When it was introduced, Airwolf came at a time when the threatening technological advances developed during the cold war between NATO and the Soviet Union were at their peak. These included ICBMs that could reach around the world; surveilance planes that could do the same; presumed satellites that could be used in warfare; and the advent of stealth infiltration from the air.
In the meantime, American television had continued its migration to high-concept, high-cost shows from the eras of Westerns and Super Heroes. Gone were Marshal Dillon, Wonder Woman and Steve Austin. In were Michael Knight and Stringfellow Hawke. In a way, the super heroes were still around, but now their vehicle was as much the star as they were.
The highest-flying stars were the Blue Thunder and Airwolf helicopters. But while Blue Thunder (as a motion picture and television show) set its sights on, and was limited to, tactical law enforcement issues, Airwolf tapped in to the strategic nature of cold war espionage and warfare. Here was an aircraft that could fly faster than sound, refuel in midair, and surveil the enemy without ever being seen. And if spotted, it wouldn't raise an eyebrow when the weapons were properly hidden.
Airwolf had just enough vulnerabilities to require the expertise of a top pilot to ensure successful missions, and that pilot was Stringfellow Hawke (Jan-Michael Vincent). A Vietnam veteran who lost his brother during a mission, Hawke became a test pilot and was involved in Airwolf's initial development. So when years later the final test pilot, who also developed the design, flies off to Libya, Hawke is enlisted to get it back. He must fly Airwolf low and fast to avoid radar detection, and he must outmaneuver missiles fired at him to escape from the desert country.
Throughout the rest of the series, Airwolf returns to foreign countries to rescue spies, aid world leaders and occasionally defend itself from capture by those who seek its technology.
Aiding Hawke week after week is his childhood guardian and mentor, Dominic Santini (Ernest Borgnine). Santini's air service at Van Nuys Airport serves as a regular job for both men as they take on charters and perform stunts in regular aircraft. It's only when they head deep in to The Valley of the Gods (Monument Valley) that Airwolf is retrieved from within a mesa to begin a new covert mission, usually at the behest of operative Michael Coldsmith Briggs III, referred to by his codename, "Archangel" (Alex Cord).
Briggs is a Deputy Director for the Langley-based intelligence Firm that developed Airwolf. Although he had intended to turn the entire Airwolf project over to the Department of Defense upon completion, through Airwolf's theft and subsequent retrieval, Briggs devises the way to secretly 'keep' the aircraft for the Firm's own use through the aforementioned services of Hawke and Santini, who also choose the aircraft's hiding spot.
Read more about the nuances of the show in the Airwolf Series Guide.