving the film industry, the bulk of McMahon’s business is now split between freight delivery for Michigan’s automotive industry and aerial surveying.

When a Ford, GM or Chrysler plant has an immediate, unexpected need for premium car parts, such as wheels, airbags or glass, McMahon picks up the materials from a supplier and flies them directly to the assembly site, which typically means the automakers’ production can continue uninterrupted. For these last-minute needs, helicopter has proven to be the fastest method of transportation, which keeps the company’s services in demand.

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Proud papa Brian credits his sons with saving the business. “They have skills I never acquired in terms of modernization and ideas."

“We have new technology now that allows us to overlay the GPS coordinates from the helicopter, the camera, down to the video,” says Nick, about the aerial survey work that has become a big part of McMahon’s expertise. “We’ve changed the way we do business as opposed to just growing.”

“When you work with Fortune 500 companies, the onus is on us to bring our services up to the level they expect,” says Nate, who runs the company’s website, McMahonHelicopters.com. “One of the ways we do that is with an online tool that allows our customers to track their flights in real time and check on their status.”

Nick and Nate, who grew up with a helicopter hanger as their playground, say they’ll proudly continue that commitment to innovation that’s kept the McMahon choppers flying.

“You don’t want them to follow in your footsteps. You want them to pioneer and exceed everything you did,” says Brian about his boys. “That’s what my sons are doing. They’re going way beyond whatever I’ve done.”