Today we are talking with David Brown, owner of
Stearman Biplane Rides and Warbird Flights in Warrenton, Virginia. People of all ages come from all over Virginia and the metro Washington DC area to experience the thrill of flying in an authentic World War II biplane while enjoying the spectacular scenery of Fauquier County.
Tell us about your airplane tours and scenic flights, David.
I have been associated with the U.S. Air Force since the 1980s. I am in the Air Force Reserves and I am in a flying squadron. I have personally been a pilot for 42 years. I did my first solo flight when I was 17 at the Warrenton, Virginia airport and got my pilot license when I was 19.
I was originally associated with the Flying Circus in Bealeton, Virginia which is where I got interested in flying biplanes. Then I pursued getting my commercial license and my flight instructor certificate and multi-engine and instrument ratings added to my commercial license.
I started my business 17 years ago when the Stearman airplane that I own today became available for sale. I bought it from a family friend and started offering the Stearman biplane rides.
I took the written test for commercial pilot and took the flight test to be commercially rated. In order to fly for hire the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that you be commercially rated. I hold a standard commercial aviation license that allows me to run my business and charge for my services.
History of the Stearman Biplane
I offer 30-minute and 60-minute excursions in the Stearman biplane — which is a World War II trainer plane. They built over 10,000 of these planes for service during World War II in the Army Air Corps and the Navy. Pilot candidates would train on the Stearman first to become a fighter pilot during World War II. And then once they completed 60 hours of training in the Stearman they would move on to intermediate and advanced training and eventually become certified as a pilot in the Navy or the Air Corps.
So the Stearman is a very historic plane and we get a lot of customers who are interested in it because of its historic nature. Also many family members have flown in this airplane during the war time and so many people want to come out and experience this airplane for its history and experience what it was like for their fathers and grandfathers to train and fly in the airplane.
Hands-On Flying Experience
I offer customers the option of choosing a hands-on experience where they can sit in the exact seat where cadets trained during World War II and take the controls. My airplane is completely stocked and rebuilt like it was during World War II. It has 95% original parts from that era. The plane was built in 1941 so it is 78 years old this year and it’s still safe to fly.
It’s a testament to the Boeing production quality. It was designed by Lloyd Stearman, which is why we call it a Stearman plane — but Boeing designated it as the PT 17 Cadet.
It is a very robustly built airplane. It had to have extensive testing and be extremely durable and repairable for military use.
Stearman Planes Used as Crop Dusters After World War II
After the War, many of the Stearman planes were sold for surplus and were used as crop duster planes. Mine was used as a crop duster from 1945 into the 1970s. After that, they took off the big engine and spray equipment and rebuilt it to its original configuration.
Aerobatic Flight Experiences
In addition to hands on flights, one of the unique things we offer is aerobatic flights. There are many places around the country where you can get a ride in a Stearman — but very few places will actually allow you to take the controls and fly the plane, or do aerobatics where we do loops and rolls and maneuvers that cadets did during training to prepare for combat flying.
So loops and rolls were not about showing off in the airplane. They were about learning how to fly the airplane to the limit so pilots could be prepared for “dogfighting” where pilots would be flying against foes in the air and having to bomb or shoot down other fighter planes.
We talk to our customers ahead of time to see what kind of experience they want. Some passengers like to do loops and rolls and wingovers, but most everybody is happy just doing a few different maneuvers.
I talk to every customer beforehand to determine what they want from their flying experience with me and let them know what they can expect.
You have 134 customer reviews on your website. How do you get so many of your customers to give you good reviews?
Well, I always ask my customers how they found me and what they are looking for in their flying experience. Then afterwards I usually say, “If you found your experience enjoyable would you mind leaving us a review?”
And a lot of the time my customers will say, “Oh yes, I read your reviews! They were wonderful. We will certainly leave one.”
I also work with a booking agency called Cloud 9 Living. They are fairly exclusive and only work with a limited number of providers. They have very high standards in who they will accept and advertise on their website.
So Cloud 9 is another way that people find me. People who aren’t necessarily looking for a biplane ride experience will stumble across me on Cloud 9 and get interested in booking a flight with me that way. In fact I am getting 30-40% of my business through Cloud 9 and their recommendations. Customers will leave reviews for me on Cloud 9 as well and that helps Cloud 9 shoppers to see what others have to say about flying with us.
I’ve found that reviews are much more effective in helping me get new customers and new business than me just talking about my business, because this is the actual customer who is pumped up and excited and using their own words to describe their experience. So when people see the reviews my customers leave it helps them decide if they want to fly with me as well.
It’s not just the star ratings that matter. It is the words people use to describe what it was like flying with me.
I Personalize Every Flight To the Customer’s Interests
I put my passion and enthusiasm into every customer experience. I may fly 5-6 people a day but each one of them gets a personalized enthusiastic experience with me.
I always know each customer’s name and I know if the flight was a gift and if so, I thank the person who bought them the gift.
I get people who have never flown before ever all the way to jet fighter pilots who have 30 years of experience flying airplanes, so I have to tailor what I say to the knowledge and experience of each customer. I don’t give everyone the same information.
