If you are of a certain vintage, you probably remember this sentence: “Out of the clear blue of the western sky it’s Sky King!”
The words were followed by majestic music that introduced the popular adventure serial from the 1940s and 1950s. The show, which first aired on radio then went to television, depicted the adventures of Schuyler King, AKA Sky King, America’s favorite flying cowboy. He flew over the Arizona desert in a Cessna twin named “Songbird.”
Usually he was accompanied by his niece Penny, who was also a pilot but had a knack for getting into trouble, frequently being kidnapped by the bad guys or trapped in a mine shaft that was about to collapse, on fire or filling with water. Oddly there was always a radio transmitter within reach. The bad guys would taunt her, then leave, and she would manage to radio Uncle Sky, who would swoop in to save the day. The title role was played by Kirby Grant who, according to his contemporaries, was really a pilot and did as much flying as he could in the TV series.
When the TV series began, Sky King flew a Cessna T-50 Bobcat. In 1956 it was replaced with a 1956 Cessna 310B. The last aircraft used was a 1960 Cessna 310D. A third 310, “Song Bird III,” was used for publicity photos. It was this plane, which is owned by Paul and Valerie Erikson of Vacaville, Calif., that made it to this summer’s AirVenture.
Although I am too young to have seen the show during its heyday, I have caught a few episodes on the Internet. So many pilots have told me what an inspiration the show was to them that I couldn’t pass up the chance to fly “Songbird III.”
The blue and gold twin was parked in a place of honor in the vintage past grand champions area. A placard and a large crown painted on the plane’s side let everyone know its history.
“It’s kind of redundant — everybody knows Sky King,” said pilot Jimmy Rollinson. “People are always coming up to us and talking about the show, and if they think there’s no one around they get up on the wing and pose like Sky King and Penny in the publicity shot where he is helping her off the wing.”
When the series ended in the early 1960s, the airplane was sold, and presumably forgotten.
“It sat derelict at the Nut Tree Airport (KVCB) in California for a number of years,” Rollinson said. “Then it was purchased for restoration. On the outside it looks just like it did during the show.”
It is Rollinson’s understanding that there was talk of hiring a young woman to fly the airplane around playing Penny, but Nabisco, which was the last sponsor of the show, wasn’t supportive of the idea.
“There were a lot of arguments over who owned the rights to what and it got into a big argument, so instead the airplane just flies from show to show and makes people smile,” he said.
I was more than happy to play Penny for the day, and even offered to fall down a mine shaft for authenticity’s sake. Rollinson thought that negotiating our way out of parking at AirVenture for an early morning flight would be exciting enough. He was correct. It never ceases to impress me how busy and how organized the ground and air operations are. We were escorted to the taxiway and soon found ourselves number six in a line of 15 for takeoff. I noticed people pulling out their cameras and taking photos as we rolled by.
“Everyone knows this airplane,” said Rollinson, waving at a camera-wielding visitor.
“Blue Cessna twin, cleared for takeoff.”
“All right Penny, let’s go,” Rollinson joked and I brought the throttles forward. A few minutes and a Vy climb later and we were heading away from the show grounds to do some airwork. I was surprised at how much nosedown trim the C-310 required for level flight as opposed to the Piper twins I have flown.
“It wants to climb,” Rollinson said, then supplied headings and altitudes. He took the controls for a steep turn so that I could get photos of the seaplane base from the air.
We switched off and he flew the camera and I flew the airplane.
We flew for about an hour and I’m proud to report that we kept Oshkosh free of bank robbers, smugglers, spies and cattle rustlers in traditional Sky King fashion.
Rollinson is the same pilot I flew the P-51 with. He makes his living flying for FedEx, but you are just as likely to see him flying with the Collings Foundation or at the controls of another vintage aircraft. As we headed back to the airport I asked how he gets these (sweet) vintage aviation gigs.
“Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then,” he replied.
For more information: SkyKing.info.
Meg Godlewski, a Master CFI, is GAN’s staff reporter.