Mark Grainger had his retirement plan all set up. After a life as an international commercial pilot for Delta, he was going to some day buy a historical biplane and run tours along the Space Coast in Florida.
Only one catch: Grainger couldn’t wait until retirement.
In 2010, he bought two WWII open-cockpit planes – two of only 80 biplanes still flying in the world – and he launched Florida Air Tours, easily one of the Space Coast’s most incredible attractions. (Just browse the long list of only five-star reviews the business has received.)
A view of the Kennedy Space Center, from above — Photo courtesy of Renu Gupta
Florida Air Tours takes off from Merritt Island and Port Canaveral seven days a week; it even offers special Christmas Eve and Thanksgiving tours (which many repeat customers secure as nontraditional family traditions).
Since Grainger still flies long-haul, international flights for Delta, he has hired one full-time pilot per aircraft, plus a list of on-call pilots, too. Turns out, it’s not hard to find pilots who want to take these smooth-sailing, historical birds out.
“These planes are so cool to fly; I have pilots knocking on my door every day, and I pick and choose just the most experienced guys,” Grainger says. “It’s not work. It’s fun. The pilot gets as much enjoyment as the passengers do.”
Grainger also says that he makes a point to exceed expectations – not that many travelers know what to expect on a biplane ride.
“There’s no pamphlet or video that can portray the feeling you get doing it,” he says.
Mark Grainger stands by his WWII biplane — Photo courtesy of Renu Gupta
Two passengers can fit in Florida Air Tours’ planes, and they can arrange a variety of tours from 20 minutes up and over different scenes.
Soar with the wind in your hair right above the NASA runway and space shuttle launchpad, and see Kennedy Space Center from a different perspective.
“It’s the Harley of the sky, like being up in the sky on a motorcycle,” Grainger says.
Glide over the beaches and look for sharks, stingrays, schools of fish and porpoises in the ocean. Then fly above Port Canaveral and gawk at the mega cruise ships.
Merritt Island, from the sky — Photo courtesy of Renu Gupta
Another favorite destination is above St. John’s River, with its meandering streams, alligators and airboats. The river looks much different from above, Grainger says, almost like the African Serengeti.
He also flies above Cocoa Beach, the Banana River, Merritt Island and all of the little inlets.
Grainger's two biplanes – UPF-7s built in 1940 and ‘41 – are the star of the show here, but you can also select a helicopter ride, if you’d prefer something in a fully enclosed, air conditioned space. (Although worth noting is that most passengers remark how smooth and graceful the planes fly.)
Looking for a rush? Request aerobatics. Grainger is happy to take passengers on loops upside down, if requested.
History buffs will appreciate the nostalgia of flying in a plane that actually fought in WWII.
The two UPF-7 biplanes fought in WWII — Photo courtesy of Renu Gupta
Before flying commercial, Grainger flew in the U.S. Air Force for seven years.
He has flown all around the world, but he says he thinks the Space Coast is one of the most beautiful stretches of land from above.
Sure, there are the expected landmarks, like the Grand Canyon and volcanos. But he says that there’s something unmatched about the wide variety of natural and manmade landmarks to see above Brevard County.
“I’ve flown lots of places, but this is right up there, as far as the world’s best sites and experience,” he says.
If you go out with Florida Air Tours, before you fly, you will go through a safety briefing. If you request upside-down maneuvers, you will have to wear a parachute and go through an additional aerobatics briefing.
Be sure to wear sunglasses or goggles on your trip if you wear contacts. The wind can irritate your eyes.
The various points of interest vary by tour package, beginning with a $39 tour and building to $230-plus, with add-ons like aerobatics, video, sunrise/sunset options and more.
The throttle of the 1940 biplane — Photo courtesy of Renu Gupta