…with wings

The Sacramento Bee, August 3, 2016
Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer

Stearman biplanes are sailboats of the skies. Not only because their tails have big, curved rudders that appear to have been swiped off yachts, or because they’re steered by a wooden stick that resembles a tiller. They also bob on the shifting currents of air like a sloop breasting the waves. And when you ride in a biplane, you sail at a stately pace above a landscape much like a ship cruising along an enchanted shore.

These aspects combine to make a biplane ride relaxing and thrilling at the same time. The aircraft transport the rider back to an era when taking flight was both a romantic event and a beguiling adventure – the polar opposite of today’s scarcely tolerable commutes aboard jet-powered cattle cars.

Pull off Highway 121 at the Sonoma Valley Airport – just a few miles south of town – and it becomes clear you’re about to pass into a different realm. First, the toothy grin of a “Flying Tiger” logo painted on a fully restored P-40 Warhawk fighter plane greets you. Next, there’s a line of restored World War II-era jeeps, poised as if ready to run pilots from a ready room out onto an airstrip to mount a raid.

As you start believing a rigid martial discipline permeates the entire place, that impression wafts away like a puff of blue exhaust smoke with an introduction to the low-key Chris Prevost and his charming wife, Sheryl Prevost. The Vintage Aircraft operation was founded in 1975; Prevost acquired the business in 1984. His broad shoulders and barrel chest fill out a sun-faded T-shirt, and his face bears a perpetual tan from open-cockpit flying. A reassuring aura of calm emanates from this highly experienced pilot, suggesting that nothing short of a tornado vacuuming up his airfield at F-5 strength would be cause for any alarm.

“Love of airplanes is something I think I was born with,” Chris Prevost said. “I’ve always just found them naturally attractive.”

He first glimpsed this airstrip as an awestruck schoolkid from Marin, out on a field trip. Now, at 53, after also buying the airfield in 2008, he owns the entire shebang. Between those time brackets, he flew his first solo in a Citabria as soon as he could (at age 16), buying a Sopwith Pup (World War I British fighter) as his first plane at 17, and flying to New Zealand at age 36 to harvest the wrecked hulk of the P-40 – after which he spent eight years and $600,000 restoring it to airworthiness.

Now, with an estimated 11,000 hours of flying under his seat harness, Prevost (and his companion pilots) purvey rides on Vintage’s fleet of four Stearman biplanes four days a week. It’s his company’s bread and butter, bringing in $175 for one rider or $270 for two, on basic 20-minute flights.

As for the operation’s steak and truffles? Well, that comes with rides in his three restored World War II warbirds: 20 minutes in an AT-6 Texan, $399; 20 minutes in the P-40 Warhawk, $949; 30 minutes in his P-51 Mustang, $1,699.

“Basically, we sell smiles,” Sheryl Prevost said. “When people see our planes up close, they seem happy to plunk down some money for a ride. And many look beyond thrilled after they come back in for a landing, just completely over the moon.”

While I was present at the Sonoma airfield, a pair of test cases showed up in the form of two Coast Guard “boaties” who drove over from that service’s training center west of Petaluma. Matt Becker, 23, and Jay Hewitt, 25, both veterans of small-boat search-and-rescue teams, said they had now gotten halfway through training to become petty officers.

“We found Northern California was plenty beautiful as seen from a car, so we thought it was high time to take a look from the air as well,” Becker said. “Also, we hope to get our adrenaline pumping a bit, so we decided to add on the aerobatics package.”

Heads clad in canvas flight helmets, they were strapped into the front cockpit of a Stearman PT-17 Kaydet – the primary training aircraft for the U.S. Army Air Corps and Navy both before and during World War II. However, this plane had been upgraded with a Pratt & Whitney 450-horsepower engine (double the original’s power). That meant, after Chris Prevost roared off the runway and into the sky, he could treat his clients to a hot roller-coaster ride that left the rails far behind. He provided a set list of airborne stunts that included Cuban eights, loops, a hammerhead stall, plus aileron, barrel and point rolls, all for a nominal $50 added charge.

Once back on earth, Becker and Hewitt acted as if their dollars had been well-spent. They clambered out of the plane, chiming a burst of politically correct expletives that included “Wow!” and “Great!” and “Awesome!”

“Chris’ flips came out of nowhere for me,” Becker explained. “But I loved that feeling of big G-forces, followed right away by a sense of weightlessness.”

“We wanted to soak up as much adventure as we could while in California,” said Hewitt. “So this was a perfect box to check.”

Prevost’s restored fighter planes are right near the top in the rara avis (“rare bird”) department. For example, his P-40 is one of just 27 that still soar the world’s skies. But those Stearman Kaydets are turning rather scarce, too. Of the 8,584 that Boeing built – plus another 2,000 planes produced from official spare parts – Prevost reckons only 1,500 or so can still fly. He also estimates just about two dozen FAA-approved operators like himself in the U.S. can still provide legal rides in the biplanes.

“Main thing you want to ask your pilot is if he’s got an LOA – a letter of authorization – from the FAA to take up passengers in a historic aircraft,” Prevost advised. Among other considerations, an LOA stipulates desirable maintenance protocols.

The Stearman he took the “boaties” up in was an ex-crop duster that Prevost found in Watsonville in 1983. He promptly bought it, rebuilt it and nicknamed it “Big Red.” In subsequent decades, he’s rebuilt it three more times. That’s apparently the sort of effort required to keep ’em flying.

“Just locating parts for old planes is a sport, even a full industry. People wander all over the world hunting for stuff,” he said. “But I’ll bet you, in back of almost every barn in the Sacramento Valley, somebody who looks around carefully can find a box that holds a few old Stearman parts.”

That description almost exactly matches the actual history of another vintage aircraft, used to provide rides out of an airfield located in the next big valley to the east. Mark Feldman, the proprietor of Napa Valley Biplane Co., says he discovered his Stearman in a barn in Colusa, after he bought the remnants of a crop dusting outfit from the pilot’s widow.

“I imagined I might be getting a basket case, yet it turned out to be a gold mine,” Feldman said. “That old pilot had been throwing airplane parts into dusty boxes inside his barn for about three decades.”

After eight years of restoration work, his $32,000 investment in those cobwebbed crates has resulted in a gleaming historic aircraft Feldman says he wouldn’t sell for a cool million. (That’s at least one measure of love, since Prevost said his Big Red would probably go for around $125,000 on the open market.)

Feldman, 67, is a pilot with 14,500 hours of airtime, from flying the U.S. mail to years serving as a flight instructor. His regular job now is managing Aviation Consulting Services Ltd., which handles aircraft acquisition and flight crew services for both corporations and individuals. But his favorite gig is taking folks up in the Stearman (which he does at the rate of $249 for a 30-minute flight; $349 for 45 minutes; or $449 for an hour).

“I offer people a spectacular way to see the Bay Area,” Feldman said, “and I never get tired of it myself. It might be slower, but it’s a far more thoughtful way to fly. You get to be exposed, dealing with all of the elements. And it provides a mythological link, as well. You develop a feel and appreciation for all the stuff pilots needed to deal with, way back in flying’s early days.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed Aug. 4 to reflect that Mark Feldman spent $32,000 on parts for his Stearman airplane.