Up, Up and Away with Walt Disney

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Up, Up And Away With Walt Disney

Where was Walt Disney on November 22, 1963, the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated?

Walt was in the Disney Company airplane flying over Florida. He and his team flew over the coast so Walt could confirm his decision of not wanting to build the Florida project by the ocean. One of the reasons he didn't want to build near the ocean was he didn't want guests in wet bathing suits coming into the park.

Walt and his team traveled inland to Orlando, circling over the forests and swamps. Then they stopped off in New Orleans to refuel on the way back to Burbank, where they were notified that President Kennedy had been assassinated when they saw people in tears and huddled around radios and televisions.

On the somber return flight to Burbank, Walt announced that the Disney Company would begin purchasing land in Central Florida for the Epcot project.

On the backstage tour at Disney Studios in Florida, the backlot tram tour passes by a plane and the guide comments that this is the plane that Walt Disney flew in to pick out the area in Florida where he was going to build Disney World. It is indeed the last Disney "Mouse" and ended its decades-long service in 1992. The interior has been gutted, so it is not likely that this flying Mouse will ever fly again.

The story of Walt and his Mouse air force is very interesting, and it gives me another chance to recognize some names of Disney employees that contributed so greatly to Disney history but might be unfamiliar to most Disney fans.

Walt had a vacation home at the Smoke Tree Ranch in Palm Springs, and it was a long drive to get there when he wanted to escape for a weekend from the frantic atmosphere at the studio.

One of Disney's Nine Old Men, Woolie Reitherman, was a founding member of a local Burbank flying club called the "Sky Roamers." Woolie suggested to Walt that the weekend jaunts to Palm Springs could be shortened if Walt flew there as a charter aircraft passenger. Arrangements were made so that one of the "Sky Roamers" club's favorite pilots, Chuck Malone, would fly Walt and his family when they wanted to go to the Smoke Tree Ranch.

Imagineer Bob Gurr remembered how Walt decided to get his own airplane: "On one of the visits to Palm Springs Airport, Frank Sinatra's airplane was parked nearby, with a big picture window and a grand piano visible inside. One of Walt's grandchildren said 'Sinatra has a plane. How come you don't have one, too, grandpa?' That did it. Buzz Price did the economics, Chuck developed the flight department operations manual based on American Airlines procedures, and the Studio ordered a green and white, eight-passenger Beechcraft Queen Air Model 80, tail No. N123MM. This was powered by two big piston engines and propellers. Walt Disney Productions was now in the corporate airline business."

Since during this time, Walt was constantly flying all over the country on a variety of projects, it just seemed to make sense that a private plane would prove a valuable addition to allow for more flexibility and secrecy on these trips. Walt contacted Harrison Buzz Price—the former Stanford Research Institute executive who had helped in the development of Disneyland and who had since formed his own company, Economics Research Associates—to conduct a survey.

The survey did show it was a sound business decision to purchase a company airplane. However, Walt's brother, Roy, thought it a bad idea. Walt countered by saying: "Well, I've got a little money; I'll do it myself."

Roy finally agreed to the purchase of a Queen Air Beechcraft.

Chuck developed the Flight Department Operational Procedures with a very strict and conservative set of rules. This meant that Walt and his guests could not take off if any number of systems were not in perfect order. It also meant that if certain parts failed in flight, such as one electrical generator, they were to land at the closest landing strip immediately.

Over the years, there were actually three company planes that Walt flew in: Queen Air (Beechcraft) February 1963 - July 1965 (propeller driven); King Air (Beechcraft) 1965- 1967 (prop jet); and the Gulfstream (Grumman) bought 1963, in service May 1964, retired to WDW October 8, 1992. This is the plane you see on the backstage tour and, yes, Walt did fly in it to search for a site for Walt Disney World.

