One of the many problems with operating a biplane ride business is that almost no one is qualified to fly the old crates, making it hard to find pilots. The type we flew at Black & White Biplane was a WACO YMF-5. Ninety percent of them have crashed because of pilots losing control. The crashes are almost always on landing. The one we flew—99 Yankee—had three accidents before I bought it and rebuilt it. First it was flipped onto its back on a screecher of a landing. Then it was taxiied at high speed into a pickup truck. After that it went swimming in the Atlantic when someone lost control of it while looking at dolphins and hit the water upside down. The plane had a nice, quiet career at Black & White Biplane, where it flew hundreds of passengers over Los Angeles by day and had me wrench on it by night. It didn't suffer another crash until I sold it to its next owner, who totaled it. It now exists only on the old web site for Black & White, the old web site for which I leave online for sentimental reasons.
So it was hard to find pilots who can not only fly them, but fly them to a high commercial standard. Safety of course came first, sort of (after all, it was a 60-year-old engine bolted onto a wood-and-fabric 1935 design), but a pilot had to be much better than just not liable to turn the thing into a pile of matchsticks. A professional had to operate smoothly while assessing how much of a thrill the passengers could tolerate and then maneuver as little, or as much, as they might enjoy. No loss of control, not so much as a bump, was tolerable: the requirement, the ethic, called for a greased-on landing every time. The ethic was key: passengers were trusting us with their lives, often on important occasions, two of them sitting together in the front cockpit on dates, anniversaries, birthdays or even marriage proposals.
When I needed another pilot, it was a lucky thing that my pal Tony, could fly the old bus just fine and had a commercial license. Tony wrote the article linked below, which my post about meeting the iconic reporter Jimmy Breslin when I was a kid reminded me of. But, before you read that, let me share something that happened at least half a dozen times in the hangar at Black & White.
Tony would return from a flight and taxi back up to the hangar. The eight-foot wide wooden propeller would flutter to a stop, shaking the plane from side to side a couple of times, and the passengers were always, without exception, exhilarated. They had just had a thrilling and unique experience. They would be happy. Tony would help them unstrap their buckles and help them out of the cockpit and down from the wing, and they would come into the hangar and gush about what a great ride they had. Some passengers would pass you a tip—usually 20 bucks, sometimes $50, though the first one I ever flew gave me an extra C-note and said it was the best money he ever spent.
The first time anyone tipped Tony, he politely turned it down. I had to put an end to that. A tip wasn't about the pilot, it was about the passenger. Turning it down was a personal rebuff. From then on, Tony accepted the tips. He created a kitty in a coffee can. I believe I was the only beneficiary of those.
So, one day, a guy and his date got out of the plane. Like all passengers, they were flushed from the excitement of their 45 minutes squeezed together in the front cockpit (the pilot sat alone in a separate rear cockpit) right behind an engine radiating heat on a thrill ride around skyscrapers, then buzzing the Hollywood Sign close enough to see the carpentry of the scaffolding, through a mountain ravine and then a power-off descent straight down to the deck for a run ten feet over the Pacific at Malibu before a steep climbing turn to Venice Beach and back for the landing at Santa Monica. It was a hell of a ride for them, fun for us to fly, and the fact that it made our customers so happy was rewarding.
After I ran the guy's credit card at my desk at the back of the hangar, he went over to slip Tony a folded bill in the traditional handshake maneuver. Then he went to put an arm around his girlfriend, who was admiring a huge movie poster on the wall. It was for the World War One epic Flyboys. In the poster, tjhe star of the movie, James Franco, was wearing a leather flying helmet and goggles.
The woman said, "Oh, Flyboys! I LOVED that movie! And now we've flown in an airplane just like those." That made the memory of this day even better, and they snuggled a little.
"No kidding," I said. "Dja hear that, Tony? Loved Flyboys." And then to them: "The guy you just flew with? He directed it."
Naturally, that sounded a little odd. The looks on people's faces when that happened was always like, "Hunh?" I'd point at the credits on the poster and say, "Here. Tony Bill. That's your pilot."
And, in a sign of how much they had enjoyed their ride, no one ever looked like they wanted their tip back.
Only in Hollywood.
Click here to read Tony's story. It's a good one.
This was a commercial for the company. I know it doesn't quite look like all the of $100 spent making it was put to good use.