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A Chopper Is Born

Although building a Rotorway can be great fun and a rewarding pass time it must be said that it is not a laugh a minute. But that is what it was when David and myself got involved with TV presenter Mark Evans when making the television series A Chopper is Born.

It all started when we were asked to become technical advisers to the series by executive producer Keith Duddy of  I 2 I television. It was envisaged that filming would take place near their base at Malvern in Worcestershire and Mark Evans would build the helicopter with another builder who could carry on the build between filming dates.  But this proved impossible due to the builders work load.  So, it was decided to build the helicopter at our Bishops Stortford base with any extra work done by ourselves. So it was off to Worcestershire to collect the kit and meet all of the crew.  After our meeting we were taken to the building to collect the kit expecting it to be in 8 large crates ready to load.  But much to our dismay we found the whole kit unpacked, with polystyrene packing, cardboard and parts everywhere as if a bomb had gone off. Some of the boxes had been destroyed and it took us many hours to pile and pack it on our trailer with fragile parts piled to the roof in our car.  The trip home was taken very slowly and must have looked like Steptoe’s junk yard on the move.

Our first visit by the crew saw them covering every window and glass door in our hangar, it was to remain like this for 6 months and was a dark and depressing place to work on bright sunny days between filming.  For the TV series Mark had to arrive on a different mode of transport so it was our job to find 13 types.  This varied from a bike, ride on mower and JCB right through to a combine harvester. Filming for this for each episode took up to an hour and ended up with around 20 seconds of time on the finished product.  The first episode found Mark opening up the boxes and, just like a child at Christmas, throwing millions of polystyrene granules all over the place after we had painstakingly packed the parts just like they would have arrived from Rotorway. This looked good on film and showed his enthusiastic and humorous nature which made the film so popular but trying to clear up the mess and sort out all the parts the next day took us ages and Mark’s parentage was discussed many times.

It was good to see just how filming took place and the true professionalism of the film crew.  Most of the camera work was done by Jill Ranford, a petite lady who handled the extremely large camera on her shoulder so expertly to get excellent close up shots of the build.  Often the camera was moved several times to get a single shot and this showed in the excellent film quality.  We have lived next to Stansted airport all our lives and are use to aircraft noise so we do not ‘hear it’. But the sound recordist Nick Turner (with his hearing like an owl) did and filming had to stop while aircraft took off.

Every few minutes Mark would come up with something funny to do and this made the film more enjoyable to a wider audience. Many guests were invited and these included Tony Walsh from Adams Aviation who gave a talk on avionics and was set up by Mark on several occasions, much to his embarrassment but all taken in good fun.  The star of these guests had to be the arrival of the RAF search and rescue team in their Sikorsky helicopter. A stunt was set up where Mark would accidentally set off an alarm that would be picked up by the rescue team. They would then knock on the hangar door and as it was slid open there would stand the helicopter crew members complete with crash helmets.  But the RAF team got there own back because on the last take Mark opened the door to find no one there, the crew had run off, the look on Mark’s face was a picture.

We were asked to undertake the painting of this helicopter and were told it would be easy as only two colours were required, yellow and black.  But we had an almighty shock when we were sent the artist drawings showing that the colour scheme looked like a Tiger skin with patches all over the machine. Trying to work from an A4 size drawing to match every part was a nightmare and it took us two complete days just to mask up the tail boom. The colour scheme was not what we would have chosen but certainly stood out.

As with all of these programmes, time is not available to let the presenter build the entire project and we helped with some parts.  But Mark was not only a first class presenter but had a good engineering background and did his research on every step of the build so he knew what he was talking about. At the end of some film days an extra ‘out take ‘film was shot and these had us in fits of laughter. One showed Mark trying to extract a small part of the kit from the mouth of the director lying prone on the operating table after allegedly swallowing this essential part, not very funny in print perhaps but hilarious on film as Mark, complete with fiberglass tail cone on his head struggles to retrieve his lost part.  Sadly some of these extras were not included on the DVD of the series but are shown on the Discovery channel programme.

So would we do it again, yes we would. And did we enjoy ourselves, you bet we did