Ace of Waves

Chopper pilot Don Shearer detonates bombs, plucks hikers from volcanoes and drops into Jaws
Story by Kyle Ellison. Photos by Erik Aeder.

"Well the good thing," says Don Shearer, "is that I knew where the pool of lava was—so that wasn't really an issue. It was the sulfur dioxide that almost got me, but when my passenger was able to get me two hits of oxygen, it allowed me to fixate on this single rock and fly up out of the volcano."

Those are the kinds of stories you hear when you’re flying with Shearer. He’s had some hairy moments over his forty-two-year career. He’s detonated bombs, eradicated drugs, flown into narrow valleys at night to rescue stranded hikers. There have been nights so dark on Maui’s north shore that he had to navigate by flying low along the coast and following the white lines of breaking waves. 

Amazingly, that scene on Kīlauea volcano—where Shearer was helping people who’d gotten stuck inside its then active vent, Pu’u O’o—doesn’t rank as his scariest moment, but he’d “put it in the top five,” he says. Dramatic volcano rescues aside, Shearer is best known for his flights at Pe’ahi, where he works with film crews to document surfers who conquer the fifty-plus-foot wave also known as Jaws. There are only a handful of pilots with the skill to fly a helicopter among waves that are breaking three stories above them. When you throw in sea spray, thirty-knot trade-winds and craggy cliffs, you see why Shearer’s aerial savagery has made him as much of a living legend as the surfers who race down the peaks. 

Don Shearer’s yellow helicopter has become as much a fixture at Pe‘ahi — the big-wave surfing spot on Maui also known as Jaws — as the surfers themselves. Shearer works with film crews to capture the action while dodging the towering waves.

Take it back thirty years, however, and that wasn’t the case. Raised and trained in Southern California, Shearer moved to Maui in 1985 to fly scenic tours around the Islands, and even though he’d turned down job offers in Los Angeles, it didn’t take him very long to realize he’d made the right choice. “A few weeks after I got here,” says a visibly excited Shearer, “I’m flying over the Big Island, watching rivers of lava beneath snowcapped Mauna Kea. I’m looking at dolphins, mahimahi and waterfalls, and I just couldn’t believe where I was. At the time, I was 27 years old, with 3,800 hours of flight time, and I thought I was the best pilot in the world.”

The truth, however, was that beauty aside, every day for the first six months “I was completely scared to death,” he says. “If you’re on the Mainland and the winds are over twenty knots, most pilots aren’t flying at the airports. Here you pretty much start out at twenty, and between the weather, the topography and having to suddenly speak the Hawaiian language so that people know where you are, there’s a lot to learn about maturing as an aviator when it comes to flying in Hawai‘i.” 

Though tours are what originally brought Shearer to Maui, when he got a taste of “utility work”—which is every-thing besides flying tours—it led to his founding Windward Aviation in 1990. In the twenty-eight years since, Shearer has done almost everything you can do in Hawai‘i in a helicopter. He’s flown broad-cast sprayers over sugarcane fields and ant-baited Maui’s pineapple fields. His company once had to rescue a group of fourteen skinny-dipping hippies. He’s done LiDAR surveys for archaeologists and herded cattle by chopper. He’s dipped a bucket into residential swimming pools to help fight wildfires. 

Even before Pe’ahi made him one of Hawai‘i’s most visible airmen, two big things put Shearer on the aviation map: blowing up bombs and drugs. In the 1990s, after the US Navy ended its decades-long bombing on the island of Kaho’olawe, Shearer’s company helped cleanup crews engage in large-scale ordnance removal procedures called “blow in place,” or BIP. After scouring the red earth landscape for unexploded ordnance, crews would find bombs lodged in the dirt and rig them up with charges. Shearer would pick the crew up, and once the helicopter was clear of the blast zone the team would detonate bombs from fifty to two thousand pounds. 

The skills Shearer developed on Kaho’olawe led to a side job in ordnance removal that eventually expanded nationwide. Flying low to the ground with a magnetometer on his chopper, Shearer would canvass areas that had once been used as bombing and firing ranges. That data was then used to create maps of where ordnance was still hidden or buried in the ground.

Shearer’s Kaho’olawe job lasted a little over four years, during which time his crew logged tens of thousands of takeoffs between Kaho’olawe and Maui. At the height of his business he had ten aircraft, which came at a time when his other big gig—Green Harvest—was taking off.

Beginning in 1985, Shearer worked with law enforcement officials who needed his help in eradicating swaths of pakalolo, a.k.a. marijuana. He started with local police on Hawai‘i Island, but in 1990 and 1991, he worked with the Drug Enforcement Agency for a statewide campaign called “Operation Wipeout” that lasted sixteen weeks. “In the late eighties and early nineties,” says Shearer, “you couldn’t fly a mile from any airport in Hawai‘i without finding marijuana.” With the help of thirteen law enforcement agencies, Shearer and crew divided the state into ten-kilometer squares. He’d either use chemicals to spray from the air, or dangle police from a hundred-foot line who’d go in and chop it by hand. Systematically, one square at a time, they covered the entire state until all of the patches were gone. 

Shearer originally moved to Maui in 1985 to fly scenic tours, but soon found his calling in utility work. During his forty-two-year career he has detonated bombs, performed rescues in active volcano vents and herded cattle by chopper.

