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The Ultimate Freedom: Lakes Region Biplane

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - July 30, 2010





For Phil DiVirgilio, flying is freedom. On a day-to-day basis Phil views the Lakes Region in a much different way than the rest of us. He sees the treetops, the clouds, and the lake spread like a mass of sparkling from the open cockpit of his biplane.

This is the first summer Phil (known as Fabulous Phil in his Fabulous Biplane) is offering unique biplane rides to the public. He operates Lakes Biplane from Emerson Aviation’s office at the Laconia Airport. His plane stands out from the bigger, more powerful private planes on the runway, but that’s as it should be.

Phil’s biplane was built in 1991 and that surprises people. They assume because the biplane looks like models from the 1930s that the aircraft is an antique. However, it is built the way biplanes were once built: solid and strong. It is a WACO Classic YMF-5 Super. (The WACO Classic Aircraft company – unrelated to the original Waco – began building its WACO Classic YMF in 1986, an upgraded version based on Waco’s original type certificate incorporating over 300 engineering changes.)

Reminiscent of the era of adventurous pilots such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, the biplane takes one back to bygone days just by getting up close to its shiny, smooth exterior. Indeed, Phil says he once had a passenger dressed in a long fur coat and a hat from the 1930s. “She opened her fur coat and she was wearing a dress from that era, too!” Phil remembers with a laugh.

How did Phil get started in this most unusual profession? “I love the freedom of flying,” he says. “I like the feeling of soaring and gliding. It’s exhilarating up in the air and landing is an art.”

Flying has always been a part of Phil’s life, even back in the days when he worked in corporate America. “I got my pilot’s license after I went to college, but I didn’t have the time or money to do much flying. I joined a California company and my boss gave me a Cessna to fly so I could become current with flight. Then I bought my first plane. I was offered the job of vice president of operations through the company I was working for.”

The job was in England, where Phil relocated. He continued to fly in Europe and when he eventually returned to America, he was ready for a change from his hectic corporate life.

“I bought a bed and breakfast in Bar Harbor, Maine,” he says. Phil and his wife ran the successful business and he continued to fly and eventually trained to pilot a biplane.

“Flying a biplane is a unique experience. I worked for a company in Maine that offered biplane rides, but I didn’t have enough time to really talk to the passengers about the biplane experience. So I decided to start my own biplane ride business,” Phil continues.

After he sold the bed and breakfast and he and his wife divorced, Phil continued to live in Maine, but began to search for the right spot to launch his biplane business. He settled on New Hampshire’s Lakes Region because it’s a resort area with nothing like the biplane service he offers in the region.

“I don’t want a real job with the eight-hour a day schedule,” Phil says with a laugh. “I want to do something I like.” The response to the Lake Biplane business thus far has been good.

“I opened on Memorial Day and there’s been a lot of interest. When I take local people up in the biplane, they are amazed at what the region looks like from the air.”

Emerson Aviation is happy to be affiliated with Lakes Biplane. Sharing office space, the company shares something else with Phil: a chance to spend time with Phil’s dog, Brownie. The friendly little 11-year-old dog greets visitors in the aviation office and is truly a charming addition to Lakes Biplane.

Phil has had Brownie since she was a puppy; the two are constant companions. “She goes everywhere with me and she’s so well behaved. We are living at Gunstock this summer in a trailer. I chose the campground because it’s good for Brownie and gives her plenty of outdoor space. I didn’t want to have her cooped up in an apartment this summer.”

Explaining the construction of the biplane, Phil says the wings are covered in a sturdy fabric that is very strong. “The reason biplanes were originally constructed was because they didn’t have the engineering know-how to make single wing planes. The biplane construction makes it like a box; the wings are shorter. My biplane is fully aerobatic and it can do loops and rolls.”

One father and daughter who recently took a biplane ride with Phil found the trip exhilarating. The daughter is a professional photographer who wished to get some aerial photos of the lake while her father took video footage. Both found the ride a once-in-a-lifetime experience and returned beaming and full of information about the experience.

“We stayed up a little longer than normal,” shared Phil. Clearly he enjoyed showing the passengers the area from the air.

The biplane offers a 360-degree experience only possible in an open cockpit aircraft. According to information on Phil’s website, “Some people like a smooth ride with nice gentle turns so you can see all the landscape. Others want adventure and for those people we can roll in and out of steep turns, throw in some aggressive maneuvers and provide that adrenaline rush.”

The biplane is built for two passengers to sit in front and Phil takes his place at the controls in back; communication is by headphones and mouthpieces. This allows Phil to point out sites of interest and to discuss the flight with his passengers.

Lakes Biplane offers a number of flight options: Introduction to Open Cockpit Flying takes passengers on a ten minute open cockpit flight; a Southern Lake tour offers a chance to take in the beauty of the lake and to see Paugus Bay, the Weirs, Meredith Bay, Center Harbor, Castle in the Clouds, Wolfeboro, Alton Bay, Mt. Major, and Kimball Castle in Gilford; a Lakes Region Tour which takes 40 minutes and encompasses all the lake has to offer plus views of Squam Lake, Red Hill, Lake Ossipee, or choose to fly south by the NH International Speedway in Loudon. Special tour packages are also available with passengers telling Phil where they wish to go.

Phil is looking forward to his first autumn season in the Lakes Region. There are hiking trails that look glorious in the fall foliage, which will be perfect for Phil to explore on his daily walks with Brownie. He is also excited at the prospect of offering biplane rides over the lakes and mountains when the blazing, beautiful colors of fall paint the trees.

Once colder weather arrives (Phil expects to stop doing biplane tours on Columbus Day in October) there are plenty of options. Phil can head back to his home in Maine for the winter where he sometimes works as a substitute teacher or he can explore the option of doing biplane rides in Florida. He has some contacts in the state and perhaps will have the opportunity to take the biplane to the warmer climate of Florida for the winter months.

If perchance those in the Lakes Region happen to hear the deep sound of a plane’s engine, it’s just Phil out for a flight with yet more happy passengers. Sharing his love of flight and the uniqueness of the biplane are for Phil the ultimate freedom. Visit www.lakesbiplane.com or call 250-6184 for information on biplane rides. 

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