Flight in a vintage, open cockpit biplane is an exhilarating taste of the historic. It’s both nostalgic and adventurous. But as the blue 1935 model WACO YMF-5C climbs to 500 feet, I don’t think of descriptive phrases or try to identify the familiar marshes and inlets of the St. Johns River hundreds of feet below me.
In fact, I don’t think at all. For a few moments, I only feel.
Weightless. Small. Happy. Full.
“Vilano Beach is coming up. We’ll head out over the ocean before turning into town.” Pilot Dave Genet’s voice comes in through the headset and brings me back to present. Looking down, Vilano Bridge is a line connecting the mainland to the beach. Getting my bearings, I spot Publix and then find the beach cottage our family vacations in. It’s easier to pick out familiar landmarks than I expected. But this is different. In so, so many ways, it is vastly different from any flight I’ve experienced.
Even though the 1935 Model YMF-5C WACO Genet flies was built in 2010, it exudes old-world luxury and it is gorgeous. With leather seats, heated cockpits, instruments set into a gleaming wood dash and ample leg room, this artisan aircraft boasts the best of classic beauty and today’s technology. When you slip into the open cockpit, you experience the sumptuousness of a half-million-dollar custom aircraft modeled from the golden age of flight.
Timothy, my 10-year-old son and fellow explorer, sits beside me on the supple leather seat with an is-this-really-happening grin plastered across his face. He slips his hand around the windscreen to fully experience open cockpit flight and laughs, as he arm-wrestles the wind briefly before nature overcomes his boyish strength, pushing his hand along the cockpit, then pinning his arm against the seat for the win. Quickly pulling his hand inside, he taps me and tells me to try. I enter childhood for a moment, flying down invisible highways with my arm out the car window and my hand flying over waves of air. But this time I’m not in the blue Chevy Malibu with hot vinyl seats, I’m really living the dream. I’m in the air with my boy, taking in the smallness of his hometown next to the vast ocean. Can I capture this moment forever? I lamely snap a selfie with Timothy, who is still laughing and pushing the too-large flight cap back on his head. A picture, sometimes worth at least 1,000 words, can’t begin to encompass this moment with my boy.
He gives Dave a thumbs-up, our main way to communicate with our pilot. But Timothy isn’t just good. He’s great. Flight, thrilling and delicious, has captured his heart.
Without looking back to the pilot’s cockpit directly behind us, I know Genet is smiling too because he can relate to a young boy’s love of flight. Dave Genet didn’t catch the bug from a childhood barnstorm ride or a superhero movie. It was a very real hero that drew him into the world of aeronautics: his grandma.
“My G-ma fueled my love of planes because she lived it in WWII. She served in the Signal Corps and worked for Grumman,” he shares. “Ironically it wasn’t actual flying that inspired me to fly, it was growing up with her. I’ve loved planes as long as I can remember.”
His passion for planes from the past was also fanned by a neighbor, a retired WWII RAF fighter pilot. “He had a Taylorcraft and took me for my first flight when I was a kid. I remember enjoying it and knowing it was what I wanted to do.”
Decades later, Genet aims to develop a love of flight in his passengers. “I’ve flown people in their 40s who have never been in any airplane and others have had a biplane flight on their bucket list their whole lives. Knowing I’m a part of that is rewarding,” he says. He has flown with kids as young as three years old but holds that seven is a good age to start so they’re tall enough to see out of the cockpit and appreciate the experience.
Timothy’s thumb is in the air again. Knowing that his young passenger is comfortable, Genet offers to add a little thrill to our flight. “We’ll need to climb to 1,000 feet as we head over the historic district,” he tells us through the one-way headsets. “Hold on!” he jokes, sharply banking. The plane turns smoothly, exhilaratingly. Instead of stretching below us, the ocean seems to be beside us for a moment. We laugh. As the plane climbs the final few hundred feet to circle over the city, our emotions soar with the thrill of the experience.
Genet’s desire to inspire others and his passion for history fuels his business, St. Augustine Historic Biplane Rides. “I’m trying to preserve a part of living history. When you’re up with me, you’re flying a little time machine! On top of that, you’re in a historic place. This combination is a nostalgic experience.”
At the beginning of the flight, Genet bantered he is no trolley tour guide but for those familiar with the area, the Castillo de San Marcos’ familiar shape stands out clearly on the bayfront surrounded by 20 acres of lawn. Henry Flagler’s iconic buildings are recognizable as terracotta topped, toy store versions of those I’m familiar with. The Bridge of Lions is so easy to spot, Timothy points it out to me.
We circle back so Timothy’s and my vistas are swapped; there is no bad seat in this theatre.
Dave’s passion for flight and history come together in the nation’s oldest city. “I love the feeling of being part of history when I’m in the air in the biplane. It’s pretty phenomenal.”
Timothy exudes as only a 10-year-old boy can, “This is totally awesome!”