October 15, 2011
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.

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."

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