It's a hot August day in Torrance, Calif., south of Los Angeles, and Richard Hammond is having a very good time. He's busy shooting one of the episodes of Season 2 of his BBC America series "Richard Hammond's Crash Course," and he's getting to pitch in on the construction of one of his favorite things: a helicopter.
Airing on Mondays, the one-hour show has sent the "Top Gear" host across the United States, trying out new professions. In Season 1, he drove a variety of very large machines. But this time, he's vying for "Dirty Jobs" host Mike Rowe's self-assigned title of "perpetual apprentice," but without the proviso that he always get dirty.
But that doesn't mean it's all a dance through the daisies. In the episodes that have aired since the show's Oct. 22 premiere, Hammond has been set on fire as a Hollywood stuntman, taken a turn behind the wheel of a New York cab and delivered a stand-up routine at the Gotham Comedy Club.
Hammond's goal is to go in with just enough knowledge to be able to explain to viewers just how much more he doesn't know.
"I know enough about standing up in front of an audience," he tells Zap2it, "because that's my job, but not doing stand-up comedy. That was enough to get me to the position where I could then appreciate how good real stand-ups are, rather than being a gibbering wreck terrified at the prospect of facing a room full of people."
On this day, he's at the Robinson Helicopter Company, the manufacturer of the secondhand copter Hammond bought in the U.K. He's also getting to try his hand at the labor-intensive process of assembling one in a huge open factory floor open to the air and lit by skylights.
"That's the great thing about doing this show," he says during a break. "You get to go to places you wouldn't go as a tourist. I get to go to a lot of places most Americans don't visit."
Hammond's family background allows him to appreciate the skilled workers he's observing.
"My grandfather was a cabinetmaker," he says, "and then went on to become a coach builder. He built cars. He'd recognize everything they're doing out there; he just wouldn't know how to build a helicopter.
"It's great to see, those skills being deployed. That's rare to see. That's not just somebody pushing a button all day. They're actually making these things with their hands and their eyes."
Hammond bought his own helicopter so that he could leave locations for "Top Gear" and other projects and get home quickly to his wife and two daughters. It was also useful for impressing his "Top Gear" colleagues, Jeremy Clarkson and James May.
"James flies fixed-wing," Hammond says, "so he's very snobby about helicopters. Jeremy doesn't fly anything, so he's sniffy about flying in general. But we were over the east coast in the U.K., and it's a long drive home. I'd flown in, and they'd both driven.
"I dropped James off in London and Jeremy off in his garden. That shut them up. They haven't gone on about it since. They realized, that's it. It's quite useful."
As for what it's like to take a little vacation from the auto-centric, crazy-stunt world of "Top Gear," Hammond says, "I've always done other things aside from 'Top Gear.' I think it's good to go away, and then you bring stuff back to the show.
"'Top Gear' is the biggest thing I'll ever do, obviously, but it's nice to do other stuff. Then you go away, and you come back with experiences that inform who you are on 'Top Gear.'"
As to what skills he might transfer between the two, Hammond says, "I don't think I brought any useful skills from 'Top Gear' to this. I don't know if there are any applicable skills. The whole point of this is, I've been taken out of my comfort zone -- apart from this one, which I'm really comfortable with -- so I don't know. We'll see."
Even though he's surrounded by shiny new helicopters, Hammond isn't tempted to upgrade.
"No," he says, "I think my wife might have a view on it, if we suddenly have to live in a smaller house because I bought a bigger helicopter. I'll just stick with what I've got.
"It's as humble a helicopter as can be, but it's still a helicopter. I'm lucky to do it. It's buying time at home. That's the nicest thing you can do, really."
But the downside of coming to America is seeing his family off after a visit.
"They went home, my wife and girls," he says. "It was horrible. They're 9 and 11. It was a painful goodbye. They were OK, but I kept my sunglasses on and walked out quickly."
Photo/Video credit: BBC America