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Pilot offers W.Va. views higher than the mountains

Lawrence Pierce
Pilot Chris Kappler wants to show people his timeless and peaceful view of West Virginia.
Lawrence Pierce Wild Blue Adventure Co. now has two planes: a vintage, two-person biplane and a fully restored Cessna 170.
Lawrence Pierce A spectacular view of the New River Gorge Bridge is among the many sights Wild Blue Adventure Co. can show passengers.
Lawrence Pierce Kappler said flights aboard the Cessna 170 are supposed to be peaceful and serene, a contrast to the thrill ride of his two-seat biplane.

FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. -- Pilot Chris Kappler doesn't just take people up in the air in one of his vintage airplanes. He takes them for a spin in a time machine.

Wearing a crisp, white T-shirt underneath tan coveralls and sporting a classic 1940s modified military haircut, Kappler looks like he stepped out of an old movie newsreel. Seeing him stand next to his polished-to-a-mirror-shine 1948 Cessna 170 on a bright autumn morning when the grass was green and his airplane was shining, you'd swear you'd stepped inside the newsreel.

Smiling, Kappler acknowledged there's a point to all of that.

He said, "There is a certain Americana appeal to what we're doing here. I think we're highlighting the history of West Virginia and American history."

For the past three years, Kappler, originally from California, and his wife have run Wild Blue Adventure Co., a company at the Fayetteville airstrip that offers aerobatic and scenic rides in their brightly painted Stearman biplane.

The airstrip is the former home to Frank Thomas, the infamous "Five Dollar Frank," a colorful local pilot who gave sightseeing trips for years in an increasingly dilapidated Cessna 172. Frank charged five bucks per passenger.

"Yeah, we've heard all about him," Kappler said and grinned.

Since its creation, Wild Blue Adventure Co. has been a largely seasonal business for the Kapplers. Through the warmer months, Kappler has taken people up for aerial thrills and a bird's-eye tour of the New River Gorge. The blue and yellow aircraft is suited to warm temperatures and good weather, but not so much for rain, snow and cold.

"We don't get by on this," Kappler said. "We've got other jobs. I'm a pilot for HealthSouth, and my wife is an anesthetist."

But what he does with Wild Blue Adventure, he said, is the job of a lifetime.

"It's not what we expected," he said. "I expected more out-of-state tourists, but we've found we get a lot of people from inside the state."

They stop on their way along U.S. Route 19. They could see the biplane from the road. People would turn off and come see the plane. They'd bring their kids, and that has led to some awkward and occasionally heartrending moments.

The Kapplers charge $135 for a trip aboard the open-air biplane, but there are only two seats and one of them belongs to the pilot.

"It was awful," he said. "We'd have a family come up, all excited about taking a flight."

And then they'd hear the price -- $135 for one ticket to ride. Even as a treat, $135 times three or four is too much for most budgets to absorb.

Kappler said, "You'd have a 9-year-old boy with a broken heart just bawling his eyes out because they couldn't do that."

Watching disappointed families turn away over a ticket price was especially difficult for the Kapplers. They have children of their own -- six of them. Adding another service geared toward families just made sense, though Kappler pointed out it wasn't really about the money because they both have other jobs.

"You don't get rich flying these kind of planes," Kappler said.

Keeping with the rarefied feel of the air they travel in, the Kapplers purchased a restored Cessna 170 from a seller in California.

"It's kind of funny," Kappler said. "We looked at the manifest. The plane was originally housed in Bluefield. It was serviced at the Beckley airport."

Kappler and a friend flew the Cessna from California and across Texas before turning north in the Deep South to bring the plane home.

"With the biplane, I want to make people feel like they're Chuck Yeager, but with the Cessna, it's different. The trip is supposed to be relaxed, serene."

The Cessna 170 seats three plus the pilot, and while it's not the same kind of ride that the Stearman is, it is undeniably cool. The interior has been lovingly restored all the way down to the backseat ashtrays, which are only for show.

As a nod to the discrete use of modern technology, the plane is equipped with Bose headsets, which muffle the loud drone of the propeller and make conversation more polite than a shouting match.

Riding in the small, four-seat plane is like traveling by soap bubble. The tiny aircraft buoyed by winds cruises over the landscape, casting a tiny shadow on the treetops below.

"The plane was completely restored," Kappler added. "Old planes like Frank's, the glass got scratched and aged. It kind of looks dusty. This one has all-new glass. You can see everything."

The view is spectacular.

"This is my view of West Virginia," he said.

At a distance, with some of the details out of focus, it's easy to imagine Fayetteville and Oak Hill as they might have been 20 or 30 years ago. A couple of thousand feet up, it looks like nothing has changed, though there's plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Along the way, Kappler points out little items of interest: a school, the Ace Adventure Resort in Oak Hill and the Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve.

"You have to see the Summit from here," he said. "There's just more to it than you imagine."

From the sky, the Scouts' reserve is a huge swatch of brown, but Kappler can imagine what it will be.

"It's going to change so many things around here."

And he wants to be a part of it. Kappler pointed out that the aviation merit badge was one of the first 57 badges introduced by the Boy Scouts.

"We'd like to sponsor that badge," Kappler said.

Trips in the Cessna are priced more modestly than what Wild Blue Adventure Co. charges for the biplane: $49 for children, $79 for adults.

"It's just a nice experience you can share," he said.

Plus, while the biplane is seasonal and limited to warm weather, the Cessna is not.

"Imagine seeing these hills when they're covered with new snow," Kappler suggested. "It's amazing."

For more information about Wild Blue Adventure Co., visit wildblueadventurecompany.com.

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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