As Bob Gurr remembered: "The Queen Air was traded in on a new tan and brown turboprop Beechcraft King Air Model 90 using the N234MM tail number from the Queen Air. I loved this aircraft...fast and quiet. But we found that the Gulfstream could get in and out of smaller airports just as easy as the King Air. So Disney did not keep the second N234MM Beechcraft for long. Thus, the Gulfstream then got the N234MM tail number. Our pilots would make their initial air traffic call-ups as 'two three four metro metro.' Then they would try 'two three four Mickey Mouse' [improper FAA communication phraseology]. Pretty soon all the FAA enroute controllers always called us 'Mickey Mouse'. I think other corporate pilots were quite jealous of our special treatment.

"He gave me the job of designing various pieces of custom equipment for the new Beechcraft, which soon was known as 'The Mouse.' Walt liked to watch takeoffs and landings. I engineered a folding jump seat that could be placed in the aisle just behind the cockpit. We built this along with some other custom items in the Studio Machine Shop."

Originally, the King Air, carrying 10 including crew, powered and pressurized to cruise at 270 miles an hour at up to 23,000 feet, was to cover the Western states while the Gulfstream, capable of 350 miles an hour up to 30,000 feet, was to handle the longer flights like carrying executives working on the World's Fair in New York.

In the Fall of 1965, the Gulfstream logged 8,300 miles in 26 flying hours carrying Dean Jones, Card Walker, Irving Ludwig and others of the Disney sales operation to seven cities in eight business days pitching the movie That Darn Cat.

The Gulfstream was a large 13-passenger, propeller-driven, twin-engine, turbo-prop aircraft. It became the highest utilization Gulfstream in worldwide corporate service due to almost continuous flights weekly to New York (for the World's Fair) and Florida (for Walt Disney World).

Directed by Dick Pfahler was an advisory board consisting of Woolie Reitherman, an insurance expert and three senior airline pilots. The Disney airline was based at the Lockheed Air Terminal's Pacific Airmotive Corporation facility and was serviced by PAC mechanics with Disney maintenance chief Ed Henderson supervising.

Jim Stevenson as pilot and Frank Gamble as co-pilot would alternate trips with pilot Kelvin Bailey and co-pilot Jim Bissell on the Gulfstream, while pilot Chuck Malone and co-pilot Bob Wall handled the controls of the King Air.

Stewardesses were Peggy Meacham, Hyey Engel, Jane Berky, Ann Roberts, and Jo Heob; Dona Whitney was the dispatcher.

Hycy Engel Hill recalled in the great book Remembering Walt that: "I was hired as flight attendant for the Disney plane in March 1965. I met Walt when we flew to New York to pick him up and bring him back to California. About ten or fifteen minutes before we expected him to board the plane, I heard somebody come bounding up the steps of the airplane into the cabin. It was Walt. He stuck out his hand to me and gave me a robust 'Hi! I'm Walt Disney' and we shook hands. Now think about it: There I was working on his airplane; he had every right to assume that I knew who he was."

It was pilot Kelvin Bailey, a reserve marine officer, who explained to Walt with such enthusiasm his work in getting toys together for unfortunate kids at Christmas time that it convinced Walt to become involved with Toys for Tots. The program was in its 17th year in 1965 when Walt supplied artwork and did a public service spot for the charity and began the Disney Company's long association with Toys for Tots.

Walt had his own seat on the Gulfstream, with an altimeter and air speed indicator on the wall next to the seat, and a telephone direct to the pilot. Walt used the planes for checking out the available acreage in Florida for a theme park. After construction began, it ferried Disney executives back and forth, and was later used for promotional tours for new Disney movies and for theme park promotions. It was nicknamed "The Mouse." Walt contributed to the plane's interior design, and his wife, Lillian, assisted in selecting materials and colors.

"Walt wanted to fly so bad," pilot Chuck Malone recalled.

Although Walt never acquired a pilot's license, he often took over the plane's controls. Chuck felt confident that if he had been incapacitated, Walt could have successfully gotten the plane back on the ground.

But the Disney Company's insurance brokers took a dim view of Walt sitting up front. Especially since Walt always liked to fly as low as possible to study the landscape.

