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Preston Aviation Joy riding in the sky

Haven Sun Local, January 2017

Preston Aviation left reporter with loss of words

When handed an assignment, writers sometimes say “Oh no, not that!” Not this kid and not this time. The assign- ment was this: go to the airport, climb in a plane that’s older than you are and tell the world about it and about the people who made it possible.

It was amazing, it was definitely a bucket list item. And boy-o-boy would I do it again.

And all because of Preston Aviation. That sounds kind of formal, but Peggy and Tim Preston are far from that. They are down to earth, which is saying something since their business is flying. And they do everything they can to make your joy ride in an open-cockpit, World War II bi-plane an experience to remember.

Boy, was it. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

First of all, let me tell you about the Prestons. They hang out at the Winter Haven Municipal Airport which is home to their planes – a 1941 Boeing Stearman biplane and a 1946 Piper Cub. The two vintage aircraft were used by the military as trainers, so are easy-peasy to fly, ac- cording to Tim.

Since I only rode in the Stearman, I can’t talk about the Piper, even if it is bright yellow and looks pretty nifty sit- ting on the apron. (Get that lingo, and I was only there for an hour and a half)

The Stearman was a Navy plane and taught a gazillion Navy pilots how to fly during the early days of World War II, says Tim. How did it survive the last 75 years?

“They made a lot of them,” Tim says. “And they were easy to operate and easy to maintain.”

He adds the engine is simple and its body, er, fuselage, is covered in cloth that has been painted which makes it mostly air-tight.

Tim and Peggy have been in Polk County for about seven years and he’s flown these old planes for more than 20. And, while I’m going for a joy-ride, like lots of folks do, they say their bread and butter is training already-licensed pilots to fly these antiquated machines. Peggy says she’s “just the ground crew.”

Of course, those joy rides also help pay the freight too. And they don’t cost a whole lot. For $100 you can fly around Winter Haven and Central Polk for about 15 minutes or so. And for another $85, you can double that time. It’s worth every single solitary penny, believe me.

Tim, 60-ish, with a weathered face covered with laugh lines, is just the kind of guy anyone would want to “slip the surly bonds of earth” with. He’s laid-back and lets you know he’s comfortable doing what he does. So out to the plane we go.

Bright blue and almost neon yellow, there it sits. Four wings — or so it looks. Big engine, tiny wheels, no walls, no doors. Just an open spot with a small windscreen in front.

“Climb up and stay on the black,” says Peggy, adding the rest of the plane is canvas. The climb was easy even for me who made the mistake of wearing a boot with a three- inch heel. Step into the cockpit, keep your legs away from the stick.

“Don’t put your feet on the pedals,” she says. “Those are Tim’s.” Tim’s in the back. Seems like he should be where he could see, but he says, “No, I can see just fine and I know where we’re going.”

I put on a canvas helmet with ear muffs and am told to hold the mike that’s attached close to my mouth or he won’t be able to hear me. I certainly want him to hear me if I start screaming as we plummet to the earth. He laughs at that and ask me if I’m ready.

“It’s sort of like riding a motorcycle in the sky,” he says. “The wind won’t be a problem unless you reach outside the wind screen, then you’ll really feel it.”

I’m trying to be Joe Cool with my lime green shades and Amelia Earhart helmet on when he cranks her up. Planes are like ships, they are always her’s ... sort of loud, but I think my neighbor’s Harley is louder. And we’re off … not up yet, just off down the runway.

Radio check. I can hear Tim and he can hear me. I’m messing with my camera, trying to take it all in. Shazam, we ‘re in the air! There’s a moment when I’m uneasy, when the plane bumps a couple times. But, from behind me and right in my ears, Tim is telling me what I should be seeing on the ground below and around me. I didn’t know there were so many lakes in Winter Haven. They go on and on … from a thousand feet in the air, on and on ...

I’m a wordsmith and have been for many, many years, but I have to say, I was at a loss.

I’ve flown in small planes before, flown in a mosquito helicopter and done the jet set thing as well. Nothing compares to this. The slight wind in my face, the sound of the wind rushing by, seeing the truth to the phrase from an old song “on a clear day you can see forever.” I could.

Tim said that on a really clear day, you can see Orlando or Tampa, depending on which way you’re going. We’re going across the downtown, over to Cypress Gardens Boulevard, over Legoland and around ...

