All his working life, Hank Austin has been flying. Most of that time he’s been at the controls in a cockpit, most
recently as an airline captain flying DC-9s for a Midwestern commercial carrier. But when that airline went bankrupt
a year and a half ago, the 48-year-old pilot suddenly found himself weighing the pros and cons of starting over at the
bottom of another airline’s seniority list.
“It wasn’t very appealing,” Austin recalls. “At my age, with my experience, I wasn’t all that excited about
jumping back in at the bottom somewhere else. My wife and I were sitting around talking about it one day while we
were watching a local television show and I said, ‘Hey, why don’t we start a little show of our own?'”
So, with a consumer camera and a lot of enthusiasm, Austin and his wife, Carole, launched Flightline, a
low-budget, half-hour show about, as Austin puts it, “anything that flies.”
“This is the show I’ve wanted to see my whole life,” Austin says. “There are probably 50 fishing shows on the air
across the country, counting the local versions, but until Flightline, there was nobody out there getting into
the trenches of sport aviation, meeting airshow pilots, putting the viewers into the cockpit and putting it all on
Flightline first appeared on a local low-power station in May 1993. It was another six months before the
show really (pardon the pun) took off. Austin’s initial attempts to get the show on a satellite network met with heavy
“They rejected us several times when we first sent our stuff to New York,” Austin says. “Finally, I called up a
network and asked if anybody there was a pilot. They said no, but they knew a pilot who worked in another office
down the hall. Well, I said, grab that guy and show him a few minutes of the show!”
Apparently that anonymous pilot liked the show because the network, Channel America, called back and agreed
to try it out. Today, Channel America airs Flightline twice a week.
“They say it’s one of their most popular outside shows,” Austin says.
Flightline currently appears four times a week on three satellite networks, with a fifth scheduled to pick
up the show this fall. Austin says he is currently negotiating with programmers in Australia and South Africa who
have shown an interest in the show.
“I never would have dreamed in a million years we would have this kind of success,” Austin says. “It turns out
that the audience for this kind of show is broader than we ever could have imagined.”
Nearly every Flightline episode involves location shooting. For example: a recent show featured the
largest seaplane “fly-in” in the world. A kind of sports car rally for pilots, the Maine-based fly-in drew pilots from
Canada and the northern US.
“It was great,” Austin says. “Very visual, with all the loons paddling around the seaplanes. We talked to the pilots
and shot their spot-landing contests and seaplane-paddling races.”
During that trip, the Austins also scored an unexpected bonus: the world’s only amphibious DC-3.
“I got a chance to fly it myself,” Austin says with undisguised glee. “I was in the cockpit, at the controls, talking
to my audience. We may get an entire show out of it!”
It is Austin’s genuine enthusiasm for flying and his join-me-in-the-cockpit format that sets Flightline
apart from its few competitors (Wings, First Flight). This is also one of the reasons Austin quickly
switched from his consumer VHS camera (used for only a few shows) to Hi8. Not only was the resolution better, he
says, but the smaller camera was a much better fit in the close quarters of most cockpits.
“It’s really an unfair comparison, though,” Austin explains. “The Hi8 camera we’re using now is much better than
the VHS camera we were using. I’m sure both formats are fine. I’m just getting images with a little more punch with
the new camera.”
Flying By the Seat of Their Pants
The Austins both serve as camera operators and hosts of the show. When it’s time for Hank to shoot a stand-up,
Carole takes over behind the camera.
During the show, Austin often turns to his wife for the “non-pilot’s point of view.” And for the occasional studio
shoots, they both sit before the camera on a talk-show-like set.
“Carole adds an important dimension to the show,” Austin says. “As soon as she started appearing, we started
getting calls and letters from housewives all over the country. They say they like the banter between us. We’ve sort of
become the Regis and Kathy Lee of aviation.”
To date, Flightline has featured an amazingly wide range of flying machines on its 55-plus shows. From
aerial combat craft and so-called ultralights to blimps and hot-air balloons, Austin has flown them all, enticing
viewers to join in the fun with his passionate delivery.
As one might expect, shooting video inside an aircraft has presented the high-flying videomakers with a
number of unique challenges.
For example: to compensate for the intense vibrations of the airborne machines, Austin found he needed a
stabilized lens. After experimenting with cameras with electronic image stabilization, he settled on the Sony TR-101
with its mechanically stabilized lens.
He also prefers the results he gets with Fuji double-coated tape.
Sound has presented other problems, especially since Austin talks with his viewers from inside the aircraft while
he’s shooting. The solution: plug the camera into the plane’s intercom system.
“Some noise and wind is part of the flying experience,” he says. “So I’m not after perfect studio-quality sound.
