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Take to the skies with the no-longer-just-red Red Baron

What do you think of when you hear the term “Red Baron?” Is it the real-life, German-born flying ace Manfred von Richthofen who flew his red tri-plane during World War I? Or perhaps, like me, you think of Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s beloved beagle who would fantasize about being in battle with the former, his imaginary nemesis, while flying his doghouse, aka the “Sopwith Camel.” Then again if you’re hungry, you may just muster up the popular frozen pizza found in supermarket freezer sections.

These days — in our region at least — the term Red Baron more commonly refers to the aerial touring plane based and operating out of Woodbine, as well as Ocean City in season.

Look up in the sky today, and you may notice a shinier, not-just-red Red Baron giving a lift to folks of all ages, mostly those with a sense of nostalgia and — even more so — a sense of daring.

A newly refurbished Red Baron

Twenty-seven years had passed since the Red Baron’s last paint job, so Dave Dempsey, owner of Red Baron Air Tours, decided it was time to refurbish the aircraft, which he purchased in 2009.

“The red paint had gotten faded and it was hard to bring up a shine,” he says. “And because it sits outside in the sun, it starts to wear on the fabric.”

Ummmm … “fabric”?

“A very cool thing about this plane, when it was built way-back-when, the skeleton was made of wood and steel and covered with cotton like a T-shirt and painted,” he explains. “We don’t use cotton any more … (we use something) more durable.”

Dempsey and his crew spent over 1,000 hours over the last two years stripping the fabric off, removing the wings and going through every piece and rebuilding or replacing as needed.

A plane of a different color

Dale Gerhard / Staff Photographer

The main difference of the plane these days is the vibrant canary yellow that Dempsey, who began piloting planes in 1987, recently added to it — with red still being its primary hue.

Dave Dempsey is the owner/pilot of the Red Baron, a WWII era open cockpit biplane he operates as a tour plane out of the Woodbine and Ocean City airports. Dempsey can give tourist a birds-eye view of the South Jersey coast from Brigantine to Cape May. Thursday July 20, 2017. (Dale Gerhard / Press of Atlantic City)

“I used to vacation in the Keys in the winter, and there was another WACO down there that had a similar paint job but reversed — more yellow with a little red. It looked really sleek … very eye-catching,” he says of the yellow, red and black combination. “I thought (adding yellow) would draw more attention to it … it’s a great color scheme.”

Feelin’ good

Most riders fly the Red Baron for the thrill of the aerobatics or to have an unobstructed view of the coast from Cape May to Brigantine — maybe even catching a bird’s-eye glimpse of marine life like rays, sharks and dolphins in the process. Because the cockpit is open and air is circulating the entire time, Dempsey says riders feel less claustrophobic and less nauseous in a Red Baron over a commercial plane. Physical wellness aside, Dempsey claims that both he and his guests — many of whom have a Red Baron ride on their bucket list — feel good emotionally.

“That whole operation (the Red Baron) is not a big revenue driver — it’s a lot of work, and not much return. But if I heard this once, I’ve heard it a million times — people get out of the airplane saying ‘that was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.’

“Not only do I really enjoy flying that airplane — it’s a treat — but when you get to hear someone verbalize about the great experience, it’s personally satisfying. It’s not so much about the revenue, it’s about sharing the experience and seeing the smiles on people’s faces.”

Love is in the air

 Anyone with an affection for antique aircraft has to be a bit of a romantic at heart. And that’s certainly true of Dempsey, who proposed to his now-wife Nadine mid-flight.

“I took her up and did aerobatics so that she wouldn’t be thinking straight,” Dempsey laughs. “Over Sea Isle, I had two banner planes fly by us. The first one had an inside joke: ‘Whatsamattau — me? We’ve gat a problem!’ — which caused her some suspicion.”

When she hadn’t noticed the second banner, which had the actual proposal written on it — “Love me forever! Marry Me? ‘Heart’ Dave” — Dempsey told her to look to the right. But instead of gazing straight out to where the banner plane was, she peered down.

“I said, no! Look up!” Dempsey recalls. “She looked up. But didn’t say anything. She was silent.

“The other pilot came on the speaker and asked, ‘What’d she say?’”

“She yelled, ‘Yes!’”

The ride of my life

It is a well-known fact among my family, friends and co-workers that I have a fear of flying. That said, it was I who pitched this story idea. Go figure.

But when I climbed up into that WACO in heels, I wasn’t a bit apprehensive. I was just excited. And knowing that I would be outfitted with a cute little aviator cap, I deliberately wore my aviator sunglasses to complete the look. I was ready for takeoff.

My boyfriend came with me for two reasons: 1) he’s flown planes before and thought it would be super cool (side note No. 1: it was), and 2) to hold my hand (side note No. 2: I squeezed the life out of it).

We were in the air before I knew it, flying over marshland and heading toward the shore. I initially thought having no roof over my head might freak me out, but it was actually pretty neat. We hit the northern tip of Sea Isle and turned left toward Ocean City, so I texted my aunt from the air so she could keep an eye out for us from the beach.

Looking out at the ocean from that vantage point was nothing short of entrancing. It was so blue and so calm. The usual raucousness heard on the beach was nonexistent from the sky. Floating in the air up and down the coast was a delightful, peaceful ride.

And then we went barnstorming.

Now over wooded areas staring down at treetops, in the distance I spied a teensy red dot. As we approached it, a building came into view. A barn. Leading up to that barn was a runway. Our pilot Dave Dempsey told us what he planned to do all along, so this stunt wasn’t exactly a surprise. But as we dove toward the ground and made a speedy beeline straight at the little red barn, it was disconcerting to say the least. I kept thinking, “OK, we’ll be going up now … we’ll go up now … now is when we’ll go up. Now, now, NOW?”

“Now” didn’t happen until the last millisecond, causing my boyfriend to lose circulation in his hand — not from the sudden incline, but from my iron-claw grip.

Once back on land, I admit, I felt a bit queasy. It’s not that the flight isn’t smooth — it really is. But the plane does vibrate and, well, what can I say? I’m a delicate flower.

Nevertheless, the Red Baron flight was thrilling, exhilarating — and, OK, a little scary — but only in a supremely roller-coaster/thrill-ride sort of way.

It was the ride of my life.

FAST FACTS:

• Dave Dempsey purchased the Red Baron, a WACO UPF-7 bi-plane, from an Air Force flight instructor in 2009.

• More than 600 WACOs were originally produced between the early 1920s and mid- to late-1940s. Dempsey’s plane was built in Ohio in 1940. Today there are less than 100 flying.

• WACO planes were used mostly for personal use, as well as for the Civilian Pilot Training Program.

• Dempsey’s Red Baron has “lived” in Ohio, Indiana, Connecticut, Texas and was even used as a banner plane in New Jersey in the late 1950s to early 1960s — long before Dempsey purchased it.

• The original Continental 220 horsepower engine was replaced in 1999 with a Jacobs 275 horsepower engine, which makes it about one of only 10 WACOs with 275 horsepower today.

• The two most popular fabrics used today are Ceconite and Stits. Dempsey explains that, “The fabric becomes the skin that keeps everything smooth. If it didn’t have fabric, there’d be nothing to create the airflow and generate lift.”

• The customer chooses the direction, as long as it’s within 25 miles from the airport — FAA regulations — and within the time frame, anywhere from 20 minutes to 1 hour, with 30 minutes being the most common ride time.