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A new view of the valley

Brooke Bates
Brooke Bates/Vail DailyJoe Ryan, the Red Baron, poses beside his recognizable red biplane after a morning flight.
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GYPSUM Joe Ryan has the vastest office in Eagle County. As the Rocky Mountain Biplane Adventures pilot, Ryan covers the sky from the slopes of Vail to State Bridge and beyond. Clad in a leather jacket, aviator goggles, a white scarf whipping in the wind and red boots to match his plane, Ryan offers riders a different perspective of the valley.It was a treat. It exhilarated me for the day, said Lee Harding, a broker with Slifer Smith & Frampton Real Estate who rode with Ryan to preview property. Its a great way to show buyers the valley theyll be living in.Even if youre not new to the valley, a biplane ride is a new way to view the familiar landscape. But as you crawl into the snug two-seat cockpit, youre in for more than just a flight.

The plane rolls down the runway, hitting 60 miles per hour before it leaps above the Vail Valley Jet Center. Unlike a commercial flight, you cant feel the moment when the tires leave the ground and your journey begins. At a maximum height of only about 2,000 feet, your ears barely get the chance to pop, but theyre too busy trying to decipher the control tower jargon pouring through your headphones.Ryan said he tries to customize each flight. Some people just want to coast over their houses; others want roller coaster rides. Lucky ones may even get to play pilot though the full instrument panel is in Ryans cockpit, some training controls are in the two-seat passenger pit in front.Whether youre diving or gliding, flying or riding, the only thing separating you from Nottingham Lake or Red Sky Ranch is several hundred feet and a seatbelt. Averaging 70 mph, its not uncommon for cars to pass the plane on the highway below. Even though the Waco doesnt travel any faster than a Honda, if you stick your head past the windshield, youre in for a wind-whipping and a weeks worth of knotted hair.Its a scenic flight, but thats just a small part of it, Ryan said. From the fabric wings to the sound of the engine, the open cockpit biplane is an experience. Sight-seeing is secondary. You cant smell sagebrush from first class.

About 300 valley residents and tourists have experienced flight at the hands of the Red Baron since he started offering trips in April 2005.



Ryan purchased the plane a 1994-built model of a 1934 Waco Classic in Santa Barbara, Calif. I remember flying over the Santa Barbara coast. Youre 100 feet above the water, and you just start laughing and flying in circles, he said. I wanted to bring that to the Vail Valley.Ryan said the biggest challenge of operating a business like his is building awareness. Most people have seen or at least heard the biplane buzzing around town, but dont know they can take a ride.But after a year of business, word has begun to spread.Last year I told people who I was and they said, Who? This year they say, Oh yeah, youre the Red Baron. Call me anything you want, as long as you call me, Ryan said. The people who do are never disappointed, he said. He said he has seen businesswomen giggle and grown men cry, including an 86-year-old ex-pilot who used to fly biplanes in the Air Force. When Ryan offered the controls to the man, he was beside himself, Ryan said. The word passion is overused, but thats what were talking about, Ryan said. It surprises you. It takes you aside.

After five years in the Air Force, Ryan studied architectural design in college. He pursued title insurance, then banking, then building, even working as a sailing instructor in the Virgin Islands. But the sky kept calling.Once you become a pilot, you want to become a better pilot, he said. Its not something to take casually. After receiving his commercial license, Ryan went on to become instrument rated, which is like getting your doctorate in flying.Somewhere between improving his credentials and flying daily, Ryan discovered the art of bronze sculpture. Ryan usually flies several times a day, but favors the mornings when the skies are calm. As the wind picks up in the afternoon, he has time to work in bronze, crafting molds of fish and African wildlife. His pieces are on display in the Vail Valley Jet Center, Loveland and Aspen, and have been sold in Africa and England. The hands that craft metal are the same hands that maneuver an open cockpit plane over the valley. Art and air arent that different, he said.Im sure theyre connected because of the artistic ability of both, Ryan said. Im producing something pleasurable, either in bronze or in a plane.



After more than a year of offering a new views of the valley, Ryan said he remains mysterious to many.People think Im just a rich guy with a toy, he said. But theres nothing worse than flying by yourself. Its a waste of someone else having a good time.Though snowy slopes are a sight from the sky, Ryan usually heads south in the winter and continues his flights from Scottsdale, Ariz. This year he also plans to fly in Santa Barbara, Calif. But hell be back to take off in Eagle Valley and continue flying as long as he can.Ill keep doing it until I cant pass my flight physical, he said. Hopefully, that will be a while.Brooke Bates can be reached at vdeditintern@vaildaily.comVail, Colorado


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