The series' protagonist is Stringfellow Hawke (Jan-Michael Vincent), a loner who lives in a cabin outside of Los Angeles, California in a remote mountain area that was based at Lake Hemet, accompanied only by his Bluetick Coonhound, "Tet", and the surrounding wildlife. Hawke is a recluse, spending most of his time alone with his priceless collection of paintings which he inherited from his grandfather (the art was a gift for his grandmother), and serenading eagles with his equally priceless Stradivarius cello. His only real friend and mentor is the older, eternally cheerful Dominic Santini (Ernest Borgnine) who raised Stringfellow and his brother St John (pronounced "sin-jin") after their parents died. Stringfellow's father and Dominic flew in World War II together.
Earlier, Hawke was a test pilot for Airwolf, an advanced supersonic helicopter with stealth capabilities and a formidable arsenal. Airwolf was built by the Firm, a division of the CIA (a play on the term "the Company", a nickname for the CIA). Airwolf was stolen by its twisted creator, Dr. Charles Henry Moffet (David Hemmings). Michael Coldsmith Briggs III (Alex Cord), the Firm's deputy director (codename Archangel), then asks Hawke to go to Libya to retrieve the helicopter. Archangel has a blind left eye and walks with a limp as a result of having been caught in the carnage Moffet unleashed when he stole Airwolf.

Fearing that Hawke would refuse the mission to recover Airwolf, the Firm confiscates his art collection and leaves Gabrielle (Hawke's pilot-episode love-interest, played by Belinda Bauer) behind to brief him for his mission. A week later, after an undercover operative is killed in the line of duty, Gabrielle is sent in undercover and Hawke is sent in sooner than originally planned. With Santini's assistance, Hawke finds and recovers Airwolf but chooses not to return it. Instead, he and Santini booby-trap Airwolf and hide it in a large natural cave in the remote "Valley of the Gods" (visually modeled on Monument Valley). Hawke calls this cave "the Lair". Hawke refuses to return Airwolf until the Firm can recover his brother, St John, who has been missing in action since Vietnam. To get access to Airwolf, Archangel offers Hawke protection from other government agencies who might try to recover Airwolf; in return, Hawke and Santini must fly missions of national importance for the Firm.
In the second season, to satisfy CBS executives who wanted to appeal to a wider female audience, the show introduced Caitlin O'Shannessy, played by Jean Bruce Scott. Caitlin is a feisty former Texas Highway Patrol helicopter pilot who eventually joins Airwolf's crew. In "Fallen Angel" Hawke confirms Caitlin's suspicions that he and Santini possess and operate a super helicopter as the three fly Airwolf into East Germany to recover Archangel.

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