Flying legends [San Francisco]

There are plenty of ways to take in the world famous landmark of San Francisco. From the land at one of the many viewing points or biking or walking the bridge, from the sea by boat or kayak, or… from the air! Flying over the Golden Gate Bridge in open WWII biplane aircraft is definitely a unique and unforgettable experience and the best way to see it in style!

It all starts about 30 miles north of San Francisco. After driving the Golden Gate Bridge, past Sausalito, and through the Sonoma Valley wine region, we arrive at the small airfield where Vintage Aircraft operates from.

A P-40 Kittyhawk with its shark-like war paint, a shiny P-51 Mustang, and a 1942 North American SNJ-4 Texan frame the landing strip and set the stage. We are about to get up close and personal with some legends…

Chris Prevost welcomes us. The owner of the Sonoma airfield and passionate pilot has somewhat of a 1940’s movie star; something of the stature of Burt Lancaster with a satisfied grin of a man living his passion.

Chris is not only a pilot with more than 11,500 flying hours, he is also the man who started Vintage Aircraft and who rebuilds the planes we are about to embark.

“This one arrived here in boxes” he explains showing us the P-40 manufactured in 1942 by Curtiss-Wright Corporation in New York. “It was rotting away in the jungle of Papua-New Guinea.” We hop on the wing, check out the cockpit, then down to inspect the landing gear. It is hard to believe! It looks brand new with its original instruments. The paint is perfect. Four small Japanese flags by the pilot’s name above the wing reminds us this aircraft was flown by a war hero over the South Pacific during WWII. The cockpit was modified by Chris and his team to host both the pilot and a passenger. “We looked for the pilot and once the plane was rebuilt, we took Major Ray Melikian flying”. Chris is a man of a few words. No need for words to see his pride and emotions remembering this special moment. He checked every bolt, had to replace and often remake so many components, and last but not least had to get the FAA to clear each of his planes for flight. It took Chris nine years of hard work and dedication before he could fly this P-40, one of the 28 left in the world that can still fly.

In the hangar, a bright red Boeing PT-17 Stearman is parked close to its shiny blue and yellow twin. “These biplanes were the first training aircraft for war pilots before they were tested on a SNJ-4 Texan for advanced training to eventually fly a P-40 or P-51 in combat” Chris explains. His colleague Tom comes in with aviation bonnets: “You should wear this or you will hate us tonight” he says with a wink pointing to our hair: it is going to get pretty windy flying over San Francisco in an open biplane. A few minutes later we are both in the front seat of a Stearman, taxiing to take off. Chris gives me hand signals so that we can communicate during the flight. Marcella is already up in the air. The red Stearman is ready for take off. Chris accelerates. The nose of the plane is tilted upwards and I hardly realize when the wheels leave the ground. The bright green fields of the Sonoma Valley are getting smaller. Soon we fly over the bay. Sausalito and its floating houseboats are now underneath. The skyline of San Francisco is getting closer. We pass Alcatraz. After a turn the Golden Gate Bridge looms up in the distance. The red metal contrasts greatly with the deep blue waters of the bay dotted with white sails. I wave at Marcella whose head sticks out of the blue cockpit with a huge smile. We are circling above the bridge. Down below the different currents in the bay are clearly visible. The view is terrific and so are the skills of our pilots.

It looks like people walking the Golden Gate Bridge are taking as many photos of the biplanes as we are of the landmark! It must be a fantastic sight to see these legends fly over the bridge. Soon after, we come off land towards Alcatraz again leaving the skyline of San Francisco behind. A few minutes later we are flying over the vineyards of the Sonoma Valley and its rolling hills on which the Californian Poppies bloom. The landing strip appears. Chris’ approach demonstrates the stability and strength of the popular classic biplane. He touches down softly after a sharp turn and dive during which I could feel a few G’s. The old machine taxis back into the hangar. I take in the puffing noise of the air-cooled radial engine and smell of red aviation oil one last time.

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It is getting late and the sun is about to set. Chris is already jumping into the Kittyhawk. A few minutes later its wings are waving at us as he flies over the airfield. These are only goodbyes: we will be back to spend more time around these fantastic planes that have been salvaged by the passionate pilots and mechanics of Vintage Aircraft.

Marcella & Claire

Travel tips:

  • To experience a flight in one of these old timers get in touch with Vintage Aircraft.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

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This article was published in the Beyond Boundaries e-magazine by Xtreme Adventure:

Beyond Boundaries Vintage Aircraft