"The co-pilot's seat is the best seat in the airplane," Walt protested. "If they don't like it, I'll get myself another insurance company." That effectively ended the discussion.

Walt became a strong advocate of business aviation, Chuck said, seeking to demonstrate to people in the Company how useful the plane could be. "Walt often invited eight or 10 employees who could benefit from use of the plane to bring box lunches on board," he said. "We'd leave Burbank and fly to Santa Barbara, then turn southward and head for Tijuana, and circle back to Burbank. Then the passengers could say they had flown to Mexico and back for lunch."

Walt used a similar strategy to convince his brother, Roy, that the plane was an efficient tool for the company, not merely a frill for the executives. Walt planned a trip to redwood country of Northern California and to Sun Valley, Idaho for himself and Lilly, Roy and his wife, Edna. Roy was an uneasy passenger at first, but Walt talked him into taking over the role of navigator. Roy, who had served as a navigator in the Navy in World War I, took over the task with enthusiasm and, by the end of the flight, he had become a strong supporter of the company plane.

In the book, Walt Disney: An American Original, Bob Thomas wrote: "Walt took delight in planning each trip, plotting the itinerary on maps in his office over his evening Scotch. When passengers arrived at the plane's home base at Lockheed Airport, he loaded their luggage aboard. During the flight, he served the drinks and supervised the galley. For years, Walt had yearned to pilot a plane, and on occasion, the company pilot, Chuck Malone, allowed Walt to take over the controls. Walt insisted that Ron Miller and Bob Brown learn how to land the plane in case of emergency when they were flying with their families. After Chuck Malone became ill while piloting the plane alone, Walt established the rule that two pilots would be required during all flights."

In an interview with Lillian Disney that I have in my files from the 1980s, she commented, "[Walt's] mind was never inactive. I can remember one time when he was so interested in airplanes. We used to go to the airport and stand and watch planes land. Our first plane was a little one. We had one pilot. Walt said he wanted all his sons-in-law and everybody to learn to fly that plane. But after he had been up in it two or three times, he said, 'I don't want you to touch it. That's a business all its own. Keep away from it. We'll get pilots to fly that plane.'"

Lillian was not as comfortable with flying as Walt. Lillian, who unlike Walt hesitated taking any risks, disapproved strongly of Walt wanting to fly the plane. However, he often took over the controls for short periods of time on long cross-country flights that irritated Lillian. One time, Walt was in the forward cabin and pilot Jim Stevenson let him have the microphone. Walt announced: "This is your captain speaking." Lillian bolted from her seat and was rushing toward the cabin when Walt boomed over the mic: "No, not the captain. This is the commander in chief of the whole damned outfit!"

Chuck Malone eventually retired to his comfortable hanger at the Camarillo Airport where he cared lovingly for his very own twin-engined Beechcraft. His hanger space was rigged up as a shrine to the early days of The Mouse with numerous photos of Walt and his flight guests.

What brought an end to Walt's corporate plane? Disney Archivist Dave Smith was kind enough to share this personal anecdote about flying on The Mouse: "I remember going on trips to Florida, where it took seven hours to fly in The Mouse; you could do it two hours shorter in a commercial airliner. On return flights, with headwinds, they sometimes had to stop to refuel, even though it had long-range fuel capability for transcontinental travel."

The world got smaller and faster if not necessarily better, and the ever-growing Disney entertainment empire could no longer accommodate a once-innovative method of corporate traveling.

One final story for any of you, like me, who might have yearned to fly with Walt. It is a cautionary tale why we might not have been allowed to do so. Research Consultant Harrison "Buzz" Price tells this story in the book Remembering Walt that should be in the library of any true Walt fan: "I was on his airplane serving highballs. Walt looked at me with his eyebrow up and said, 'You're too fat to fly on my airplane!' I was 210 pounds, which was heavy for me. At midnight that night, we got to the hotel and Walt said, 'What I said to you on the plane—I meant it.' So I lost 36 pounds within 13 weeks. When I was a lean 170 pounds, he said, 'Buzz, you're getting positively handsome.'"