April 1, 1996
William L. Gruber
Can aviation compete with Mickey Mouse and Shamu the killer whale? Aviation tycoon Kermit Weeks seems to think so. Or at least he hopes to establish a symbiotic relationship. His new aviation attraction in Polk City, Florida, feeds off the steady stream of tourists flowing into and out of nearby Orlando, and it gives vacationers yet another reason to choose the Sunshine State as their destination.
Make no mistake: Fantasy of Flight is an aviation attraction, not an air museum. The dusty old term museum is apparently the kiss of death for Orlando-area attractions, and you get the distinct impression from the folks at Fantasy of Flight that you will be escorted off the premises if you refer to it as such.
Whatever it is, it's a pretty neat place and a must-see stop for aviation aficionados. It's fairly limited in scope now — a work in progress — but Weeks has big plans. Although it is aimed at nonpilots, with the worthy goal of attracting more people to aviation, it's an excursion even high-timers will enjoy. Best of all, it's a short, straight shot up Interstate 4 from Lakeland, home of the annual Sun 'n Fun EAA Fly-in. In fact, Weeks plans to run a shuttle bus for Sun 'n Fun attendees this year. (Regrettably, the on-site grass airfield is private and fly-in visitors aren't allowed.)
Even from the highway, it's clear from the red-and-white checkered water tower that you're at the right place. Weeks wanted to buy and move a vintage tower, but he found that it would be cheaper to build his own, so he did. It's a working tower containing 250,000 gallons of water for fire protection, and it has a working beacon at its apex. The tower sets the tone for the rest of the facility: Strive for authenticity and spare no expense.
After a short drive from I-4's Exit 21, you arrive at Fantasy of Flight. It's brand-new but looks like an airport out of the 1930s, with large brick art deco hangars facing grass runways of 5,000 and 2,600 feet. There's also a lake on the property, which Weeks envisions as the future home of a reproduction Pan Am Clipper base, with his 1944 Short Sunderland Mk V — the world's last airworthy four-engine passenger flying boat — as its centerpiece. Walk through the main entrance and you're greeted by Big Band music wafting out of the Compass Rose Restaurant, an art deco diner with stainless steel decor, a sunny atrium, and waitresses wearing blue uniforms and little white caps. Menu items such as the Ford Tri-Motor (a beef, chicken, or tuna melt on rye) and the Spirit of St. Louis (chicken salad) sound enticing; but if you're like me, you'll want to get right to the airplanes and save lunch for later. Same goes for the gift shop, which offers everything from Fantasy of Flight logo stuff to "Women fly" T-shirts and P-40 mailboxes.
You fork over your $8.95 admission fee, pass the big mural of sky and clouds, and walk through the attraction's entrance, which is a DC-6 fuselage complete with cargo netting and a loud, resonating, realistic recording of DC-3 engines. This is the first of what Debra Johnson, the marketing director, likes to call "immersion experiences." You walk up the cargo bay to a jumpmaster mannequin and a flashing sign that says "Ready. Jump." Out the door, you're hit with a blast of wind, the engine sounding louder in your ears, and you're in a black hallway with pinpoints of light. You've just parachuted into a clear night sky; after some fumbling in the dark, you find your way down another dark hallway, past an endless-loop screening of in-flight scenes of the Florida sky in various moods — reflected in mirrors for a 3-D effect — to the next "experience."
The Early Flight room features a reproduction gas balloon and a mural of an early air fair in turn-of-the-century France. (Folks from Fantasy of Flight served as models for the crowd at the fair, with Weeks himself occupying the central role.) There's a video screen from which you may select vintage aviation footage, and other images play on a large screen. I rushed through this part, but you'll want to take your time. The facility is still in its infancy, and the tour is over faster than you expect.
From there you move into the France of World War I. Lifelike mannequins wearing German uniforms and wielding period bolt- action rifles man realistic trenches as the sounds of shellfire and machine guns reverberate through the room. A Nieuport fighter hangs from the ceiling, and an eight-minute film superimposed over a mural of a battlefield gives a vivid picture of the development of aviation during the Great War. Johnson says that they're still tweaking this "experience" — the flash of explosions will soon accompany the artillery sound effects, for example — but it's pretty impressive as it is.
To me, the most moving feature of the whole attraction was a pretty minor one. As you're leaving the World War I environment, you pass a bunker, complete with lantern light and rough-hewn bunks. As you stand in the bunker, you can hear machine-gun fire and the impact of artillery shells outside. You even hear rocks and debris falling into the structure's entrance. It's chilling.
