Friday, July 20, 2012

Mark Grainger pilots second career with vintage aircraft: Cocoa Beach residents says a ride in a ‘flying machine’ merges history, nostalgia and fun

 

Written by Maria Sonnenberg 
FLORIDA TODAY

Florida Biplanes fly from Merritt Island and Valiant Air Command’s Warbird Museum daily year-round. Call 321-392-4125 or visit floridabiplanes.com .

If you travel to Europe aboard Delta Airlines, you might hear Mark Grainger’s reassuring voice giving you the pilot’s details of your flight.

The Cocoa Beach resident loves the big metal birds he guides across The Pond, and he has also flown just about every kind of flying machine, from commuter, charter and fighter jets to banner planes, sailplanes and hang gliders. Grainger has a soft spot for the little barnstorming aircraft of old, a passion that led him to launch Florida Biplanes.

Question: How did you get into flying?

Grainger: I learned to fly gliders at 14 and have been active in aviation ever since.

My part-time college job was flying as a co-pilot on a business jet, although I did as much cleaning as I did flying.

I started with the major airlines at age 23. I flew for six years with TWA, and I’ve been 21 years with Delta. I currently fly wide-body international flights to Europe.

I also served in the military as a fighter pilot, flying F-16 fighter jets as a reservist in the Air National Guard.

I had always thought the perfect retirement would be to move to an island, buy a vintage biplane and give barnstorming rides to the tourists. One day, I asked myself why I should wait to retire to do this. That’s how Florida Biplanes started two years ago.

Q: What got you started in vintage aircraft?

Grainger: I’ve always had an affinity for the classic age of aviation. It’s amazing how much more enjoyable flying must have been for the early aviators with their scarves, goggles and leather helmets. The roar of a radial engine and the wind in your hair and flying by the seat of your pants is truly exhilarating.

Q: What potential did you see in vintage aircraft tours?

Grainger:
I liken it to a perfect synergy of history, nostalgia and fun. The Space Coast offers incredible sights from any aircraft, but flying in a open-cockpit plane offers even better views and a unique experience. Many of our customers come just for the ride. They don’t know anything about the aircraft, but when they see these awesome machines and learn about their historical significance, they are awed that they flew in a plane World War II pilots actually trained in.

Q: What kind of planes do you use?

Grainger:
We have two Waco UPF-7 open-cockpit biplanes that were actual World War II trainers. They accommodate two passengers side-by-side in the front cockpit, while the pilot flies the plane from the rear cockpit.

Q: Are vintage aircraft tours becoming more popular?

Grainger:
The business has been profitable from the onset. We quickly added our second Waco biplane and are adding our first helicopter this month, a vintage Korean War-era Hiller UH-12. It will offer passenger rides from our Merritt Island location. It’s going to be a fantastic compliment to the biplanes, because it has a clear plastic bubble canopy and open doors, so you get this incredible view. She flies slower than the biplanes, but that only gives you more time to take in the scenery below.

Q: What attracts people to these old flying machines?

Grainger:
They are simply magnificent to look at, and they have a real history to them, a story to tell. I have the original logbooks for both our biplanes that date back to their manufacture dates in 1940 and 1941. It’s fascinating to read about what they were doing during World War II and the years since.

They’re also simply just fun to fly in.

Q: Can you recall some of the more memorable passengers?

Grainger:
I’m fortunate to have a business that delivers smiles to thousands of people every year. We’ve had a 3-year-old who sat next to his daddy and a 100-year-old passenger who had actually met Charles Lindbergh.

As a commercial airline pilot, you fly in a very structured environment with lots of rules and regulations.

Q: Do you ever take the planes up for a spin just for fun and to “let your hair down?”

Grainger:
We operate our ride business using the same safety principles as the airlines and under strict FAA regulations. For the more adventurous, we provide light aerobatics like loops and barrel rolls.

If I can get a break from running the business, I like to spell one of my pilots for an aerobatic flight. I always enjoy the flight as much as the passengers do.

Q: What other vintage aircraft would you like to add?

Grainger:
There are many vintage aircraft I’d like to own or fly, but I’m not sure I can find anything better than Wacos or Hillers.

Read more and photo:   http://www.floridatoday.com

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