With two wings and a wood propeller, the Carolina Belle takes people above the beach at Oak Island, giving ordinary pedestrians an extraordinary perspective.
Editor’s Note: According to Sunset Aviation’s Facebook page, the Carolina Belle is currently being refurbished. Scenic rides are still available in other planes. Sunset Aviation’s prices and hours may have changed since this article originally appeared in our September 2010 issue. Contact them at (910) 279-9476 or firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more details.
Maybe it’s the view.
You’re flying 1,000 feet above Oak Island, and with the wind pinpricking your face, you look below and see skinny roads, a swath of shamrock green, and rows of houses no bigger than your thumbnail.
Beach blankets look like playing cards, and the Atlantic is one big painting full of greens and blues. Meanwhile, the Oak Island Pier — considered the tallest pier on the North Carolina coast at 27 feet above sea level — is as long and slender as a popsicle stick.
After a shower scrubs the sky, you can see clear to Georgetown, South Carolina. But on this particular Saturday, after weeks of no rain, the horizon is the color of expired milk, and you see only a few miles in any direction.
But the sights you see — even for a few miles — make you think like a kid again.
The Cape Fear River is a twisting snake of water; the Old Baldy lighthouse is Fred Flintstone’s upturned megaphone; and Fort Caswell is a three-walled sand castle in need of some shells, sticks, and saber-wielding soldiers three inches tall.
This pastiche of colors and shapes passing beneath you makes you think fondly of high school geometry — at least for a split second. But then, your adult self reels you in when you see some things the size of freckles on the beach.
People. Yes, people. They see you, and you see them.
They hear the chug-chug-chug of your seven-cylinder engine high in the sky and look up to see a plane that’s been burned into their memory.
You’re in a biplane, 23 feet long, with a 30-foot wingspan and a 96-inch propeller made of wood. The model: WACO UPF-7, an acronym for the Waco Aircraft Company.
She comes from another era, another time: 1942, a trainer for young pilots in World War II. But today, she rests on her three wheels at the Cape Fear Regional Jetport, a small airstrip beside the Intracoastal Waterway at Oak Island.
She’s beautifully restored, a brilliant red with a curvaceous blonde in a black corset and black high heels painted near the propeller. That tells you her name.
She’s the Carolina Belle, owned by Jim and Laura Banky, husband and wife.
“I’m the Red Baron,” Jim says, “wherever I go.” (Story continues below the video.)
Video produced for exclusively Our State magazine by Michael McQueen.
The gospel of an open cockpit
She does have some serious celebrity credibility, this Carolina Belle.
Watch the 2002 film Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and you’ll see her. She appears near the end of the film, flying above Burgaw and Buckner Hill Plantation, with Mahalia Jackson singing “Walk In Jerusalem” underneath the vroom of her engine.
Actress Ashley Judd sits in her cockpit beside a young girl. They’re looking over North Carolina, with Jackson’s steeple-rattling voice ringing in your ears.
“Isn’t it just like a fairyland,” Judd says from the cockpit. “Don’t we live in the most magical place? We’re like two angels up in the sky smiling down at all our friends.”
Laura Banky knows that scene, and she mentions it any time the phone rings and she hears skepticism, worry, or questions on the other end.
This particular Saturday is no exception.
“Biplane Rides, this is Laura. …
“Yes, it’s straight and level flying. No fancy maneuvers. You get to see all kinds of stuff from the air. Yes, it’s an open cockpit. The wind is blowing, but there is a windscreen, so it’s not right in your face. But it’s like riding a motorcycle in the sky.
“You know Ashley Judd? … She rode in this biplane in the movie. That’s right — Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Tell them that. That always helps. I mean, if Ashley Judd can fly in it, anybody can.
“So, we’ll be here. Keep working on them.”
Laura hangs up. It’s a little after 2 p.m. She’s getting busy.
‘Keep that little red plane flying’
Laura and Jim operate Suncoast Aviation out of Cape Fear Regional Jetport and offer scenic rides on the Carolina Belle. It costs $120 for a 20- to 25-minute ride over the marshes and beaches, lighthouses and shoals of Oak and Bald Head islands.
They’re not getting rich on this scenic-ride business. So Jim works as an aviation and power-plant technician, and Laura works as an office manager for a certified public accountant.
But the Carolina Belle is their passion. Jim and Laura bought the Carolina Belle eight years ago and operated their business out of Venice, Florida, and Skaneateles, New York, Jim’s hometown, where he’s known as “Sky Banky.”
Five years ago, following the suggestion of a flying friend, they moved to Oak Island. At first, they lived in a trailer at the airport. Today, they live 13 miles away on four acres in the town of Bolivia, surrounded by live oaks, cedar trees, and the sounds of whippoorwills, owls, and their two dogs, Mini and Opie.
From April to October, weather permitting, Jim can do as many as 50 flights in a week. So during his busy season, he sometimes has to employ a part-timer.
