Pulling All the Stunts...
Near Newhall, California
January 18, 1985
All in the Family...
Reid Rondell was a third-generation stuntman in Hollywood. His grandfather was Ronald R. Rondell, who started in the business in 1925, and the son of Ronnie Rondell Junior, who started in the mid 1950s. With his brother, R.A. also being a stuntman, young Reid Rondell entered the business in 1974, and quickly found his place - acting as the personal stunt double for celebrities like Jan-Michael Vincent and Tom Cruise.
"Reid was the first stunt guy who was my age," Cruise once said about Rondell. "He was generous and encouraging. He'd say 'Aw, you can do this.' ... the first guy to really teach me about stunts."
On the morning of Friday, January 18th, 1985, the 2nd unit for “Air Wolf” was filming a low level chase sequence for the episode "Natural Born" near the Sun Oil Refinery in Pico Canyon. The scene had one helicopter, a Bell 205 registered as N805V, following another helicopter in a clockwise circular pattern at the time. The two ships usually were flying at altitudes of 200 to 300 feet, at speeds ranging from 69 to 80 mph.
While Rondell's stunt work was typically limited to ground shots, the aerial stunt double hadn't arrived that morning, so he volunteered to ride along with the pilot - 36-year-old Scott Maher. A highly experienced aviator, with several thousand hours of experience in low-level flight while in Vietnam, Meher was serving in the Army Reserve, and had an instructor's license, commercial and instrument rating licenses.
The show's creator and executive producer, a 48-year old helicopter pilot Donald Bellisario stated, "They simply flew in a circle in front of the camera." There were no violent maneuvers, no hammerhead stalls and the like. "It wasn't even a stunt," he said. "You couldn't call it a stunt. That's just routine flying in a circle."
After a take, the three helicopters in the shoot - the lead, a pursuit helo, and the camera chopper - paused for a moment in the air, and then returned to their starting positions for a second take.
Witnesses observed the helicopter descending in the final turn to 250 feet, instead of leveling off, until it was very close to the ground. As it approached a small grassy knoll, Maher started showing off, and he dropped down to skim the surface. Accidently, one of the helicopter's skids caught the ground, and forcing the rest of the machine down. The engine was heard running for several seconds after impact, flipping the copter, ripping open fuel tanks, and causing the wreckage to burst into flames.
David Jones, the show's second-unit director and aerial coordinator, dragged pilot Maher out of the helicopter but could not rescue the 22-year-old Rondell because of the intense flames. Maher was flown by air ambulance to Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital, where he was hospitalized with facial cuts, a broken right ankle, a broken left clavicle, and a spine injury.
According to Bellisario, "Davey Jones left the camera and ran all the way down the hill. Nobody else was even close when he got there. He crawled under the cockpit — it was pouring fuel like rain inside the cockpit — and there was Scott, unconscious, hanging down by his seat belt. Davey got under him, punched his seat belt loose, and got him down. He rolled him down the hill. By then, some other crew members had gotten there. Davey tried to get back to the helicopter" to rescue Rondell "but it was burning too intensely."
The chase sequence was filmed up to a couple of seconds before the crash occurred. The actual impact, however, was not filmed. "I wish we'd had the film of that (the crash)" to aid in the investigation of the accident, Bellisario said, "but there's nothing on film of the crash."
An autopsy performed on the remains of Rondell determined he died from burns, and not the copter's impact. Rondell, who normally doubled for Jan-Michael Vincent, did not have to work on the day of the crash, Bellisario said. "They weren't doubling Jan that day. But he wanted to work."
"It was the most routine of flights," said Bellisario, "And that's what's got everybody so absolutely stunned. I don't know if we'll every really know what happened. That's up to the NTSB."
After the accident, Maher was not able to recall any details from the crash, as he suffered a form of amnesia caused by the trauma. The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause of this accident to be the pilot in command's inadequate visual lookout, with the hilly terrain being a contributing factor. Maher's license was suspended for three months, and his returned to flight in mid-May of 1985.
Tom Cruise was filming Ridley Scott's Legend in England at the time when he was informed of his death. Cruise was devastated and could not speak to hardly anyone for days after because he was so distraught. He served as a pallbearer at Rondell's funeral, which was attended by more than 500 stuntmen and other show business people.
Rondell was eulogized by fellow stuntman Jeb Adams as a fun-loving daredevil for whom "the film business was a playground, and he loved it with a passion."
After the one-hour service in Newhall, stuntmen gathered at the Rondell family's Canoga Park home "to drink and celebrate Reid's life the way he would have wanted us to," said Reid's brother, R. A. Rondell, 28, who is stunt coordinator on the "T. J. Hooker" television series.
The episode aired on CBS on February 23rd, 1985, and was dedicated to Rondell's memory. Also established in his memory was the Reid Rondell Stunt Foundation, which provides assistance for stuntpersons and their families who face hardships from accidents on the job. Several events, including a 150-lap celebrity motor race, have been held to benefit the foundation.