It’s hard to grasp the feeling and still pay attention and take pictures. I have to say it was really hard to do. Not the physical part, the mental part. I was so lost in the ride. In the feeling. In the joy of it. I really know now what a joy ride is all about. I was doing it. I was joy-riding.

Tim banks to the left and makes a lazy circle back toward the airport. On the way back, I can see the Bartow Municipal Airport and almost see where my house is. Then, I lose track because its time to land.

Tim comes over the radio, “I’m going to land on the grass,” he says. And before I can ask why, he adds, “This plane was made to take off and land on grass.”

Anticipating a bumpy landing, I braced myself by holding on for dear life. Didn’t have to. Tim guided the Stearman in sweetly and softly, and slowly rolled up to the pavement and, before I knew it, it was over. It was over. Too soon. Too fast.

If you want to do what I did, or learn how to fly an antiquated but absolutely amazing plane or two, call the Prestons. Their number is 863-956-2526. Or walk in, they’re just inside the terminal building on the left.

If you are lucky, maybe you’ll get the feeling too. Joy. Just plain, unadulterated, heavenly joy.



It’s more than just an image problem

It's More than just an image.Imagine that you and your significant other go shopping in a pricey store that’s known for its exclusive clientèle. Think Rodeo Drive, maybe. Walking through the door is a little exciting, if not slightly intimidating, but you make it past security and find yourself on the inside. It isn’t long before you realize that you’re out of your element, but not so far out that you can’t get by without bringing undue attention to yourself. So you persevere. You hang in there, trying on a high-end suit or two, gawking at the jewelry that cost more than your house, and you find yourself seriously considering signing up for a store account because it all looks so alluring and exciting.

Then you notice the door you came in through. It comes to your attention that seven, maybe even eight, of the customers who are leaving are dissatisfied. Most of them weren’t able to purchase what they came in for – but their wallets are a bit lighter nonetheless. There is grumbling, discontent, and a clear consensus that the service they were offered was nowhere near what they were expecting – especially for these prices.

Welcome to the wonderful world of General Aviation. That’s exactly how the public at large see us – as opportunistic, less than professional hobbyists who take our customers for a ride – both literally and figuratively.

No business that allows 70–80% of its customers to leave feeling poorly served is going to thrive in the long run. We are that business. Admittedly we bristle at the accusation, but if the shoe fits…

I experienced the slimy underside of GA myself when I first began taking lessons more than two decades ago. I’ve personally witnessed, and paid for, lousy instruction from unprofessional and somewhat unscrupulous instructors who worked for schools that turn a blind eye to the fact that their students are quitting more often than they’re achieving their goals. I stuck it out and eventually found success. Most of our customers don’t do that. They quit, and they’re not shy about telling their friends and neighbors why they quit. It’s not a pretty picture we’re painting. No it’s not.

This brings to mind my friend Tim Preston. Tim and his wife Peggy operate a Piper Cub and a Stearman from right here in central Florida. Like so many speciality businesses, they’ve moved around a bit, sometimes finding green pastures, and sometimes not. But through it all they have made a solid career out of providing excellent customer service, at a reasonable price, to customers who feel well served and speak well of them.

Saturday I watched Tim pre-flighting the Stearman while I was eating lunch on the porch of the airport restaurant. He was getting ready to fly with a woman who came all the way from Sweden to log some type specific time, and have an experience she would remember forever. Peggy took photos for posterity, the woman’s significant other did, too. Heck, the woman even went so far as to wear a video camera mounted to her head so that she could immortalize the experience of flying with Tim, in an open cockpit biplane, over the lush green landscape of Florida.

The sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that woman took away from her airport experience will make her a stalwart supporter of GA for all time. The same would be true for almost anyone who had a similar experience.

There’s a lesson in that for the rest of us. If we ramp up our level of service and increase our acceptance of honest professionalism — even while maintaining a sense of fun and unabashed enjoyment in our vocation and our avocation — we can swing a significant number of our customers and observers into the satisfied column, and do a great service to general aviation’s future in the process.

Or we can keep on doing what we’ve been doing for the past 20 or 30 years. Then again, that hasn’t been working out all that well for us, has it?

Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport. He is also a founding partner and regular contributor to You can reach him at


Boeing Stearman a colorful sight above Winter Haven, Fla

StearmanResidents of Polk County, Florida, often hear the throaty sound of a radial engine in the skies above. With eyes elevated they make out a blue and yellow biplane winging its way at several thousand feet. The aircraft is a 1941 Boeing PT-17 "Kaydet" maintained by Preston Aviation at Winter Haven Municipal Airport. The PT-17 is one of a gaggle of venerable warbirds that call the area home. Information about flying instruction or scenic rides in the classic aircraft is available by telephoning (863) 956-2526.
Being a particularly rugged and simple design, the Boeing Stearman Model 75 was quite suitable for teaching young World War II military aviators the rudiments of flying. The Preston Aviation example, a "PT-17" sporting U.S. Navy livery, utilizes a 7-cylinder Continental powerplant. Notably, these planes served the military air arms of many nations.

John Moreland
John Moreland
On Saturday, Apr 30th, Preston Aviation of Winter Haven, FL and SWT Aviation co-hosted a demo event for CubCrafters.

John Moreland, FL Sales Rep for SWT Aviation, spent a good part of Saturday giving flight demonstrations to interested prospects using Preston Aviation as a local base of operations in Winter Haven. John said, "It was really great that Tim & Peggy agreed to help us host this event. Tim is one of the pre-eminent tail wheel instructors in the region.

It is a natural fit for CubCrafters and Preston Aviation because some of his clients are interested in our airplanes and some of our prospects may feel they need his services as they transition to the SportCub or CarbonCub." Preston Aviation provides tail wheel instruction in the J-3 Cub and the Stearman.

Triangle News - August 2008
Triangle News - August 2008
Triangle News - August 2008
Triangle News - August 2008
Triangle News - August 2008
Triangle News - August 2008
Triangle News - August 2008



Fri, Dec 13, 2002

Guest Article: Timeless Stearman, Timeless Airman
By ANN Reader Dan Nickens

Preston Aviation, Fly TailwheelThe sleepy southern fields of December jumped to the staccato roar of seven unmuffled cylinders. The air reverberated and settled into a steady beat as the old airplane shook to life one more time. Inside the cockpit a dream decades in the making was being reaffirmed. The man and flying machine intersected again more than half a century after the dream was just a juvenile longing.

The seasoned pilot gazed over the long blue nose stuck between the two yellow wings of the Stearman biplane. The smell of the leather lined cockpit and the engine oil mixed sweetly just as he remembered. The same two eyes had been wide open staring at the big round engine in 1946. He was only thirteen then and his dream of taking to the air was realized for the first time.

For the boy growing up in a modest Norfolk (VA) neighborhood, the thought of flying was all-consuming. He read everything about flying he could get his hands on. He made model airplanes to simulate flight. He worshipped the flying heroes returning from winning a world war. His prospects for ever following their path into the air, however, seemed wildly hopeless.

Dad understood.

Preston Aviation, Fly TailwheelHis father understood the passion of the boy's dream. He prevailed upon a friend of his to take the boy for a flight in a surplus military trainer. There was, however, a technical problem: the friend was just a student pilot. Student pilots cannot carry passengers.

Seeing the boy's desire, the long-time student made an appointment with the Civil Aviation Administration (the FAA's predecessor) to ride with an inspector for his license. He flew to the appointed airport in a rented Boeing Stearman for the checkride. [Here he is, in 1946 --ed.] The boy joined him there in anticipation of being the newly minted pilot's first passenger.

The CAA inspector never arrived. There would be no new pilot to fly the boy. The boy was crestfallen.

For a kid, the rules got bent.

"Go ahead and get in," the student pilot directed, "but keep your head down until we get up. We don't want anyone to see you in here." He directed the boy's father to meet him at a muddy, unattended field to retrieve the illegal passenger.

The clandestine operation surely added to the boy's adrenaline level. Crouching down in the seat of the open cockpit he could barely contain himself. It was the biggest excitement of his thirteen-year life.

This time, it was legal.

Preston Aviation, Fly TailwheelThat same excitement seemed little reduced in the intervening fifty-six years. The now-seventy-year-old man was beaming as he advanced the throttle to move the Stearman onto the grass strip. For this trip, the flight was completely legal. There was an instructor riding in the front seat to administer another in a long string of flight reviews.

The boy that hid in the Stearman cockpit was now a senior aviator. In the half-century following his first ride, flying had been his life. He had wrangled his way into the Air Force, flown jet bombers during critical days of the cold war, been in a hot war in Vietnam, was nearly killed when his airplane was shot down in Albuquerque [!], served as an Air Force advisor to the Shah of Iran's air force, retired from the military to fly charter flights, then retired to fly a homebuilt experimental amphibious seaplane. By any measure, he had proven himself to be a consummate airman.

