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A Timeless Air Flight Over The Big Lake

Thomas P. Caldwell - August 5, 2013





Fabulous Phil and his biplane

Fabulous Phil at the wing of Francesca, his biplane, at Plymouth Airport. Photo ©2013 by Karen Bobotas for Lakes Biplane.

The thrill of feeling two Gs of force in an open-cockpit biplane while watching the ground pass by on one’s left side is a treat anyone can experience by stopping by the Laconia Municipal Airport and asking for Fabulous Phil.

Phil DiVirgilio operates Lakes Biplane, Inc., out of the Emerson Aviation office at the airport. His biplane— Francesca — was built in 1991 using the type certificate (specifications) based on the original 1935 Waco biplane. The plane incorporates modern safety specifications and materials for airworthiness but retains the overall design of the original model, so riding in it is like flying in a World War-era aircraft.

DiVirgilio is attentive to his passengers’ comfort levels and he questions them in advance of the flight to ascertain whether they are willing to experience steep turns and aggressive maneuvers, or whether they prefer a smooth flight with gentle turns. Those who are uncertain can decide during the flight, communicating with DiVirgilio over the headset that makes conversation in the air possible.

The headset also allows DiVirgilio to serve as a Lakes Region ambassador, pointing out the details of the countryside or waterways below.

The view from the biplane.

The view from the biplane.

A short flight takes passengers on a loop from Gilford to Meredith, Center Harbor, and Moultonborough, then over the islands and home again. A longer flight includes a flyover of Castle in the Clouds in Moultonborough; and passengers also can ask for specific destinations, such as flights over their homes or the cottages where they are staying.

DiVirgilio is a wealth of information about the history of air travel, explaining that the biplane was designed with two wings on each side to overcome the difficulty of building a set of wings long enough to provide sufficient lift. The second wing only adds 20 percent to the lift capability, but that is enough to allow the plane to become airborne. However, the design makes it very inefficient, as the air flows over the wings interfere with each other, creating drag that limits his maximum speed to about 100 mph.

The wings are built with wooden spars and ribs with aluminum edges, and covered with a thin fabric. He notes that the famous wingwalkers had to be careful to step only on the supports while they also were dealing with the altitude and the wind, making their daredevil acts that much more difficult and dangerous.

He assures passengers that he will not be flying upside-down or wingwalking during their flights.

Weirs Beach

THE BIPLANE FLIES OVER Weirs Beach.

The name Waco (pronounced WAH-co) comes from a native American battle cry. The company that designed the plane, originally called the Weaver Aircraft Company and later the Advanced Aircraft Company, later changed its name to Waco in honor of its most famous model. In 1946, after World War II, the company ceased building aircraft, a victim of the post-war economy. It was not until 1986 that the Waco Classic Aircraft company formed to build newer, up-to-date versions of the original.

The engine of DiVirgilio’s plane was built in the 1940s and it sat in a crate for years until it was taken out and prepared for use in the new plane.

While his biplane was built in 1991, a Canadian was its first owner and DiVirgilio did not purchase it until it had passed through a couple of other owners. He notes that the wing carries the letters WOW, originally C-WOW, the C signifying its Canadian ownership.

“The other pilots used to kid me, asking me why I had MOM on the wing,” DiVirgilio says.

Fabulous Phil

FABULOUS PHIL pilots his biplane in this view from his passenger’s side mirror.

He notes that the plane also carries the letters N994TT, where the TT represented the initials of the second owner.

But DiVirgilio said airplanes typically are known by a woman’s name, and he enlisted a group of friends to come up with a name for his. One woman suggested her name would be perfect, Francesca meaning “free” as well as being an Italian name. He joked that his girlfriend was not thrilled at first with the idea of him spending most of his day with “Francesca” but the name stuck.

While he has flown many other airplanes, DiVirgilio says the biplane is especially satisfying: “Whatever the plane is doing, I feel it; I feel at one with it,” he said. “Also, the open cockpit is nice; you’re not looking through windows.”

He said he always recognizes his passengers when they arrive at the terminal, for they arrive wearing sweatshirts or jackets, anticipating a chilly ride. However, the raised panel in front of the passenger shields the wind and the person is sitting low enough that the outside temperature really does not matter. “Whatever you’re comfortable with on the ground you’ll be comfortable with during the flight,” he said, adding that, on chilly days, he also can turn on the heat, making even fall foliage flights comfortable without extra layers of clothing.

Downtown Meredith

AN AERIAL VIEW of downtown Meredith.

For those who are afraid of heights, flying in a biplane should not be a concern. “I’m afraid of heights,” DiVirgilio admits, “but when you’re in a plane, you don’t get that sensation of being high up.”

As for safety, DiVirgilio says he takes no chances, going over the plane and checking seatbelts before taking off. Also, as a commercial operation, his airplane is inspected every 100 hours of flight time.

He took this reporter on a flight, explaining as he went that, just as the front instrument panel blocks the passenger’s view in the front, it blocks his view as well, so he has to swing the plane to the left and right as it taxis down the runway in order to be sure there is nothing in front of it.

The passenger, sitting up front, has the same instruments indicating speed, altitude, and other flight information as the pilot behind him, and the pedals on the floor are active; so it is important to keep one’s hands and feet off the controls and to leave the flying to DiVirgilio.

Moulton's Farm

WITH THE WINGS NEARLY PERPENDICULAR to the ground, the view of the corn maze at Moulton’s Farm in Meredith is seen over the biplane passenger’s left shoulder.

During takeoff, there is almost no sense that one is leaving the ground as the landscape drops away below; there is only a slight tilting to the left and right as the pilot adjusts for wind currents.

Almost immediately, DiVirgilio is describing the scenery below: There is Meadowbrook; over there Weirs Beach; downtown Meredith; Center Harbor. It is over Moulton’s Farm that he tilts the plane all the way to the side to provide a breathtaking look at the corn maze being designed, at the same time creating the gravitational sensation of having twice one’s body weight as the plane angles over the farm.

Straightening out, the biplane heads out across the Big Lake with DiVirgilio indicating the many Lake Winnipesaukee islands and The Broads, while also pointing to the more distant sights such as Squam Lake and Mount Washington.

Enjoying the flight and the scenery, it seems to be in no time at all that the Gilford water tower is in front of us and we are again over the Laconia Airport runway. The plane gradually drops down and, with only the slightest of jolts, the wheels kiss the tarmac and we pull into the terminal.

DiVirgilio notes that the biplane’s engine has a unique sound that people are able to recognize instantly. Some say it’s a lot like the sound of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. “It’s like riding a Harley at 1,000 feet,” he says.

He also has to point out that his biggest asset his dog, Brownie, who loves to greet passengers as they arrive. He said Brownie loves people and is at the airport every day he is, although she does not fly in Francesca.

“She has flown in other airplanes,” he said, “but she wouldn’t be happy sitting up front by herself.”

Those wanting to take a flight on Francesca should make their reservations in advance by calling 603-250-6184. If the weather conditions prevent the flight from taking place, it can easily be rescheduled. For more information on Lakes Biplane, Inc., see http://www.lakesbiplane.com

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