But I do want the viewers to be able to understand me.”
Post-Production Ground Crew
For post production, the Austins decided against investing in their own studio and instead struck a deal with an
“The truth is,” Austin admits, “we’re not professional television people. We’re not really even video people.
We’re just people with a sincere interest in aviation and a desire to introduce sport aviation to anyone who might be
Austin says he negotiated with a local production house and settled on a base price for each half-hour show that
included an editor. Working with the editor, Austin says he can cut an episode in a day (“If we don’t break for
“We’re a lean outfit,” he says. “A day to shoot, a day to edit, and it’s off to the satellite feed station.”
The show is edited on Hi8 and then later bumped up to three-quarter-inch for the satellite feeds to minimize
generation loss. Austin says he prefers to lay down the soundtrack and then cut picture to sound.
“Music is very important to the show,” Austin says. “We have a good music library and we use it. What I’m going
for is something like a music video on aviation. What I’m trying to communicate is energy.”
The Austins’ home base is the western Michigan town of Muskegon, but their show has taken them to remote
locations from Canada to Florida. They usually fly to these locations in their own Grumman Yankee two-seater. But
because of their low budget, they have found themselves somewhat restricted to the eastern side of the continent. To
cover the rest of the country, they occasionally use footage submitted by independent videographers, though Austin
says he is rarely satisfied with outside submissions.
“The problem is getting outside shooters to go out there and cover an airshow the way pilots want to see it,”
Austin says. “There are a couple of shooters out on the west coast that I can count on. The rest of the stuff we get is
just too shaky. I don’t mind something being alive, but our audience won’t sit still for an airplane jumping around the
screen like a fly.”
Winging the Sales End
But probably one of the biggest challenges of putting on a weekly show is selling the advertising to support it. Up to
now the Austins have promoted their show primarily with a free newsletter and faxed announcements to various
segments of the aviation industry.
“Aviation television is new,” Austin says. “And it’s tough getting advertisers to put money into a new enterprise.
Right now we’re working very hard for very little money, but we’ve managed to support ourselves for a year and
we’ve proven we can capture an audience.”
But once it’s established, Austin maintains, aviation television will be as popular and effective at capturing an
important niche market as today’s fishing shows.
“In 15 years,” he says, “the fishing industry went from a bunch of good old boys in rowboats to skilled pros in
$80,000 bass boats. These are guys who make their living fishing. That’s what low-budget television did for
that industry. The aviation and airshow industry is a multimillion dollar business and it’s totally unrepresented on
The Austins are currently looking for a major sponsor to underwrite the show and give them the financial boost
they need to move up the broadcasting food chain. If they can secure funding, Austin says, they will be able to invest
in better equipment and aim for a higher market.
“I think we would be perfect for something like the Discovery Channel,” he says. “But we’d have to go up to the
Betacam format for the studio stuff, though I would stay with Hi8 for the air shots. I can do a steadier, better
presentation with Hi8 than some of the best guys out there with their Betacams.”
The airshow industry has taken notice of Flightline, and while no single event could underwrite the entire
series, Austin says the airshows have been increasingly supportive of his efforts.
“We didn’t get into this just to do airshows,” he says, “but they have been supportive. They sometimes give us
travel expenses, lodgings, and often a rental car. They have come to realize that we not only shoot their show, but we
get it on national television. We’re giving them good publicity and they’re getting more bang for their buck.”
In addition to producing his own show, Austin has taken it upon himself to encourage other small-time producers
of aviation television. Through AVNET (an abbreviation for aviation network), he counsels other independents and
works to provide opportunities for them. One independent producer has just finished the pilot (our last pun, we
promise) of a show exclusively about ultralight aircraft. Another show currently being produced under the AVNET
aegis is about horses.
“I met the guy at an airshow,” Austin explains. “He wanted to know all about the production, but his idea he had
for a show about horseshows. That was his passion so I told him to go for it.”
That’s also Austin’s advice to other small-budget independent producers.
“We’re just a little two-person operation,” Austin says, “and we’re about to go international. We’re just like your
readers. You have to go with your instinct and always keep in mind what excites you. You have to get excited
about what you’re doing. You can’t expect your audience to be excited about something you’re not excited
about. The name of the game is energy.”
Flightline is currently in reruns, which is giving the Austins a bit of a breather and a chance to put
together some studio-based shows that will carry them through February. In the Spring, it’s back out on the road for
the first of the season’s location shoots, beginning in Florida.
Austin says there is one aspect of producing a weekly show that has gotten easier: coming up with new ideas for
“At first I thought, how are we ever going to come up with a new subject every single week?” he says. “I thought
it would be impossible! But it’s gotten easier and easier. I think it’s because we’re doing something we