AOPA Pilot Magazine
August 2003 Volume 46 / Number 8
AOPA Centennial of Flight Sweepstakes: Making Dreams Come True
Ride winners tell what it's like to fly a Waco
Three Waco YMF Super biplanes can be seen most days giving scenic tours to the public above the deep-red rock formations of Sedona, Arizona. Each month a lucky AOPA member gets a free trip there for four hours of Waco flying with Red Rock Biplane Tours based at the Sedona Airport. While not exactly like the sweepstakes Waco UPF-7 that AOPA will award next year, there are similarities, such as the 275-horsepower Jacobs radial engine up front and the open-cockpit biplane experience.
As you'll see, the winners find the trip a dream come true, but it's that way for the operators of Red Rock Biplane Tours, too. Each day Eric Brunner, who runs the business with father Larry Brunner and wife Ann-Marie, gets to share his experience with some of the thousands of tourists drawn to the beauty of the Sedona area. As it turns out, I was one of his passengers during a vacation in the 1990s — he recently found my business card among the hundreds he has kept. I remember learning about the history and geology of the area as we flew along, but most of all I remember seeing riders on horses at a dude ranch. While I had no desire to be on a horse playing urban cowboy, I knew it must have made the riders' day to see a beautiful 1930s-style biplane overhead.
The Brunners were car dealers before switching to Eric Brunner's childhood dream of flight. The biplanes are now a childhood reality for his 4-year-old son, Jordan (oldest of three), who is drawn to them "like a magnet." Brunner has amassed 7,000 hours of flying — 6,000 of them in the YMF Super. All those hours circling Sedona led him to establish a charter company that could provide a welcome change of destinations, and now he carries customers to dream vacations at several sites in the area including the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Meteor Crater north of Flagstaff, Arizona, and the Lake Powell area at Page, Arizona.
AOPA winners usually do their flying with Red Rock Biplane Tours pilot Mike Potts, who guides them to the areas around Kingman, Bullhead City, and Eagle, Arizona. They take the stick to see what Waco flying is all about. Often they land at Laughlin/Bullhead International Airport, take a ferryboat across the Colorado River to Laughlin, Nevada, and have a buffet lunch at one of the city's famous casinos. Here are some of the Waco ride winners and their experiences.
David Altman of Salem, Oregon, had exactly the experience described above. (The actual destinations can vary.) He found flying as it was in the heyday of the Waco a stark contrast to flying his modern Mooney, but he gradually adjusted to it. Here in Altman's own words is a partial account of his Waco adventure with Potts:
"After a runup, we line up on the runway and as the power comes up, the Waco jumps up on its big gear, and soon enough, we're airborne. Next thing I hear: 'Your plane.' Duh! OK, big stick and big pedals. Some good pressure on the right rudder and that ball comes back over. I quickly fixate on the ball and airspeed gauge, but Mike reminds me that we're VFR and we have to be looking outside. That's a new trick, too, since you can't see over the cowling — look left, right. Oops! There's that ball off center again. Oops! Airspeed rising — get the nose up.
"It takes a little while to get used to the new sensations of an open cockpit and flying ball and airspeed, but boy, it's fun! We clear out of the pattern and do some turns, getting used to the airplane. The airplane is fairly light on the ailerons, but the elevator needs some good pressure.
"We pick our heading toward our cross-country target — Laughlin/Bullhead, and head over the beautiful Arizona landscape. Mike is a great cross-country partner and instructor. We talk airplanes and life stories along the route as we pick up the visual clues that confirm we are headed toward our destination.
"We pass Kingman, Arizona, off our right wing, and know that Laughlin is right over the next ridge. Sure enough, the line of casinos is there along the river. Wow, this pilotage stuff still works!
"Mike demonstrates a beautiful power-off landing after confirming with the tower a few times what kind of airplane we are in. Guess they don't get Wacos every day. Someone even asks if we are the AOPA Waco. After a downhill taxi to the FBO and a ride over to a casino, we partake of the Laughlin tradition of a big casino buffet lunch."