Next you pass an observation post with a bombed-out roof and a mannequin radio operator feverishly speaking German over the field telephone. The mannequins were all custom cast from real people and the scenes copied from historic photographs.
You move into the World War II environment. In a briefing room with a wooden floor and benches, you get a pre-mission welcome briefing, cleverly depicted by a commanding officer silhouetted against a movie screen. His briefing is interspersed with period footage of USO shows and actual bombing missions. The chatter of your fellow pilots and their reactions to the films being shown by the C.O. emanate from various speakers around the room, which is decorated with a mission map, aircraft recognition posters, and the like. After the briefing, you head "outside" to the next immersion room. A real B-17 dominates this room, which represents a World War II airfield, complete with artificial snow, a snow-filled forest, chirping crows, and blowing wind.
You board the venerable Boeing via stairs and find the interior impeccably restored, right down to the .50-caliber waist guns and belts of ammunition. The engine sounds were recorded aboard the Collings Foundation's B-17, Nine-O-Nine, and the foundation's B-24, the All-American. It sounds very much like an actual B-17 in flight, albeit not quite as loud. In addition to the engines' roar, there is the sound of machine guns firing and interphone chatter throughout the airplane. As you move forward to the bomb bay, you're treated to a very nice touch. Crossing the catwalk, with bombs on the racks on both sides, you encounter a movie screen below, with footage of the bomb bay doors opening and an actual bombing-mission film of the bombs falling. You hear the "shunk-shunk-shunk" of the bombs being released from the racks, then watch bombs fall and explode below. It's an odd feeling, knowing that those are real bombs falling on real people.
You exit the B-17 through an artificial doorway located about where the nose hatch would be, but you get a good view of the cockpit and bombardier's station on the way. Outside, you're back at the air base in the forest again, with an animated GI mechanic swinging his legs realistically while working on the airplane.
Leave the World War II environment and you emerge abruptly — too abruptly, it seemed to me — into a bright open-air hangar filled with just a sampling from Weeks' personal collection of more than 100 vintage airplanes. The Sunderland, which used to belong to Maureen O'Hara, is here, and so is a Ford Tri-Motor that was christened by Gloria Swanson. There's a beautiful Spitfire — one of four owned by Weeks — and a hodgepodge of other historic aircraft, from a Fieseler Storch to a Grumman Wildcat fighter and reproductions of the Wright Flyer and the Spirit of St. Louis. Weeks' own B-24J, Joe, was under restoration and wasn't on display when I visited. It's a smallish selection as air museums — er, attractions — go. The static display isn't really the focus here, however. If that's what you're after, Weeks still operates his Weeks Air Museum in Miami, resurrected from the carnage of Hurricane Andrew.
From the static display you move on to what you've really been waiting for, Fightertown and its eight full-motion flight simulators. These are shaped like truncated F4-U Corsairs, and they're situated on a replica of an aircraft carrier flight deck with an actual Corsair on display in one corner. The simulators were custom made for Fantasy of Flight, and they can be programmed to imitate a range of World War II fighters. For $5.95 a ride, neophytes get an eight- minute taste of dogfighting, with controllers monitoring the participants' progress from the aircraft carrier's tower.
First, you undergo a 10-minute briefing that starts with "Welcome aboard the USS Fightertown." The briefer tells you that you've got a throttle, rudder pedals, and a joystick and it handles just like a real airplane — right down to having to hold back pressure in the turns. "At least it does as far as I know," says my briefer. "I've never been in a real airplane in my life."
Novices start out in the Wildcat, which is easiest to fly and gives you unlimited ammo. Enemy aircraft are represented by red and white lights; friendly aircraft, by red and green. (I devised the mnemonic, "Red and white, shoot on sight." Don't want to down any friendlies.) You have simulated flight instruments and tach, a (very non-World War II) moving map display, and crosshairs displayed in front of you. If you get mixed up, press the push-to-talk button to ask the tower for help.
After the briefing, walk out on the flight deck and climb into your simulator, don your headset, and close the opaque canopy. I was a little disappointed to find that flying the simulator really involved little more than playing a video game in a Link trainer, but once I got busy shooting at Japanese fighters, I forgot that and concentrated on the fact that it was a heck of a lot of fun.