Long trail back to the Stearman:

Preston Aviation, Fly TailwheelAs a youngster, the boy entered the U. S. Air Force under a special program in the 1950s. As a cadet, he learned to fly in a slightly more-modern trainer, the T-6. He was then assigned to bombers and learned that trade by flying obsolete World War II B-25s. He graduated to fly a multi-engine jet bomber, the Boeing B-47 Stratojet for the Strategic Air Command.

Shortly before the demise of SAC, the Air Force captain transferred to transport aircraft and was shipped off to Vietnam. In Vietnam he flew dignitaries throughout Southeast Asia. He also flew commandos into mountain strips at night, guided only by flashlights the Special Forces troops arranged at the edge of the jungle.

About getting shot down in New Mexico:

After a year, he returned to the United States without taking any serious damage in the heat of combat. It was on a training flight out of Albuquerque (NM), however, that he came closest to dying in an airplane.

The dusk departure had the aviator flying as Instructor Pilot in a C-47 'Gooney Bird.' Shortly after liftoff, a flash fire developed in the right engine. With the crew unable to extinguish the fire or feather the prop on the stricken engine, the plane would not stay in the air. In a smoke-filled cockpit with zero visibility he set up the airplane for a controlled crash. Although the aircraft was destroyed both the instructor and his student escaped. It was later determined that a high -caliber bullet had pierced the engine, disabling all the critical components that led to the crash.

Iran was safer than Albuquerque.

The aviator also served time in the Middle East. He worked as a liaison officer with the Iranian Air Force. Before retiring as a Major and Command Pilot with five air medals, he returned to the U.S. and flew jet transports out of Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, DC.

Flying small jets for the Air Force led directly to a job with an aircraft charter company. The airman flew executive jet transports until the company he worked for went out of business.

Retirement was better, yet.

After some years out of aviation, the self-grounded pilot retired to Florida. Here he discovered the world of light, homebuilt aircraft. One in particular, a kit-built seaplane, caught his interest. He bought a Searey kit and built it.  He's been flying it for fun, on and off the water, for six years.

The FAA requires even someone of this airman's experience to pass a flight review every two years. Since the thrill of flying remains as strong as ever in the boy turned senior aviator, he scheduled the flight review shortly after his seventieth birthday.

Don't make it too easy, now...

Preston Aviation, Fly TailwheelInstead of taking a rubber stamp check ride in a plane he was familiar with, the persistent pilot chose to make it a challenge. He wanted to relive the experience of his first flight from the perspective of an accomplished pilot. He purposefully sought out Tim Preston, a Certified Flight Instructor, owner of Preston Aviation and one 1941 Stearman at X55, for his flight review.

Preston's Stearman was developed as a trainer, but it is no easy airplane to master. It was built when airmen flew in an open cockpit, with minimal instruments, behind two wings in an airplane that had little visibility for taxiing on the ground. Unlike modern trainers, it is a demanding taskmaster.

The biplane the pilot sat in was built in 1941. Dates stamped on the wings and ailerons showed that it started life as Pearl Harbor was being bombed. The date of the check ride coincided with the sixty-first anniversary of that attack.

It was impossible to tell that the airplane was that old. It was decked out in the sparkling blue and yellow colors specified by the Navy. It gleamed under the beckoning Florida sun. In the spirit of the craft, the pilot chose to wear a leather flight jacket and silk scarf. The cloth headset connected to a modern radio was one concession to the date on the calendar.

Preston Aviation, Fly TailwheelWatching the pre-flight ritual was a small cadre of spectators. One remembered the thirteen-year-old boy selling newspapers to raise money for flight time. Pauline Young, a lifelong companion, followed the aviator to Florida when he retired. She worked alongside him to build his little experimental seaplane. She was now present to commemorate the renewal of the man's lifelong dream.

In the space of a few hours, the government's requirements were ably met, to the instructor's satisfaction. The timeless flight concluded with the required signature in a book logging thousands of accumulated flight hours. One more time, Norman Frank Gracy, Major U.S.A.F. Retired, proved to himself and the world that he was born to fly.
[ANN Thanks Dan Nickens, "One of the Admiring Spectators," for his insight and enterprise --ed.]

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