Lights! Camera! Fly Baby!

Posted April, 1991.  Updated July 2005 after finding photo, and September 2006 after assembling a couple of videos.

It all started when a writer from a small local paper interviewed me about the book. They wanted a picture, so I met their photographer at the airport so he could shoot the Fly Baby as well. And of course I had to pose in my full flying togs....

Anyway, the morning after the photo session, I got a call from a producer with one of the Seattle TV stations. The newspaper reporter had tipped them that I might be a good subject for an interview to run on their evening newsmagazine. They wanted to film me in the Fly Baby, and come to the house to shoot the Nieuport.

Small flags waved in my little brain. I got the general impression they wanted to do a "look at the odd little man building his odd little airplanes" type of story.

Instead, I suggested they might want to do a larger story on homebuilts in general. I suggested that I'd be able to arrange a bunch of homebuilts to shoot, and could even dig up a photo airplane for air-to-air work.

She quickly agreed. That left me the problem of actually *arranging* all the things I promised. I had a few good leads... I hang around with a number of builders, and figured I could easily get two or three more planes. But none of them were kits! I called Stoddard-Hamilton; they leapt at the chance for publicity. Fortunately, a brand-new RV-6 had just come to roost at my home airport, and I got the owner's number through the local RV builder's association.

So on the morning of the 22nd of April, six homebuilts sat ready on the ramp at Auburn airport. They included a Thorp T-18, a Long-EZ, the RV-6, a Glasair IIS (Note to Lancair lovers: I tried. The nearest flying one was 150 miles away), a Sonerai IILT, and ye olde Fly Baby. The mixture was a good one; wood, tube, metal, and composite aircraft, as well as a mix of old and new.

Also standing by was "Ramp Rooster", a 1943 Stearman that I hoped the cameraperson could shoot from.

The first postive note was the arrival of the TV crew (from KIRO Channel 7); the reporter was their science specialist, not some blow-dried "human interest" type. He'd visited Stoddard-Hamilton for a local business report a few years ago, so wasn't a stranger to homebuilts or kit aircraft. The other half of the crew was Janine, the photographer. I offered the reporter a ride on one of the airplanes, and he said no. I left it at that.

I'd contacted EAA and AOPA in advance, so was well prepared for any questions. The other pilots were great... friendly, joshing around, not hostile at all. We were all working hard at giving General Aviation a good image.

Then one of the guys offered the reporter a ride, and he declined. The guys felt pretty comfortable with him by then, and started kidding him. He then said, "The last time I flew in a light plane, we had a mid-air. I haven't flown since." Turns out he'd been involved in a collision between two traffic-spotter planes a number of years ago. They didn't kid him any more...

The KIRO crew photographed the aircraft on the ground, then each pilot individually as they climbed into their aircraft and prepared to start. Then they set up the camera near the Fly Baby, and filmed me walking up and donning my scarf, leather jacket, and helmet. A number of times, from various angles.

They knew we were going to hand prop, and wanted to film it. They set the camera up just four feet in front of the prop. We nixed that *right* away. They moved back and to the side a bit, and an EAA buddy started it.

They had wanted to film me taxiing out... so the photographer moved the camera tripod a few feet to the left, and waved me forward. I shook my head "no", then pointed at the left wingtip and swept my arm in an arc. Yup... they'd set up right where the wing would catch them as I rolled. They repositioned; then, by arrangment with the airport manager, the KIRO crew set up their camera at the center turnoff from Auburn's runway.

The plan was for each aircraft to take off, fly a low pass, then land and wait until the Stearman was ready to fly for the air-to-air portion of the mission. Weather was typical Seattle spring; seven miles visibility in moderate haze, with a 2500-foot ceiling.

