In the first part of this story, I chronicled my flight with the Aeroshell Aerobatic Team at this year’s Sun ’n Fun. At the end of the flight, Steve Gustafson, who flies the left wing slot for the team, sighed and said, “And back to reality.” I was struck by Gustafson’s remark because I’d heard from people who give rides in Warbirds for a living that it’s the ultimate fantasy job, sort of a Neverland for pilots.
One of the places you can live out this dream is at Warbird Adventures, located in Kissimmee Gateway Airport (ISM) in Florida.
“The business began about 14 years ago,” said Graham Meize, president. “We started the company with the T-6s. The idea is that we put someone at the controls of a World War II fighter trainer. All our pilots are instructors, so we put the customers into the Warbirds and teach them how to fly it.”
Warbird Adventures has three airplanes used for training. The company hangar is part restoration shop, part display museum, part working hangar. You’ll find more than Warbirds here. The vintage aircraft snuggled inside are on loan from private aircraft owners — and all are accessible to visitors.
“We’re a different kind of museum,” Meize explained proudly. “We allow people up close to the airplanes and to touch them. Most museums don’t let you do that.”
One of the non-Warbirds on display is a Molt Taylor Aerocar. “Just a handful of them were built in the 1950s,” said Meize. “This one still flies. In fact, in December the grandson of the inventor soloed in this one.”
While the Aerocar is not to be dismissed, most people come to Warbird Adventures to see the old trainers, and better yet, get inside one and take it up.
“People are surprised when they find out that these planes still exist. Very few people realize that you can actually still fly in them,” Meize explains.
The flights are not cheap. Although the T-6 is on the lower end of the price range in Warbird land, you can expect to pay at least $420 for a 30-minute instructional or demo flight. A 15-minute flight for $240 is also available. Expect to pay more for a longer flight.
“The customer sits in the front seat, the instructor sits in the back, which is exactly how they did it during the war,” said Meize. “The customer flies the airplane.”
When Warbird Adventures began operations, former military pilots made up a good chunk of their clients, he said. “Back then there were a lot more World War II vets around. Now they are all in their 80s and 90s and we see them less and less. Some of these clients were pilots who continued to fly after the war and missed their old airplanes. Others quit flying when they left the service and were often given the flight as a gift by family members. Sometimes it is their kids or grandkids who bought them the 30-minute flight. At first they are kind of ‘ hmm…I don’t really want to do this,’ but once we get them in the aircraft you can see their hands touching the controls and you can see that it is coming back to them.”
Once that realization sinks in, they become more comfortable and more confident in their flying, he said.
“For some of them it’s been over 60 years since they’ve flown,” he said. “The first five or 10 minutes they are a little rusty, but it isn’t long before a big grin is on their face and they are opening up and telling stories about their experiences.”
All the flights are videotaped, so clients can take the memories home and share them with others.
Can those few minutes in the air really change someone’s life for the better? Meize thinks so.
“I find it tremendously satisfying when someone comes out of the airplane with a big grin on their face and tells me ‘this is the best thing I’ve ever done on vacation!’ We have had people who had only flown in commercial airplanes but climb in and do it for the adventure and a year later they call us and tell us that they got their private pilots license. That has happened a lot. Hopefully, we have done something to keep aviation going,” he beams.
For more information: WarbirdAdventures.com