'Feel that speed?" Al Cerullo asks as he pilots a helicopter 20 feet over New York's Upper Bay at the Narrows. "The closer to the water, the more you feel it."
Then, he adds: "There's the buoy Superman flies over in 'Superman Returns.' "
You may not know Cerullo, but you definitely know his work.
Just about every time you see a New York City skyline flyby -- whether in television, films, commercials or music videos -- it's a good bet that Cerullo, an aerial cinematography pilot who lives on Nassau's North Shore, was at the controls of the helicopter carrying the camera operators.
"That's where I pulled Jackie Chan off a cigarette boat racing 60 miles an hour in 'The Protector'," Cerullo says of the 1985 film as he flies over the Upper Bay near Buttermilk Channel. "Chan was amazing, doing all his own stunts."
For every site, a movie shot
He offers a running commentary as he veers around the Statue of Liberty: "For the opening sequence of 'Working Girl,' " a 1988 movie with Melanie Griffith, he says, "we had to coordinate the ferry to turn at the exact moment. That water's really shallow outside that channel. With lots of boat traffic, it was a difficult maneuver."
Cerullo is the man on the East Coast whom producers turn to when they want some of the world's most classic footage. They pay $5,000 or more a day, a fee that includes a helicopter that burns 50 gallons of jet fuel an hour, camera mounts, location scouting and expert precision flying.
He has spent more than 25,000 hours in the air during 35 years on the job, and last year he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award for Mobile Camera Platform Operator from the Society of Camera Operators. His name is listed in the credits on dozens of TV programs including "Law & Order," "Gossip Girl," "Ugly Betty" and "Royal Pains" and movies ranging from "Gangs of New York" to "Analyze This" and, most recently, "Date Night" and "Iron Man 2."
But he got his start in the skies far from the world of entertainment: He spent 13 months in Vietnam, in 1967 and 1968, as a chief warrant officer, flying a Huey helicopter in combat. He logged 1,605 hours and was shot while conducting a combat assault, winding up out of commission for a few weeks. "When I got back up in the air, it was the only time I ever felt nervous flying," he said. "Near the end of my tour, I started flying higher, up to 10,000 feet to get away from it all."
He was awarded a Purple Heart - but didn't talk about Vietnam for years and avoided war movies altogether. "I finally watched 'Black Hawk Down,' he said of the 2001 film set in Somalia, with scenes he said were much like those he lived through: "It's too close to home, you know."
He returned to Long Island in 1968 and two years later got a job at Zahn's Airport in North Amityville, then at Island Helicopters in Garden City, where as a pilot he ran flight instruction, cargo hook work and other jobs. He volunteered to fly during the winter with no doors on the helicopter to market a camera mount - and got the idea for his business. He landed his first movie, "Klute" (1971), then "Gumball Rally" (1976) and the first "Superman" (1978).
Cerullo reminisces at his Hover-Views hangar at Republic Airport, where photos from his work line the walls:
Landing at landmarks
In New York, he has landed at some of the city's landmark sites, including Yankee Stadium for "The Scout" (1994) and in Union Square for "Conspiracy Theory" (1997).
For "Superman," he found himself a target of an unhappy neighbor: "We were on the Upper East Side hovering next to an apartment building with a big ball mount camera, and had to stop shooting because the guy in the floor below was flinging tomatoes at us."
And for TV's "Law & Order" his helicopter, a Eurocopter Twin Star, was painted to replicate the NYPD copters.
And in downtown Baltimore, he flew between burning buildings for "Ladder 49" (2004): "There was too much smoke at one point as the buildings were on fire. The pyrotechnic guys had to tone it down, so we could keep filming safely."
He's been on camera, too - in a police uniform ("The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3," 2009) and wearing a dress and makeup in "Sweet Liberty" (1986), when he worked as the stunt double for actress Lois Chiles.
Ambassador of the airways
Within the entertainment industry, Cerullo is considered an ambassador of the airways. "Al knows exactly how to navigate in and around Manhattan and clear through red tape," says Francis Lawrence, a music, video and film director who has worked with Cerullo on television shows including last year's "Kings" on NBC and the 2007 movie "I Am Legend."
"Al thinks about the shots and sequences, too, so it's like getting a camera operator and creative partner in one," Lawrence said.
He also praised Cerullo's help in coordinating the Coast Guard, Marines and the Army personnel during the evacuation sequence of "I Am Legend" and "flew with the camera operator to get all the sunrises and sunsets and a great shot of Will Smith playing golf off the aircraft carrier."
But Cerullo's industry is undergoing major change.
These days, many of the background aerial scenes can be constructed on computers. In the Motion Picture Pilots Association, Cerullo said he is one of only 22 remaining U.S. members, most 50 and older.
Restrictions for flying over Manhattan have increased, too. During the making of "Two Weeks Notice" (2002) with Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant, Cerullo was flying a large Sikorsky, with two smaller helicopters hovering nearby. "A police chopper was watching us," he said. "Someone panicked in the Empire State Building, and they had to evacuate and call us off."
But regardless of the location, or whether he's flying with doors on or off, Cerullo says he approaches each job with the same determination:
"The most important thing," he said, "is that we all go home safe at the end of the night."