Shooting pilots for fun and profit

July 1, 2005

Former AOPA Pilot editor Mark R. Twombly now lives and writes from Florida.

People who make their living rearranging words (writers and editors) tend to think uncharitably about the electronic broadcasting media. And why not? The difference between print and television is the difference between thought-provoking prose and a sound bite, real stories and sensationalism, graphic artistry and attractive people with white teeth and terrific hair.

Am I right? Of course not. Heck, I know of at least one editor with good teeth and nice hair and a broadcaster with an editor's nose for ideas.

My friend Don Abbott has a TV production company. For years he's specialized in advertising-related projects, but recently he decided to change course and concentrate on developing high-definition programming for TV. He reasoned that with the advent of digital TV, we'll soon see more cable channels, all in need of programming. He intends to give them some.

A longtime pilot and aircraft owner, his first idea for a cable-channel television show is called Come Fly With Me.  Here's the pitch: Savvy male host/pilot/aircraft owner Don and attractive female co-host Susan pursue travel adventure by flying their pristine Beechcraft Debonair to interesting destinations.

General aviation travel shows are nothing new, but another show for pilots about airplanes is not what Don has in mind. Sure, the idea is for him and Susan to use the Debonair in their TV travels. Come Fly With Me will be a travel show aimed at the general public. Armchair traveling — through books, magazines, films, and television — is a cherished pastime worldwide, and an armchair travel program is what Don is determined to produce. Given his lifelong love of and involvement in aviation, it's no surprise that the Debonair happens to be the way that he and Susan will do their on-air traveling.

A few weeks ago Don assembled a crew, me included, and spent a week shooting two pilots. We weren't out to murder a couple of airplane drivers; we wanted to film two introductory episodes of his idea. My job was to transport crew and equipment to the two locations in the Piper Aztec, while Don and Susan flew and filmed in his Debonair. I also played a key production-crew role by fetching water, holding sun reflectors, taking still photos, schlepping luggage, and inadvertently walking into shots and forcing another take.

We began the week by flying to the Chalet Suzanne Country Inn and Restaurant in Lake Wales, Florida. Chalet Suzanne is a crazy-quilt destination that defies conventional description except to say that you can fly in to the resort's private grass strip, walk a few steps to the restaurant and order a huge, Lamb Chop Grill dinner ($78 plus drinks), then, having overeaten, stumble to a cozy room built many years ago in eclectic Swiss-Italian style.

The next day you can do as we did and visit with the Hinshaws, the third generation of the family that founded the place (the fourth generation is working there, too), and tour the on-site cannery where the same tasty Romaine soup supped by astronauts aboard Apollo 15 is prepared for distribution to terrestrials via various grocery store chains. Chalet Suzanne is odd, charming, one of a kind, and over the top — in short, a signature Florida attraction and an excellent choice for a Come Fly With Me profile.

Don and Susan and the crew — Gary, the cameraman; Tom, the sound man and studio editor; Stephanie, the production assistant; and me — spent two long days and three short nights attempting to capture Chalet Suzanne's unique character on high-definition videotape. We ate, we interviewed, we toured, we ate, we slept, we flew, and we ate some more. As if it needs to be said, dining in the inn's 14-level lakeside restaurant, where the menu has changed little since 1931, is the central activity at Chalet Suzanne.

We departed in haste Tuesday afternoon to beat an approaching thunderstorm, spent a night at home recovering, then launched bright and early Wednesday morning for the subject of the second Come Fly With Me pilot — Hawk's Nest on Cat Island in the Bahamas. Spending a week exploring a renowned Florida inn followed by an up-and-coming Bahamian resort — man, I could get used to the TV life.

Like Chalet Suzanne, Hawk's Nest has its own runway but, like Chalet Suzanne, you don't have to be a pilot to get there. Book an airline seat to Orlando, rent a car, and drive to Chalet Suzanne near Lake Wales. Likewise for Hawk's Nest — choose one of several airlines that fly to New Bight on Cat Island, then take a taxi for the final few miles south to Hawk's Nest. Public access to Come Fly With Me destinations is key to the show's mass appeal, and its marketability to cable channels.

I've been to Cat Island before, as well as Hawk's Nest, so I knew before we started filming that the Bahamian out islands may be the best-kept travel secret in the United States. I don't know of any other foreign destination that is so close yet offers so much unpretentious, sun-drenched relaxation potential.

Although our hours at Hawk's Nest were long and crammed with planning and filming, it hardly seemed like work. We finished on Saturday and flew back to the States with the raw ingredients in hand for a new television show. Now it's up to Don and Tom to put together the pilots, which will be shopped to major cable networks like the Travel Channel and Discovery Channel. Look for it this fall. It should be fun viewing, and great exposure for general aviation.