I found Sonoma Valley Airport in 1998. I was driving south from Sonoma to San Francisco, going fast on Highway 121. A sign flashed past. “BIPLANE RIDES.” I turned around and discovered the Vintage Aircraft Company. I booked a 20-minute aerobatic flight in a Stearman. “Do you take credit cards?” I didn’t even look at the amount. They made me wear a parachute.
I still have the 8mm video. I hand-held that big camera the entire flight.
Fast-forward to 2011, thirteen years later. Nichole and I booked the same biplane ride. It was a cold February day, and Stearmans have open cockpits. So we wandered around the airfield, waiting for the sun to warm up.
It was like a vintage airplane museum, except that most of the airplanes are flyable, and privately-owned. Many date back to the 1940s. No museum fees.
This beautiful 1946 Globe Swift and hangar look like a Norman Rockwell painting. There is a time-lapse photo on the Vintage Aircraft Company Facebook page. 1968 vs. 2012. Same airplane.
Swifts are, er, swift! Over 120 knots, and they climb to the ‘oxygen-required’ altitudes.
Nichole and I unearthed other jewels. Stearmans, Luscombes, Cubs, Champs. There was even a Lockheed Harpoon patrol bomber from World War II, its bomb bay big enough to eat submarines.
As we peered into a hangar with a pristine Cub, a voice yelled at us to come in out of the cold. He was the airplane owner, and he stopped his work to show us his pride and joy.
Other hangars were closed. I can only imagine. The Sonoma Valley Airport website lists some truly intriguing airplanes – a Tiger Moth, a Jenny, several Ryans, even a 1930s Pietenpol.
I tarried at the Warbirds. There was a Grumman F3F being restored in a hangar – big, fat biplane, precursor to the Grumman F4F Wildcat that battled Japanese Zeros at Midway and the Solomons. The F3F is a rare airplane, first introduced in 1936, retired in 1941.
Then there was one of my favorite childhood airplanes. The P-40 captured my young imagination because it was flown by a clandestine band of mercenaries in China, before the war even started. The American Volunteer Group, better known as the ‘Flying Tigers’, spawned many top aces. Chiang Kai-Shek paid them a bonus of $500 for every enemy airplane shot down. You could buy a car with $500 in those days.
The P-40 was also flown by American fighter pilots at Clark, Iba and Nichols airfields on December 8, 1941, when World War II broke out in the Philippines. They were Doomed at the Start, out-performed by the faster, more maneuverable Japanese fighter airplanes.
This airport is one of those preserved 1940s and 1950s time capsules in America. There are still hangars and buildings dating back to those years. More recently, George Lucas’ movie “Red Tails” was filmed on location here.
A few days later, our company hosted a tour of a Sonoma vineyard. I sat in the sun away from the other executives, with a Sauvignon Blanc. I watched a Stearman take off from the airport, less than a mile away.
Posted from Singapore, July 13, 2012.