Chicago-based company uses Airbus AS350 B3e, Enstrom 480B, and Cessna 350 for aerial cinematography, tours, charters, and utility services.
By Brent Bundy
Phoenix Police Officer-Pilot (ret)
AS350, AW119, Cessna 210/182/172
The versatility of helicopters is unmatched in aviation. Sure, airplanes can fly higher and further, but when the need is for maneuverability, agility, and precision, the helicopter has no rival.
Since rotary-wing aircraft first took to the skies nearly 100 years ago, pilots have found countless uses where no other option would work. One of those endeavors is in aerial cinematography, and a leader in this field is Elite Rotorcraft.
It’s no coincidence that shortly after mankind first took to the air, a camera was brought aloft. Early aviation pioneers found the viewpoint from an elevated platform to be unequaled. The first still photographs were taken from kites and balloons as far back as the mid 1800s.
Wilbur Wright himself starred in the first-ever motion picture filmed from an airplane. Two world wars would prove the viability of the technology. And by the 1980s, aviation legend Clay Lacy had cemented aerial filming as a mainstay of movie production.
Elite Rotorcraft Founder and CEO Michael Franck is from Montana, and grew up in Vancouver WA. He was raised by a family of aviators, originating with his grandfather, who instructed in the Boeing B-17 Fortress and Cessna T-37 Dragonfly.
Initially operating an aviation and logging truck business, it was while working on the Alaskan Pipeline in the 1970s that Franck’s father took to helicopters.
Soon after, the family established Conquest Helicopters flight school in Troutdale OR, across the Columbia River from Vancouver WA. “I pretty much had no choice but to fly. I was doomed from birth to be in aviation,” Franck jests.
While honing his pilot skills, Franck was also exposed to the business side of the operation. “My family was involved in several different companies, including trucking, logging, and gas stations,” he recalls. “It gave me experience I would use later in life.”
In another precursor to his future endeavor, he would transport helicopters by truck around the region for county fairs, external load work, and various other jobs.
Franck earned his private pilot license at age 17, followed by his commercial rating at 18. “I learned to fly in Hughes 300s, Hiller 12Bs, Bell 47s, and Enstroms,” he recounts. “With my family owning the flight school, I learned real-world flying. In fact, the day I took my commercial checkride, I flew the helicopter to an event to give rides.”
In 1996, Franck took an Enstrom F-28C2 and a Bell 206 to Panama City FL and started Paradise Helicopters tours. This undertaking was also prompted by family. “My grandfather had passed, and my grandmother moved to the Florida Panhandle,” Franck says. “My dad wanted to retire to the area, but also wanted to continue to work in helicopters.” After working together for 3 years, Franck transitioned the operation to his father and headed north for new opportunities.
Windy City work
Franck landed a position with Helicopter Transport Service (HTS) in Chicago IL. “We flew Bell LongRangers and a Sikorsky S-76, mostly for local news, but for tour work as well,” he recalls. Shortly after arriving, the base chief pilot retired and Franck was offered the post.
HTS soon moved on to heavy-lift operations, in which Franck had no interest. What he did enjoy was aerial filming. “Back in the 1990s, a lot of commercials were filmed in the Columbia River Gorge area, where I worked. I had gotten a taste of it and really enjoyed that type of flying.”
Aerial filming pilots who shot in Chicago would often rent helicopters from HTS and, for insurance purposes, Franck would be part of the package. On one occasion, weather delayed the shoot for several days until the production crew had to leave town, but Franck and a cameraman executed the shot to the satisfaction of the director.
“This was my accidental start in aerial filming. I started flying with the right people and, when more work was needed, they would call me,” he explains.
This fortuitous turn of events led Franck to venture out on his own and found Helimotion in 2003 – the name derived from “helicopters” and “motion pictures.” The plan was coming together exactly as he had hoped, even if not by design. Nearly a decade earlier, while flying in Panama City, Franck had told his future wife that he was going to move to Chicago and open his own aerial filming business.
At the time, there were few operators in Chicago flying Airbus AStars – the platform Franck and many others preferred. Helimotion opened its doors with a Eurocopter (later Airbus Helicopters) AS355 TwinStar – the best of both worlds.
Franck explains, “Everyone loved shooting from the AStar, and the TwinStar was a similar platform that provided added safety, and sometimes the requirement, of a second engine.” Word spread quickly among the film crews traveling to Chicago, and Helimotion was on the map.
