April 1, 2005
By Alton K. Marsh
What's Fantasy of Flight got that no other aviation museum has? Two things: flying exhibits and a singing owner — Kermit Weeks. Weeks has recorded a CD and plans a professional release of the song that you can hear, Naked in Jamaica (not to worry, parents — Weeks is a parent, too), on AOPA Online .
It wasn't Naked in Jamaica that he sang during my interview with him in his penthouse office, the one with a Jacuzzi and an ermine bedspread (he lives in a house now). It was the theme from a cartoon show he is pitching to the television industry, which features cartoon characters that are based on aircraft at the museum. In the process it could serve to gain recognition for Fantasy of Flight, where a 1996 re-creation of a famous 1931 aircraft, the 267-mph Gee Bee Z, is on display. It is one more example of how Weeks is trying a variety of ideas to keep Fantasy of Flight, and his dreams, alive and living in all who see it.
You may have been to the Fantasy of Flight attraction — given that it has been open 10 years at its location between Orlando and Tampa off Interstate 4 in Polk City, Florida. Little has changed except the aircraft, although a new maintenance hangar, looking much like the museum itself, is nearly complete. Two grass runways support flight operations.
Unless your visit included mid-afternoon hours, you may not know that upwards of a dozen of the exhibits not only fly in the morning and afternoon but a different one is operated daily in midafternoon. On the day of my visit a North American T-6 Texan flew for a group of visiting World War II pilots who had once flown the Martin B-26 bomber: A model of the bomber was parked on the ramp for their inspection.
AOPA Pilot magazine was offered a variety of aircraft for the air-to-air photographs accompanying this article, and I chose the 1931 10-passenger Stinson Tri-Motor Model T. It began service with Century Airlines, which later became American Airlines. Costing $26,000 when new, it featured hot and cold running water, a toilet, and a two-way radio; it was more economical to operate than a Ford Tri-motor. Yes, Weeks has a Ford 5AT Tri-motor on display, too — and it flies. You could ride the wooden-winged Stinson Tri-Motor from Chicago to St. Louis for $13.95 in two hours and 40 minutes. The one at Fantasy of Flight ended its airline service in Alaska, where it was nearly destroyed by deterioration before flying again in 1981 after more than four years of restoration. It then barnstormed for awhile, and Weeks bought it at an auction in 1999.
The B-26 Marauder flies as well, bombing the sea with watermelons during a Florida airshow that takes place off a beach at Fort Lauderdale. Another aircraft at Fantasy of Flight, a B-25, is also used for watermelon bombing. The ship's standard bomb-release mechanism can be used in conjunction with Wal-Mart basketball nets — the mechanism can release them a few at a time or as an entire load. Those at Fantasy of Flight who fly the B-26, as well as the giant Short Sunderland MK5 flying boat, say both hunt constantly in yaw and create a high pilot workload. "None of us likes to fly the B-26," Weeks said. Other pilots there agree.
The bomber pilots watched us intently as Weeks prepared for takeoff for the photo shoot, led by his contract biplane-ride provider, Rob Lock, flying a New Standard aircraft. It was easy to imagine the effect on Interstate 4 drivers who suddenly saw two 1930s-era aircraft in tight formation flying low overhead. Years ago the museum parked a Lockheed Constellation at the end of one of its runways next to I-4, and traffic literally slowed to a halt. Today a Connie owned by a friend of Weeks is on display near the main hangar and entrance.
Calling the attraction a museum isn't quite correct. The two connected hangars in which exhibits are housed today are actually Weeks' workshop and will be reclaimed when the full attraction is constructed, which will demonstrate the entire history of flight, from balloons to pre-Wright brothers failures and finally manned flight. The goal is to stop being a museum and become more of an aviation theme park and create a new industry. At the moment, though, funds for that are going into the new maintenance hangar, and other plans must wait.
Funding for his interest in aviation, and ultimately for what became Fantasy of Flight, started with oil revenues from a grandfather who struck it rich in Australia. Since then, additional funding comes from land holdings that are leased for cattle and used to grow citrus crops. Many of the orange groves for as far as you can see, even when in flight above Fantasy of Flight, are owned by Weeks; he sells oranges under the Orlampa Citrus brand, a name formed from a combination of Orlando and Tampa that foretells the promise he sees in the area.
Weeks envisions an attraction that stresses how the dream of flight made the human race literally rise above itself, and becomes an inspirational metaphor to young and old alike to achieve on a higher level — or plane, so to speak.
Originally his dream was to make the United States aerobatic team, and he ended up a national champion and a member of the U.S. team seven times — that means he stayed at the peak of his flying ability for 14 years. During world competitions he routinely placed among the top five pilots overall, whether it was in one of two aircraft he designed and built — based on the Pitts Special — with the help of Curtiss Pitts or in an airplane he borrowed only days before a competition. During lulls in competition he would get out the guitar and work on his music.
His aircraft collection was jump-started in 1985 when he acquired 36 airplanes from the Tallmantz Aviation Collection. The company was formed by and named after pilots Frank G. Tallman (1919 to 1978) and Paul Mantz (1903 to 1965). Mantz died while flying for the movie The Flight of the Phoenix, and Tallman died during a routine flight in 1978 when he failed to clear a ridge near Palm Springs, California, in poor visibility. Tallman flew for the television series Baa Baa Black Sheep and in movies, including The Great Waldo Pepper, 1941, and Catch-22.
Even today the aircraft are sought after by the movie industry. Many of the aircraft still have "Orange County" marked on their vertical stabilizers (John Wayne Airport-Orange County in Santa Ana, California, was named Orange County Airport when Tallmantz Aviation owned them).
Fantasy of Flight is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily excluding Thanksgiving and Christmas. Contact the museum at 863/984-3500 or visit the Web site ( www.fantasyofflight.com).
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