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Biplane pilots love winging it

August 23, 2009|Jim Winnerman

"It is like going for a ride in a convertible in the sky," Chris Prevost tells tourists considering a flight in his open-cockpit, 1940-era biplane. In the last 30 years, he has flown thousands of passengers above the picturesque vineyards of the Sonoma Valley and along the Pacific coastline.

Scott "Scooter" Sibson flies tourists in a biplane over the spectacular red rock canyons and landscape of Sedona, Ariz., and he compares each trip to "riding a Harley-Davidson with wings."

Both men are among a small group of pilots in the United States who combine their love of flying vintage aircraft with the business of taking adventurous tourists for flight-seeing rides over awe-inspiring terrain.

"At first, people are naturally nervous at the thought of flying exposed to the air and sitting just a few feet behind a spinning propeller," Sibson says, referring to the cozy passenger cockpit near the nose of the plane. "When I tell them to remove anything loose and make sure cameras are strapped to their wrist and that I will zigzag down the runway because the slant of the plane on the ground makes it impossible for me to see forward -- well, it doesn't help them relax."

But once they are airborne, flying 90 mph at an altitude of about 1,500 feet, most quickly realize the adventure will be the highlight of their vacation. Some are moved to tears by the beauty. "It is a very gratifying job to be able to give people such an experience," Sibson says.

Even talking to a biplane pilot before takeoff is rewarding. They are eager to relate the plane's history and to discuss whether it was used as a military flight trainer, crop duster, sky writer or pulled advertising banners. Most have sacrificed financially to fly their planes, which cost from $150,000 to $450,000. But they regard flying them as a privilege, as well as a direct link to the early days of aviation.

Prevost has flown more than 75 aircraft models during his 30-year flying history but still finds the open-cockpit biplane the most exhilarating. The same is true for Steve Collins, who flies over Bar Harbor, Maine, and who has flown F-15 fighter jets. "Nothing captures the essence of flight like being in a biplane, listening to the drone of the engine and looking at the scenery from between two wings," he says.

Paul Goodwin flies over the aqua-blue waters of the Florida Keys, and although he knows the scenic landscape is much of the allure, he also believes the plane and the ride are what tourists remember most. He may be right, because biplane rides are offered at numerous small airports throughout the United States.

Al Stix owns the Historic Aircraft Restoration Museum at Creve Coeur Airport in Missouri, which has 42 biplanes in its collection of 50 historic aircraft. Most weekends Stix can be found taking up passengers on 10- to 15-minute rides in a 1940s biplane. "I do not advertise, and it is not so much sightseeing as just offering rides to people interested in historic aviation," he says.

The ride is certainly memorable for the few daredevil passengers who request that a biplane pilot fly upside-down or do loops and barrel rolls. Some pilots agree, but passengers must wear a parachute and the extra bulk usually means only one person can fit into the passenger cockpit.

Sightseeing biplanes range from vintage aircraft built as early as the 1930s to models produced beginning in 1986 by the WACO Classic Aircraft Corp. in Battle Creek, Mich. "The newer planes are hand-built to match the FAA certification issued in 1935. They just have more lipstick and rouge to dress 'em up," says Collins. "Otherwise, they are identical."

Regardless of where people take their first biplane flight, most passengers approach the experience with a degree of caution and sense of danger. Prevost helps people overcome their fears by reminding them he has a lot invested in the plane. "I tell them they are safe because I need to use it again," he says.

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travel@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Up, up and away

ACADIA AIR TOURS

Bar Harbor, Maine; (207) 667-7627, acadiaairtours.com/biplane_flights.html. Twenty-minute flight, $225 for two passengers.

What you'll see: Lighthouses, whales, Acadia National Park, New England seaside villages.

HISTORIC AIRCRAFT RESTORATION MUSEUM

Creve Coeur Airport; Maryland Heights, Mo.; (314) 434-3368, www.historicaircraft restorationmuseum.org. Fifteen-minute flight, $80 for one passenger.

What you'll see: Missouri River, St. Charles, Mo.

CONCH AIR

Marathon, Fla.; (305) 395-1117, www.conch-air .com. Twenty-minute flight, $175 for two.

What you'll see: Florida Keys, coral reefs, beaches, sharks, dolphins, mantas and manatees.

RED BARON BIPLANE FLIGHT SERVICE

Schaumburg, Ill.; (847) 466-3848, www.redbaron rides.com. Thirty-minute flight, $295 for two. What you'll see: Chicago lakefront and skyline, Wrigley Field, Navy Pier.

RED ROCK BIPLANE TOURS

Sedona, Ariz.; (888) 866-7433, www.sedonaairtours.com. Twenty-minute flight, $200 for two.

What you'll see: Indian ruins, inaccessible canyons, red rock mountains, high desert terrain.

VINTAGE AIRCRAFT CO.

Sonoma, Calif.; (707) 938-2444, www.vintageaircraft.com/varides.htm. Twenty-minute flight, $270 for two.

What you'll see: Sonoma and Carneros valleys.

Note: All flight operations offer longer rides and some do aerobatics on request.

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