About noon, all six homebuilts taxied out to runway 34, ran up, then took off. I was the last, in the Fly Baby. Mine was probably the slowest of the "high-speed" passes... but I had 500F cooking along at 120 mph as I went by the camera. The fastest pass was by the Glasair, while I was still sitting on the ground ready to take off. The TV crew had given me a wireless mike so I could narrate my flight. If they had the mike on while they were taping the Glasair's pass, they probably picked up my "J***s f***ing C****t, look at that SOB go!" I'd say the Glasair was going about the same speed as Margaret's Venture ride... one knot under the limit :-).

The takeoff, low pass, and landing sequences took less than fifteen minutes. We all tried to pull "grease" jobs on our landings, with various degrees of success. I came in high and slipped in to an OK-3.

We parked our planes then joined for a briefing on the air-to-air sequence. To minimize coordination difficulties, we planned on only four aircraft for the air-to-air work. Our strategy was to set the fast airplanes (Glasair, T-18, and Long-EZ) in a racetrack pattern over a local town, while the Stearman flew north and south above a prominent lake and called each in by radio. Since the Fly Baby didn't have a radio, it would fly above and behind the Stearman, moving in when the last "fast" plane left.

The briefing, attended by the TV crew, warmed the cockles of my heart. All the joshing went away, and everyone turned dead professional. We hashed out the set of procedures to maximize safety... everyone had good inputs.

The Stearman owner set the photographer in the front pit of the Stearman, where she found she could easily aim her camera toward the left-hand rear quarter. Pilots were therefore briefed to come in on the left side. Due to the telephoto lens on the camera, it would not be necessary to fly extremely tight formation.

The Stearman broke ground at 1300 hours, followed closely by the Fly Baby. The other three planes taxied out as we left the downwind leg.

The mission was flawless. I flew about 300 higher and a quarter-mile behind the Stearman, and could clearly see each plane approach, slide into place, and stop. They'd fly in formation for a bit, rocking their wings and following the requests of the photographer. Then they'd peel off, drop behind, and pour on the power for a high speed pass with breakaway.

After the T-18's pass, it was my turn. As it happened, the Tiger broke away just before the Stearman's 180 to stay over the lake. I pulled the power and chandelled down into position. They'd wanted me to talk about homebuilts via the wireless mike while I flew in formation. I flew the Fly Baby at a comfortable distance, rambling on homebuilding subjects. Later, they said the wind noise had drowned out the mike... so it looks like I'm just chewing my cud.

But I had fun. I slid back and forth, and did a couple breakoffs and rejoins. I followed the Stearman back to Auburn, and was the last of the group to land. After parking the plane, I ran over to help Janine hoist the camera out of the front pit of the big biplane. She was frozen solid... and laughing. She'd never had so much fun in her life. She even hung around for the usual post-flight bull session. On the way back to the TV van, she said, "What a nice bunch of guys!"

The team followed me to my house where they filmed the Nieuport and interviewed me. And that was it. The reporter seemed quite pleased, and the photographer was ecstatic over the flying footage. The whole day was without incident. My fear of course, was that we'd make the 6 o'clock news instead of the newsmagazine. No problems at all... I talked to the producer the next day, and she expressed her appreciation at our thorough planning which maximized her crew's output.

The general public's primary exposure to homebuilt aviation is through those "special bulletins" on the evening news. It's nice to be able to present the other side of the picture.


(Written July 1997)

The story eventually aired several months later. It was excellent! Good footage, good comments about homebuilts. I'd be happy to bring the video to any rec.aviation event.

Ron Wanttaja


Nearly fifteen years after the event, I decided to digitize the raw homebuilt footage from the original VHS tapes so I could put them on the computer and manipulate them.  I generated two music videos from this effort:

Chapter 26 shows all the planes there, and is a general summary of the day.  This is in Windows Multimedia format (WMV) and is about 15 Megs in size.

N500F just shows the prototype Fly Baby.... it's also in Windows Multimedia format (WMV) but is just 5 Megs in size.

Comments? Contact Ron Wanttaja.

Return to The Stories Page