Expansion leads to Elite
Although Helimotion was offering a variety of services, the focus was on aerial filming. Franck’s reputation was bringing in jobs, but the 2008 recession took a bite out of their workload. “We needed to find a way to expand our footprint beyond the Chicago area,” Franck points out.
“What we came up with was to not wait for work to come to us but to take our helicopter to the work.”
This meant transporting his aircraft around the country to meet with crews for filming, but there were no off-the-shelf solutions for this, so in 2009 Franck approached a trailer manufacturer with his design for a custom-built rig.
Franck’s trailer allows for enclosed transportation of his helicopter, protected from the elements, along with all the necessary camera equipment and maintenance tooling. Loading or unloading can be completed in under 45 minutes.
“This expanded our availability nationwide,” assures Franck. “It has even allowed us to ferry our helicopter to Bermuda to film America’s Cup yacht races.”
The year 2014 brought changes for Franck. As the TwinStar was due for a 12-year inspection – a costly requirement – the owner, an investor in Helimotion, decided to sell the aircraft. Simultaneously, another regional helicopter operator was looking to purchase a Part 135 certificate. Franck had that certificate, so Helimotion was sold, along with the TwinStar.
Franck stayed on with Helimotion for 3 years, transitioning and overseeing flight operations, but he continued his pursuit of aerial filming. “When my expertise was called upon to transport helicopters to Bermuda for filming the America’s Cup, I realized this was something I couldn’t pass up,” Franck relates. So Elite Rotorcraft was set in motion.
Elite Rotorcraft was up and running in January 2017. “We picked up our Airbus AS350 B3e AStar the first week of the year, had it outfitted with equipment by April, and immediately loaded it into our second trailer for our first job in Bermuda,” Franck says. “That was a 3-month project that required the logistics of moving 2 AStars to the island, and it got us off to a great start.”
Although Elite was a new name, the respectability that Franck had earned over the previous decade among the Hollywood crowd ensured continued employment. “Showing up with a beautiful new AStar in a custom trailer certainly didn’t hurt!” he quips.
While that new AStar may look good when it arrives on set, it’s Franck’s solid reputation for safety and reliability that keeps clients coming back.
“The work we do is inherently dangerous,” he admits. “But by adhering to our own stringent internal safety practices, we try to take as much of the risk factor out of the equation as possible.”
It didn’t take long for the Elite name to spread through the industry. With many of his former clients knocking on his door, Franck has been involved in the filming of nearly 100 feature films and television shows, along with numerous commercials. To perform at this level of expectation, the right equipment is necessary.
Elite’s aircraft are outfitted with the Shotover F1, a 6-axis gyro-stabilized platform that can house a variety of systems, depending on what they’re shooting. In the cockpit there are convenient connections for the camera operator to tap into for controlling the camera.
Elite’s AStar also has a custom-designed interior to match its exclusive black, green, and graphite paint job.
The other helicopter in the Elite hangar is a 2005 Enstrom 480B. With its Rolls-Royce 250 C20W turbine engine, it is plenty powerful for tours, aerial photographs, and some light filming work.
In addition, Franck recently dipped his toes into the fixed-wing world with the purchase of a 2009 Cessna 350 Corvalis.
This 4-place piston-powered airplane has a 1300-nm range and tops out at nearly 200 kts – perfect for getting Franck to jobs and meetings with clients.
“The only negative is that I never really flew fixed-wing aircraft much, so I’ve had to get back into training for my commercial and instrument ratings,” says Franck.
He currently flies around 300 hours per year for filming projects, adding to the impressive 19,000+ hours in his logbook.
Three’s a company
Franck would have a difficult time tackling all the demands of running a business on his own. Stepping in to help is his wife, Director of Operations Amy Franck. Amy is also the woman to whom Michael prophesied his future business when they met in the late 1990s.
Her father was a para-rescue specialist in the US Air Force, which meant that she traveled the world as her dad was assigned to various bases. After graduating from college with degrees in business and psychology, she worked in Panama City, managing multi-family housing.
Amy soon found a knack for helping others, especially less fortunate individuals, through assistance programs in which she was involved.
Amy met Michael while he was flying tours in Florida. “He told me he was going to move to Chicago and start a company filming movies from helicopters and that he wanted me to come with him,” she recalls. “It sounded like a great idea, but I wasn’t ready to leave my career, so I stayed in Florida.”