If they have never flown before I’ll give them the basic information about the plane and how it was used in World War II, but if I am flying with an experienced pilot I will get into talking about military operations with them and find out what they flew in the military.
Stories of Flying With World War II Veterans
I’ve taken numerous veterans up in the plane. Many of these veterans had flown the Stearman as their primary trainer during World War II. One of my customers is a West Point graduate who went into flight training and flew a P38 Fighter in Europe and provided air cover to ground forces during the Normandy invasion.
He told me “I witnessed that spectacle from the air and I was never challenged by any German aircraft. We flew at a predetermined altitude circling the area in case they sent fighter planes into attack. I watched the bombers come in and bomb the beaches but we were never challenged by any fighter planes.”
He talked about how wonderful it was to fly the Stearman again. He has flown with me many many times, including on his birthday every year.
Featured in Airman Magazine
Airman Magazine had seen me on the Bealeton Flying Circus website. They noticed that I was flying the Stearman and was in the Air Force Reserve so they reached out to me to say they wanted to do an article about me.
When they learned that I had flown the Stearman with this World War II veteran they decided to make that the focus of their story and they filmed for an entire summer to create the video story about me and the World War II vet. So it became a story about Al, the 92-year-old World War II veteran, and me.
For Some Veterans, This is Their Last Flight
I’ve flown many other World War II veterans, some as old as 97 and 98. For some it was their last flight.
I took up a fighter pilot a few years ago who was an ace in the Pacific flying the P-40 and he was well known in the Fredericksburg area. So he and his family came out and there were about 15 of them there. When I took him up he mentioned to me that the Stearman was the first plane he had ever flown. That happened to be the last flight he ever did and he passed away shortly after that.
So his first and last flight was in a Stearman. His funeral service was at Quantico cemetery. I gathered a couple of Army Air Corps Stearmans from the Bealeton Flying Circus and I led a formation to fly over his funeral service and we timed it and we flew over and we did the military Missing Man Formation. So there were 4 planes and one plane pulled out over the funeral and goes west to signify the missing pilot. And my airplane was the one that was chosen to fly west. So I was in the Number 3 position and I peeled out and went west and they got it all on video. The family was very happy we paid that tribute to him.
Dedicating the Air Force Memorial
So that is another thing about my plane: it connects me with these veterans and the military. In 2006 the military asked me to bring my Stearman to dedicate the Air Force Memorial. The Chief of Staff at that time specifically asked for a Stearman to lead the formation because of the Stearman’s history in training Air Corp pilots in World War II.
So they saw the Stearman as a significant contribution to that event. I got permission to fly into Andrews Air Force Base – which is very difficult to do. I flew over the Air Force Memorial to dedicate it along with many other aircraft they had staged to come by in 2-minute intervals. They had a description of each airplane and its contribution to Air Force history – fighter planes and bombers and airplanes all the way up to the modern-day B-52 bomber.
So without owning this airplane I never would have had that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
New Addition: The T-6 Warbird Plane
This year I have added a new level to my business.
When cadets did their primary training it was on the Stearman, but when they went on to advanced training they flew the T-6 Texan. The Navy’s version is the SNJ, but it is virtually the same aircraft.
So I have always been fond of those aircraft and had the opportunity to purchase one this year and add it to the business. Ours is a 1943 AT6 and was made by North American Aviation in Dallas, Texas.
It went to Mexico during World War II. My own aircraft was down there serving and had three guns when it was in service and bomb mounts on the wings. The original panel from 1943 is still in the airplane along with the gun sights, preserving its history. The guns were removed when the plane was brought back into the United States. But there is a faux gun that sticks out of the wing that shows where the gun used to be.
So part of the joy of going up in this plane is being able to fly in and take the controls of an actual fighter plane from World War II. Very few of these are available where a passenger can go up and take the controls.
Most of my customers opt to purchase the hands-on flight option that gives them a chance to fly the airplane, so we will be offering hands-on flights with the Texan Warbird and if the customer asks, we can do some rolls and wingovers and aerobatic maneuvers in the Warbird as well.
I will have every weekend open in 2020 now that I am retired from my 30-year career in the highway department and the Air Force reserves.
Gift Certificates for Flight Experiences
Experiences are very popular now as gifts —- more so than they were in the past. My biplane rides are very popular as a unique gift idea. People can go to my website and purchase a gift certificate right there. You can choose to have the gift certificate mailed or emailed to you.
Right now is the time of year when people are going to start looking and I will be busy all the way up to Christmas Eve typing up gift certificates and mailing them out. I have had people email me on Christmas Eve asking for a last-minute gift certificate. I am on duty 24/7 during the holiday season to make sure everyone who wants one gets a gift certificate on time.
2020 Flying Season
We don’t fly during the winter. Our flying season will start again next April. I do most of the maintenance on the airplanes during the winter so they are ready to go by April. Usually the weather starts warming up enough in April that we can resume flights. May, June, July and August are always very busy. This past September I did as many as 8 rides on a Saturday.