Just how much dope did Shearer destroy? He says at the height there were about two dump trucks a day, or two million plants per year. “We’d land in front yards, backyards, sidewalks, wherever. I’ve had half of these police chiefs on the end of my line in the days when they were still just vice cops.” Though Shearer still does flights for marijuana, albeit on a much smaller scale, it’s invasive weeds—not illegal weed—that’s helped him pivot from law enforcement to conservation.

Using techniques he developed during Green Harvest, Shearer now uses pinpoint sprayers to eradicate ruinous plant species like miconia, pampas grass and guava. Whereas the early days of spraying for weeds may have included the death of native plants, the pinpoint sprayer, when dangled from the helicopter, is able to target a specific plant in a radius of only three feet. To achieve that level of accuracy from above, you need a pilot—not just a sprayer—who’s able to hold a helicopter in place while operating a sling load below. He’s transported supplies for over two hundred miles of fencing in native forests and regularly works with teams that help with eradicating ungulates from the air.

While conservation helps his bottom line, it’s obvious Shearer’s love for protecting Hawai‘i’s native forest goes beyond the paycheck. “I’ve been on surveys pretty much everywhere in Hawai‘i, from five feet to five thousand feet. And to go to areas that are as pristine as they were when people first came to Hawai‘i … whatever we can do to preserve and protect Hawai‘i’s resources, I’m all for it.” 

Shearer descends toward the shore at Jaws to lift a damaged jet ski from the rocks. Flying in dynamic conditions like those at Jaws, a pilot needs not just nerves of steel but a feel for the ocean to safely maneuver between the massive waves.

Most of Shearer’s work happens out of the public eye. The big show is when he gets behind the stick of his lemon-yellow helicopter and flies into the jaws of Pe’ahi; it’s thrilling to watch from shore as the helicopter disappears into the trough between the monster waves, then reappears above the lip. Shearer’s connection to Hawai‘i’s watermen and women runs all the way back to when surfers like Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama were pioneering tow surfing. 

“For me to be exposed to these watermen,” says Shearer, “I get chicken skin just saying that. My relationships with guys like Hamilton and Kalama, they go back to the beginning. Those guys are out there without water safety or flotation devices riding boards that haven’t been proven yet, in a sport that hadn’t been done before—and I got to be a part of that. I mean, can you imagine, being a haole boy from California, and the next thing you know I’m out here in Maui and looking at guys like that?”

By “looking at” Shearer really means circling above, as he’s helped photographers and videographers capture epic footage of surfers towing into fifty-foot waves with a jet ski and ropes. He’s helped capture footage of Mark Visser—the first person to surf Pe’ahi at night—and has plucked surfers off of the rocks when they’ve lost their jet ski and board. He’s even towed guys into waves with a rope connected to the bottom of his chopper. 

For all the fun and adrenaline, though, the risks are real. These waves could easily take down a helicopter. Shearer wears an inflatable vest in case he ends up in the surf, and he says there have been times when an encroaching wave has been a foot from enveloping the tail rotor. “You can hear that wave break over the noise of the helicopter, and you have to pay attention, because that thing’s really moving.”

Shearer hovers behind stand-up paddler Robby Naish, giving him a boost with fifty-plus-mile-an-hour winds generated by the helicopter's powerful rotor.

What’s also moving are the people in the water, and Shearer diligently positions himself so he doesn’t ruin their rides. His downdraft could blow them off their boards, and as a surfer, kitesurfer and foil surfer himself, he’s learned to anticipate the surfer’s next move, so he knows just where to hover. It’s one of the reasons he’s developed such trust with big-wave surfers. Shearer calls them “some of his best friends in the world”; they call him “the world’s best pilot.”

This past November, during the Jaws Challenge surf contest, Shearer spent two days dodging, outrunning and hovering over sixty-foot surf. Two days later, he returned to Pe’ahi once the ocean had calmed to help pull a ski off the rocks. As he dropped his crew on the rocky shoreline—a landing zone where he can touch only the front of his skids down on boulders—Shearer hovered close to the water, and using his chopper like a vertical tow truck, wiggled the towline side to side and broke the ski free of the rocks. Add in a net full of broken surfboards that he and his team helped clean from the shoreline, and the entire process took fifteen minutes.

Shearer began his career in aviation as a mechanic, and he still obsessively makes detailed checks of the 104 different helicopter parts that need regular maintenance and service. “One of the reasons I’m still here,” he says, “is I put an incredible amount of attention into preflight preparation and detail, because once you take off you can’t just pull over and look at that thing that you should have looked at back when you were on the ground.” These preflight inspections are worth the effort; he’s found loose nuts and cracked tail rotor blades and estimates he has two entire helicopters in parts sitting on the shelves of his hangar. 

Despite the risks, this pilot with twenty-seven-thousand hours of flight time—or 3.1 years in the air—has no plans of calling it quits, though there’s also no reason to push things. “At sixty years old I haven’t seen any degradation in my abilities. Although when I go to do something and it doesn’t turn out like I expected, it will be obvious that something isn’t clicking like it used to. That’s when I’ll know that it’s time. Then again, as a sixty-year-old guy I have nothing to prove—I just want to come home at the end of the day.” HH