Amy delved further into her psychology training, with a position in social work. This was followed by a role as a child abuse investigator in Georgia. During this time she was sent to the FBI Academy for forensic interviewing.
In 2013, Amy accepted a position as a sexual assault advocacy investigator with the US Army, which again would send her to posts across the globe at military bases. In 2018 she was back in Washington DC, and Michael invited her to watch a sailboat race in Rhode Island. He picked her up in a helicopter and they’ve been together since.
Although Amy still works in her advocacy role, she now applies her business training to her position with Elite. “With the 2 of us running the company, I’ve taken on accounting, scheduling, marketing, and pretty much anything else that’s asked of me to help keep things running smoothly,” she says.
Michael is thankful to have a trustworthy person assisting with Elite. “Even during the pandemic, we have kept busy,” he adds. “With assignments across the country, having Amy taking the reins while I’m on the road ensures things are getting done right.”
The third member of the Elite team is Line Pilot Nick McCoy. Born and raised in Chicago, McCoy says he has always loved helicopters, even as a young child. While in high school, his parents arranged an intro flight in a Robinson R44, and he was hooked. He started helicopter flight lessons immediately, and by 2016 had earned his commercial and flight instructor ratings.
With his Robinson experience, McCoy then began teaching in R22s and R44s. A year and a half later, he met Michael Franck through a mutual pilot friend. “Michael had purchased a Guimbal Cabri G2 helicopter. I wanted to fly it,” recalls McCoy, “but, more importantly, there was the possibility of that leading to turbine time in Michael’s Enstrom, and I really needed that.”
Franck hired McCoy with just 500 hours under his belt, and assigned him to intro flights, tours, and minor photo work. After building some flight hours, Franck checked him out in the AStar and began giving him commercial jobs.
The time McCoy has spent with Franck and Elite has opened doors for him in other flying positions. He currently flies full-time for a Chicago news station, but maintains a part-time position with Elite.
When asked why he stays with Elite, McCoy is quick to give credit to his aviation mentor. “I wouldn’t be here if not for Michael. He took a chance on me early in my flying career and I owe him everything,” he states.
McCoy also enjoys the variety that accompanies aerial filming. “I love my job, but flying for the news can get repetitious,” he adds. “Working with Elite allows me to see another side to helicopter flying and to continue learning and perfecting new skills.” Regarding his future, McCoy says all he wants to do is flying.
Even as work continues to come in, Franck and Elite face the same dilemmas affecting the rest of the helicopter industry. “One of the biggest challenges for us right now is insurance,” he details. “Even though the type of flying we do has the potential for danger, we have a very high safety record. But, due to recent high-profile incidents, our insurance rates have skyrocketed.
If the helicopter industry as a whole doesn’t band together to address it, the industry could be decimated.”
The operation of drones has also had a minor effect, but Franck quickly points out that there are shots that can’t be achieved from an unmanned platform.
“Shooting from drones,” he points out, “tends to look robotic and mechanical. It doesn’t provide that personal feel that a shot from a helicopter does.”
Not one to turn from a challenge, Franck has positioned Elite to weather the storm and expand even further. He recently began applying his airborne skills to the ground with vehicle-mounted camera systems. Elite also anticipates expanding to the Nashville TN market with a new base for tours, charter flights, and aerial filming. “Putting us in that region would make our operation centrally-located,” he declares. “It would also allow us to grow as a company with more pilots and aircraft.”
The company moniker may be new, but the name behind the scenes is well known. With a career spanning 3 decades, as a member of the Screen Actors Guild and Motion Picture Pilots Association, Michael Franck has built a portfolio of work encompassing every aspect of aerial cinematography.
As one of the very few pilots trusted by movie makers to provide helicopter-based footage, his dedication to quality and safety catapult his name to the top of the list when Hollywood comes calling.
The next time you see an awe-inspiring aerial view in a movie, TV show, or commercial, watch the credits. There’s a good chance that it was brought to you courtesy of Michael Franck and Elite Rotorcraft.
Brent Bundy served as a police officer with the Phoenix Police Dept for 29 years. He flew with the PHX Air Support Unit for 19 years, and is a helicopter pilot with nearly 4000 hrs of flight time. He has flown Airbus AS350B3s for the helicopter side of Phoenix PD’s air unit, and Cessna 172, 182s and 210s for the fixed-wing side.