On the flight back to Sedona, Altman got to enjoy the scenery, watching cows graze near a water hole and checking out an abandoned grass strip. And he got to fly some more, becoming more and more comfortable with the big biplane.
Pat Roper of Cuba City, Wisconsin, e-mailed his reaction to the AOPA staff about his Waco ride with these words: "If you were here, I would kiss you." He called it an "experience of a lifetime."
Roper said Potts made the experience even better because of his "personality, experience, and love of the Waco."
"Flying home from Kingman to Sedona was probably the best part of a magnificent experience," Roper said. He recalled flying 80 to 90 knots down low, up through the mountains and canyons, and following the Verde Canyon Railroad.
The experience of Jeff Tait of Plainfield, Connecticut, is an especially satisfying one. He had not flown a small airplane since 1999 — time and money were the reasons — but once he finished his flight with Potts he picked up an aircraft dealer's publication and began shopping for an airplane.
"It was a blast, the best time I've had in a long time," Tait said. Instructor Mike Potts discovered that Tait had attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, so a tour of the school's Prescott, Arizona, campus was arranged as part of the Waco experience. Potts had a friend at Embry-Riddle who helped get them in to see the school's flight simulators.
"Mike Potts was extremely professional, and an excellent instructor. And I enjoyed the flight out over the desert and the canyons," Tait said. On the way back Potts circled a friend and the friend acknowledged the attention with a few puffs of smoke from a signal fire. Tait got a demonstration of landing the Waco.
"I would have flown all afternoon if I could have," Tait said.
John Burgess of Middletown, Delaware, had been out of flying for several years when the call came from AOPA that he had won a Waco ride. Now he is rethinking his inactive status. "It was a beautiful airplane, a dream to fly, but the location — wow," Burgess said. He left Sedona in 80-degree weather and landed in Bullhead City where it was 108. But the temperature didn't detract from the experience.
"It was a real adventure. We made a low pass at Kingman, where they store all the airplanes [that area serves as an aviation boneyard]. The tower gave us permission," Burgess recalled.
Years ago, Burgess actually owned an airplane or two when he had relatives spread from Delaware to Florida, but his business took all his time and he drifted away from flying. He maintained his AOPA membership, however, and ended up winning a Waco flight.
"It recharged my flying batteries," he said. "I've been talking to my wife a lot about [the Waco ride] since I came back. I know one thing — if I were to win the AOPA Waco, I would keep it!"
When Brett Rabe of Plymouth, Minnesota, first received a message that he had won a flight in a Waco, he suspected a telemarketer was at work. It took a little convincing before Rabe understood that he had won a day of biplane flying above the Arizona desert.
Rabe is in school, so tuition money comes first. He maintains his membership in a local flying club but isn't able to go on pleasure flights, making the award of a Waco ride a particularly welcome opportunity. The school semester ended on a Tuesday, and by Thursday he was on his way to Sedona.
A scheduling problem meant that Rabe had to spread his four hours of Waco time over two days instead of one. Oh, darn. On the first day Rabe and Potts flew south toward Phoenix to a glider port. Since Rabe had previously flown in gliders, each took a glider ride before returning to Sedona. Rabe had no previous experience with biplanes or radial engines, so just being aboard was an adventure. They skimmed over the desert at low altitude. The second day was spent flying to Payson, Arizona, to enjoy the scenery and to learn more about tube-and-fabric flying.
"All my previous flying was in well-equipped IFR flying club aircraft," Rabe said. "So flying and navigating with only a turn-and-bank indicator, an airspeed indicator, and a compass was a shock. I think those skills had slipped." They were sharpened by the time he left.
Rabe's plan now is to wait a year and then maybe divert a little tuition money back into the flying account to be a better-rounded student. You can't ignore an education in fun, after all.
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