Friday, December 03, 2010 | Posted by: Fiona Cullinan
Categories: Personal | Tags: HNWIs, HNWI, Bespoke, magazine, Bespoke magazine, hobbies, aircraft, flying, Tony Bianchi, aviation, planes, vintage, classic, Spitfires, flight, restoration
Meet Tony Bianchi, a man who has spent a lifetime building, restoring and flying planes of all eras. Our third feature on unusual hobbies checks out an original flying ace …
On a piercingly blue day, you can walk across the airfield of Bianchi Aviation at Booker, near Marlow in Buckinghamshire, and gaze in astonishment at what’s rolling out of the hangar.
A khaki-coloured Sopwith Camel, a World War I biplane introduced on the Western Front in 1917 that looks impossibly flimsy, but it carried a powerful engine and fired twin machine guns. Then a Spitfire, a single-seater fighter and an even tinier thing, really, to be such a swooping warbird and to have won the Battle of Britain.
Even now, you sense these planes – each with a history we can’t know – long to be in the air. And even if they were battered or rotting when they got here, Tony Bianchi is the man who can take them there.
From hangar rat to pilot
Suave as any Brylcreem Boy, Bianchi, 64, has engine oil in his blood. His father, Douglas, spent the war in the Air Transport Auxiliary, ferrying bombers to the squadrons. After the war he set up Personal Plane Services, buying, refurbishing and selling aircraft.
“I remember, as a five- or six-year-old, grubbing around as a hangar rat,” grins Bianchi. “Dad specialised in Spitfires, as we still do, but he was fascinated by anything unusual. He had the Percival Mew Gull in which Alex Henshaw broke the London-Cape Town record in 1939. It had been hidden in a barn in France until my father bought it – and he raced it until 1955.’
In the 1950s, the company began servicing and operating privately owned aircraft. Tony joined in September 1961, at 16. “I’d planned to be an artist, but I just got seduced.”
Hollywood’s call for flying machines
Then, in 1962, Twentieth Century Fox approached Doug Bianchi to build and operate aircraft for films, starting with Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines.
“All day I was helping construct accurate replicas – pre-World War I period, 1910, biplanes and funny old monoplanes. It was incredible.”
Bianchi Aviation Film Services was formed, and to date has worked on something like 150 productions, from film to TV and commercials, doing everything from sourcing aircraft to camera mounts and stunt work.
“All from the seed of that first venture, then The Blue Max, then Aces High. I was chief pilot on that and designed all the planes.”
Hang on. You flew on Aces High – 1976, Malcolm McDowell and Peter Firth, infamous for its aerial dogfight scenes? Off-hand shrug. “Mmm, my flying brought us a good bit of work, in that I went from being a basic pilot to flying on films, where I got the bug for aerobatic flying. Flew for 20 years on the British Aerobatic Team at world championship level.” Ah. “Taught aerobatic flying for quite a while, too.”
Meanwhile, the company still supplies planes for collectors and gets vintage craft back into the air. That includes rare De Havilland Mosquitos and a Sunderland Flying Boat originally owned by publishing magnate Edward Hulton, then by Hollywood actress Maureen O’Hara.
But of them all, the Spitfires are the stars. Partly, that’s because of the people who flew them. But what else is it about a Spitfire?
“Oh…” As if not interested. “Well, it was such a clever design. From an engineer’s point of view, it’s easy to repair – an idiot in the middle of the desert can keep it flying, which is what you want.
“And then, a lot of fighters are intimidating to fly, but a Spitfire is friendly, almost intuitive. Everything in the cockpit falls to hand, it’s a delight.”
We nod and frown, not partial in any way. “That’s it, really. Just a number of wonderful elements.”
Personal Plane Services also sources unique aircraft for private clients and museums and offers airshow and aerobatic training.
Feature: © Glyn Brown. Image: © James Pfaff.This article appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Bespoke magazine, which you can either download as a PDF or receive in print format. Here’s how you can sign up to receive future editions of Bespoke.
You might also find these posts useful: