Strategies and gear for living the dream
Don and Donna Shearer's birds get dispatched to rescues, James Bond sets, Jaws swells, and forest fires on the Hawaiian island
If you call 911 for a helicopter rescue in the contiguous United States—or, as Hawaiian islanders prefer, on “the mainland”—chances are the fire or police departments will arrive in their own aircraft. But if you need a helicopter to rescue you in Maui County, you’ll meet a member of Don and Donna Shearer’s helicopter team.
The Shearers own Windward Aviation, a helicopter company that specializes in utility work. If that makes it sound like they’re missing the action, consider this: their helicopters have hoisted cameras for James Bond movies and American Express commercials; they’re the go-to birds for filming watersports at Jaws (they appear in Susan Casey’s bestselling book The Wave, about 100-foot swells and the people who chase them); they’ve detonated bombs to clear Navy testing sites; and they’ve dropped Drug Enforcement Agency officers into illegal marijuana patches. And since local fire departments and emergency-rescue departments on Maui don’t have their own helicopters, the Shearers and their staff are on standby 24/7 in case one is needed for a rescue.
After all, it’s Hawaii. “A lot of people come here,” Donna says. “Stupid things happen.”
Age: Both are 58
Job: Owners and operators of Windward Aviation
Home Base: Maui
Years in the Business: 32 (27 at Windward Aviation)
TV Inspiration: Magnum P.I.
Division of Labor: Donna handles contracting and hiring. Don flies (and does the firing). “Donna’s the brains of the operation,” says Don. “And he gets the glory!” adds Donna.
How They Got to Maui
Don: “From the time I was a little boy I was intrigued by flight. I was born in 1958, and from World War II to the 1970s and ’80s, there was more progress in aviation than probably any other period of time. I would beg my mom to go to the airport so I could watch the planes take off and land. I started flying myself in 1977, the year I graduated from high school. I got my mechanics license to work on airplanes and helicopters, then one thing led to another and I was offered a job at Continental Airlines as a pilot. At the same time, I had another job opportunity to fly helicopters in Hawaii for a tour company. I figured I could always get an airplane job.”
Donna: “I moved to Maui in 1991 and did a tour on a helicopter the following year. Afterward, I was like, Man, I’d rather learn how to fly a helicopter. And that’s how I met Don. He had a little flight school at the time, so I met him through the yellow pages.”
There Is No Typical Day…
Don: “We started Windward Aviation in the early 1990s. Just about every helicopter company in Hawaii does helicopter tours for starters. But with one of the previous employers, I got exposed to what’s called utility work. Utility work is where you do everything except tours. So we’ll put poles in the ground and string wire for utility companies; we’ll carry water to fight fires; we’ll take police into marijuana patches; we’ll take conservation groups, such as the Nature Conservancy and the State of Hawaii’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife, to save native rainforests by building fences and eradicating invasive species; we’ll do movies and commercials. And we have contracts with the fire department, the police department, the state and national parks, and the military.
Donna: On any given day, we could be on all the islands doing all those different jobs.”
On Filming Movies
Don: “I’m kind of over it. It’s like, ‘OK, fly… No, don’t fly.’ ‘OK, fly!… No, no, no, don’t fly. We’re not ready.’ ‘OK, fly! Go, go, go!’”
On Flying at Jaws
Don: “It’s one of those things I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get away from. I’ve been doing it longer than anybody, since about 1990. I’ve met and gotten close to many of the professional athletes that surf, kite, and windsurf there. We’re really sought-after for all the documentaries and films about Jaws.”
Best Part of the Job
Don: “We’re constantly being dispatched for missing kiters, surfers, windsurfers, hikers, fishermen, plane crashes, people falling off waterfalls… It’s always nice when you get out there and you can actually rescue someone. That’s a very fulfilling part of the job.”
Donna: “We did a big rescue one year, of like 30 people in a yoga group, and half the people were naked! There was a flash flood, and they got caught up in the Bamboo Forest off the Hana Highway. There have been good rescues and hilarious ones, as well as some tragic ones. But if everybody comes out alive, it’s a good day.”
Worst Part of the Job
Don: “The other side is when you’re picking up bodies. It’s a horrible tragedy, and you’re just providing closure for the family. That can wear on you over time. I’ve been to a plane crash with 20 fatalities. I’ve been to three other plane crashes with ten fatalities. It’s had a huge impact on me.”
Finding Time to Play
Don: “My cardinal rule is to try and get in the ocean everyday. All I need is an hour of surfing, kite surfing, swimming, or a downwind run on my stand-up paddleboard. Once I get my ocean time, the business world is easily managed. Prior to that, I find myself getting too consumed and stressed out. The other outlet I have is being on the flying schedule—once I leave the ground, my only concern is to be the most professional aviator possible. No cells phones in the cockpit! It’s totally an in-the-here-and-now kind of a moment.”
Donna: “Don gets to fly almost everyday, whereas I do the hard part and sit at a desk for the majority of the workday, so my goal is to perform at least one type of exercise, whether it be surfing, kite surfing, running, lifting weights, or bicycling. Surfing trumps everything. I follow the forecast like a maniac—it’s my second job! Waves can now be forecasted a few weeks ahead, so I adjust my work schedule to allow myself the opportunity to surf if conditions are good. I also have a small workout station in my office, so I can exercise whenever I want to reenergize during the day.”
On Working with Your Spouse
Don: “We really started working together in 2004 and determined rather quickly that we needed to develop some ground rules. She cannot raise her voice and I cannot use cuss words. As long as we play by those simple rules, everything works fine. I have added my own new rule recently that she has no knowledge of: if I find myself getting a little upset, I remind myself how much I love her and how special she is to me.”
Donna: “My wonderful hubby knows that I need a bit more play time each day, as I do all the hard crappy work and he gets all the glory. So it's a fair trade-off.”
On Spending a Life Together
Donna: “We’re stronger together. We shine brighter together. The only thing is when he drops in on my wave—that pisses me off!”