On many weekends, though, you’ll find Jim and Laura. They’ll be in their old trailer that sits beside the chain-link fence off N.C. Highway 133. A laminated movie poster of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is out for any customer to see.
In black ink on the movie poster, they’ve circled the Carolina Belle. It’s flying above the poster’s big sunflower. A banner outside hangs from the fence and reads, “Bi-Plane Rides.” But the real attention getter is out front, shiny as a fire truck.
The Carolina Belle.
Laura is the ground crew, Jim is the pilot, and together they create memories for many interested in sightseeing at 1,000 feet.
Through the years, Jim has collected his share of stories.
Flip through the two-inch photo album the Bankys keep, and you’ll see Tommy, a kid who lived in Venice, Florida. He’d hear the chug-chug-chug of the Carolina Belle overhead and point skyward, saying to everyone within earshot, “Hey, there is Jim! Everybody wave!”
Or you’ll see George, the federal judge from Florida. He renewed his marriage vows in the Carolina Belle. He handed Jim a script and told him to read it over the radio.
“You can do it,’’ he reassured Jim. “You’re the captain of the ship!’’
Or you’ll read a letter from Ken, the World War II veteran. He flew a WACO UPF-7 back in September 1942. He detailed that experience in a five-paragraph letter. He ended his letter with this line: “Keep that little red plane flying.’’
“Part of the reason I love to fly is every time you fly, you’re learning something new,” he says. “The second part of the equation is that when I take someone who is absolutely scared to fly, I’ll take them up, and afterward, I’ll watch them get out with a big grin on their face. It’s pretty neat.”
Jim always loved flying. As a kid in Skaneateles, he’d ride his bike to the local airport and hang by the fence watching the planes take off and land.
But he never thought of himself as a pilot. He figured planes were too expensive, too time consuming, too out of reach. So, he became a fixer.
At age 8, he took apart a clock to see how it worked. At age 11, he started working on his uncle’s farm, earning $2 a day as he tinkered with every kind of engine, from trucks to tractors.
By age 17, he became a mechanic and later a cross-country trucker. In 1982, his trucking job brought him to a country music club called Doc Holliday’s in Louisville, Kentucky, where he spotted a well-dressed, pretty girl at a nearby table.
He asked her to dance. That was Laura.
They’ve been married since 1988. In the early 1990s, Laura saw her husband fall in love with flight when he flew a Cessna with a trained pilot. The pilot told Jim he did well.
“Did you hear what he said?” Jim told Laura. “He said I did a good job.”
Jim got his pilot’s license in 1996 and became enamored with old planes. He dreamed of buying a Lockheed 12, the sleek, twin-engine plane that appeared at the end of the 1942 classic Casablanca.
He didn’t. Instead, he found her.
The Carolina Belle. Or really, the Red Baron.
Magic in those wings
Whatever name she goes by, that biplane must have some kind of inexplicable draw. Sit there on a Saturday afternoon at the Cape Fear Regional Jetport, and see the people marvel.
There’s the woman in the head scarf. She’s going through chemotherapy. She knocks on the trailer door, meets Laura outside, and says, “Can old, fat people get in there? It would be something I would really like to do.’’
Or the retired cotton buyer from Sanford. He comes with a gift certificate in hand — and his wife, a retired teacher, by his side — and says after their flight, “It’s like sitting in a lawn chair. Some great views.”
Or the woman from Asheboro. She volunteers that her mother always exclaimed, “You’re not going to get me in no plane!’’ The woman is in her late 50s. This is her third flight — ever.
Twenty minutes or so later, the Carolina Belle taxis in. The woman, with her boyfriend by her side holding her hand, gives a thumbs-up and yells, “I didn’t want to come back! I wanted to keep going!”
Like many customers Jim and Laura see, she faced her fears — and won. And when that happens, Jim repeats a line he heard from Laura’s brother long ago.
It seems appropriate.
“Those who are afraid to die,” he tells the couple, “will never truly live.”
Jim is now 55; Laura 58. They see their Carolina Belle, their Red Baron, as their therapy. It takes them and their customers above the tree line to a place where piers are small, people are smaller, and Georgetown is a distant spot you see farther south — if you’re lucky.
It’s a place where the only sound you hear is the throaty burr-raw of the engine and the tinny squawk from your headphones as Jim, in his aviator goggles and cloth hat, points to the many sights passing below.
There’s Old Baldy. There’s the Oak Island Lighthouse. There’s Battery Island. And there’s the Frying Pan Shoals, the last resting place of more than 130 ships.
Ten minutes into the ride, you feel like a seagull, like an adventurer, and you realize, as you seemingly float on the precarious winds of the Atlantic, you don’t have a care in the world.
So, maybe, it is the views. Or, maybe, it’s something else.
“That old airplane,” Jim says, “has got magic in her.’’
4091 Long Beach Road
Oak Island, N.C. 28465
Jeri Rowe, a Greensboro resident, is a staff columnist with the News & Record.