On my first flight, I spent most of my time circling around, looking for hostiles. I downed several, but my briefer had forgotten to tell me to stay within the mountains, so I was outside the real hot zone. I'd been told that these were full-motion simulators, and mine rolled real nice, but I discovered that I couldn't loop it. It just kept pointing skyward until it stalled.
In the Wildcat mode, the simulation begins in flight, so you don't take off. But you do land, and there was my downfall. I made the mistake of trying to land it like a real airplane, and as I held the stick back to bleed off airspeed, I just floated way on out past the runway and eventually splashed in the briny blue, to the great discredit of my squadron, my ship, and the United States Navy. A crash on landing wipes out all of your points, so I ended my first combat mission with a big fat goose egg.
On my next flight I did much better. I stayed within the mountains and cranked that thing all over the sky, shooting every Zero in sight. You can hear the people in the other simulators, and one guy was really getting into it, saying things like "Roger," "Over," and "I read you loud and clear" to the nice lady in the tower. What the heck, I figured, more power to him.
I also pulled off a greaser landing by forgetting all I'd ever learned about flying real airplanes. I lined up by using only the rudder pedals; and when I was in the general vicinity of the runway, I just let go of everything. The airplane flew itself to a perfect squeaker. I wound up the mission with 14,530 points, and I have absolutely no idea what that means.
Realistic or not, you climb out of the simulator wishing you could fly the thing all afternoon.
If I regretted anything about my visit to Fantasy of Flight, it was that there wasn't more of it. But Weeks plans to rectify that situation. In addition to the seaplane base, his expansion plans include a re-creation of an entire World War I village on his remaining 30-plus acres. That will be the final element of Fantasy of Flight, and the current hangars will be devoted to his restoration facility, with shop tours offered to visitors — for a fee, of course.
If it all comes off (the permits have already been applied for), what is now a pleasant way to spend an hour or two on your way someplace else will become an all-day affair. Then it truly will be the "immersion experience" Weeks has envisioned.
Discounted tickets to Fantasy of Flight will be sold at the Central Florida Convention and Visitors Bureau's information center at the Sun 'n Fun EAA Fly-in. Transportation to the attraction also may be purchased; two departures will be offered daily from Monday, April 15, through Friday, April 19.
Kermit Weeks seems like a guy who enjoys himself, and why not? He's young, healthy, loaded, and surrounded by some of the most beautiful airplanes in the world. Most people can only dream of owning a Spitfire. He has four of them. Not to mention his own B-24 Liberator, his own Spirit of St. Louis replica...the list literally goes on and on. And he gets to fly these airplanes whenever he wants.
What he doesn't seem like — with his ponytail, beard, jeans, and T-shirt — is a household word in aviation circles around the world. But that's what he is.
We'll dispense with the obvious question right up front: How does a 42-year-old guy manage to acquire the world's largest private collection of vintage aircraft? Answer: His family prospered in the oil business, and he was born into a small fortune. Lucky? Sure, but his heart's in the right place. Some rich boys might blow their wealth on drugs and spend their time lamenting about the lack of meaning in their lives. Weeks spends his not-so-hard-earned money on aviation (what could be more admirable?) and runs his business with a very hands-on attitude. And he's no airplane- hoarding dilettante, either. He's also a world-class aerobatics competitor and aircraft designer. And he's an accomplished musician, among other things.
Weeks decided early on that flying was to be his calling. He learned to fly as a teenager and started building his first airplane at age 17, while still in high school. It was love at first flight.
He took the aerobatics community by storm in the 1970s and earned a total of 20 medals in numerous world aerobatics championships. In the late 1970s, he began buying and restoring vintage aircraft, and in 1985 he opened the Weeks Air Museum in Miami. "My collection had already outgrown it by then," he recalls. And, although the airport was a great location for flying his airplanes, it was a poor one for luring tourists. He bought the Polk City site for Fantasy of Flight in 1987. "Construction began four weeks after (Hurricane) Andrew trashed the Miami museum. That provided an added incentive to move ahead with this."
The Miami air museum reopened in 1994, and the Fantasy of Flight attraction swung open its doors on November 21, 1995. Through it all "Kermie was involved in every minute detail of the project," says spokeswoman Debra Johnson. (Yes, his followers call him Kermie. He even has a big stuffed Kermit the Frog sitting on his desk.)
All along, Weeks says, he had envisioned Fantasy of Flight as something more than an air museum. He wanted it to appeal to the general public, to spark in them an interest in flying that he believes is an innate longing in all humans. — WLG
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