Sky high |

Sky high

Andy Stonehouse
Dan Davis

There’s something a bit reassuring in the Jimmie Stewart-styled voice resonating in your headphones as you suddenly make one very soft, flowing leap from terra firma to the great blue sky, harnessed in the open cockpit of an old-time biplane that even the Red Baron would be envious to fly.

That voice, which comes from the calm and easy-going pilot of the valley’s new Rocky Mountain Biplane Adventures company, is Joe Ryan, a 58-year-old former bronze sculptor who’s made what is clearly the only obvious career move for a bronze sculptor looking for a significant life and career change – pooling all of his resources and going out to buy a $250,000, fully modernized replica of a 1939-era Waco YMF5 biplane, then hoping to encourage people to come and ride along with him.

After a morning spent gently cruising over the unusually green hills of the Eagle Valley, swooping over the fields of Eagle Ranch and catching perfect views of the New York and Gore ranges, there’s certainly something to be said for the romance, simplicity and pure excitement of the open-cockpit experience.

It’s a flying style that takes you straight back to those earliest days of aviation, the barnstorming era before and after World War I when flying had absolutely nothing to do with removing your shoes for a TSA screener. More appropriately, you placed your trust in a wild contraption built of steel rods and leather straps ” powered by a buzzing rotary engine and the whirring of a prop seemingly just a few feet from your face ” completely at the whim of the elements and the peculiarities of early avionic technology. Thermal gusts begin to make the downvalley air unsteady after about 11:30 a.m. and Ryan prefers early morning or late afternoon trips; harnessed into the front cockpit with a double shoulder belt (or squeezed very coziliy with a good friend), the ride is as smooth and comfortable as you’d like it to be.

Ryan’s Waco is capable of air-show aerobatics, but his standard trips offer only as many roller coaster turns and dives as his passengers feel comfortable handling.

Support Local Journalism

Flying along at 60 knots (69 miles per hour) in an open biplane, the smells and colors of the real world are an immediate presence, not separated by plexiglass windows and filtered through streaming air vents. Listen as the big rotary engine smoothly purrs and the entire plane drops down a few knots; tilt over and you can smell the sagebrush and the pines – and even the pastures passing underneath. The colors are amazing and the sense of place and scenery completely changes. After being used to dwelling in the valley bottoms for so long, suddenly seeing the lay of the land in context is a completely different experience. The changes in texture, especially in the very colorful Eagle Valley, are immediate; the bright reds of stone and soil in Gypsum (or even the gypsum mine itself, which many of us have never seen, hidden up on top of a mesa to the north of town) blends into an increasingly green world as you head further and further up the valleys. Full, lush foliage unfolds beneath your wings and the entire scene takes on a new and incredibly real feeling.

Even better, ask Ryan to modify his flight path to take you over your own home or business and he’s happy to do so, and you see things with a sense of scale that will give you a whole new outlook. A colossus of a building (such as the Vail Trail’s own Gypsum-area printing plant) seems instead like a small speck, even at just 2,000 feet above the ground; new subdivisions under construction dot the downvalley landscape and the buzz and blur of activity in a once placid valley makes everything seem quite different.

So far, Ryan’s business has been a pretty low-key affair … well, as low key as one can be when they spend their days buzzing golfers on the Eagle Ranch driving range (the .50 caliber machine guns common on old war-era planes have been omitted from the Waco). It’s also hard not to notice Ryan when he’s tooling over Avon and Minturn in that distinctive, double-winged, double-cockpitted aircraft. Ryan says his biggest response has been from other flyers at the Vail Valley Jet Center, where he bases his plane and his business.

“All of the private jet pilots want to get their picture taken next to the Waco – and I have a lot of reaction, a lot of people who come up and say, ‘now this is a real plane.’ There seems to be a lot of adoration from other pilots, mostly because they know that it takes a special skill to fly a taildragger, although it used to be that that was all there was for aircraft. Now most people have never flown them.”

Taxiing an aircraft such as Ryan’s biplane does require a whole different skill set, he explains. Whereas most modern aircraft are parked on tricycle landing gear and allow the pilot a clear view of the runway (even the late and lamented Concorde did so, mostly by having a nose cone that dropped forward on landings), those behind the stick of biplane can see almost nothing but sky when they hop in the cockpit and start heading down the runway. Ryan says he relies upon a series of back-and-forth motions on the taxiway to give him at least a partial view; as soon as possible, he powers up the plane to get it up onto the front two wheels and give him a normal view.

He’s also aided by a trio of video cameras which allow both a nose view and shots of the passengers – connected to a VCR in the back and switched by Ryan in the cockpit, the cameras yield an exciting memory of the journey.

Ryan’s flying experience isn’t quite the quantum leap it might seem; after a five-year stint in the Air Force, the 15-year county resident qualified himself as a commercial, multi-engine, instrument-rated pilot but always kept flying as a part-time hobby.

Take-offs and landings are the most impressive part of the experience. Up on two wheels, the biplane gently wavers then bounces then leaps into the air and hangs softly, with none of the rocketing immediacy of a jet-powered ride. Come in for an approach and you’ll suddenly be hit with the reality of how small and short the Eagle County Airport’s main airstrip is (you might ask yourself how they land jets on such a small strip); the Waco wavers and winds and finally, gracefully, touches down and sets back on its tail wheel, ready for another serpentine mission between the $40 million G2 and G4 private jets.

Support Local Journalism