Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Penny Deuble was dubious. Her son JT, 33 and confined to a wheelchair, could not stand for more than a few moments. Certainly he could not climb into the small passenger seat of a biplane, raised high above the ground. But on that day in September, Dewey Davenport promised her that JT was going to fly.
Volume matters to Davenport, the 40-year-old owner of Goodfolk & O'Tymes Biplane Rides, based in Xenia, Ohio. Working airstrips and festivals, he keeps his craft running to avoid downtime between customers who pay for 15-minute rides. But when he met the Deubles at an event at the Ernie Hall Aviation Museum, in Warren, Ohio, Davenport shut off the plane. Instructing JT to grasp a support beneath one of its upper wings, he took hold of the young man's legs and, with a helper, maneuvered him a little bit at a time up and into the seat. The operation took more than 20 minutes. Strapped in, goggles on, JT remained blissfully aloft for half an hour.
"My son has been fascinated with planes since he was a child, but he'd never been in one," says Deuble. "I had never thought he would be able to. When they got him in that seat, I started to cry. JT hasn't stopped smiling about it since."
Davenport is among the last of the barnstormers, pilots who toured this country starting in the 1920s and '30s, performing stunts and giving rides in small towns and rural areas. (He believes he is the sole working African-American barnstormer.) It's a tradition unfamiliar to many--even here in Ohio, the official birthplace of aviation and home to the Wright Brothers. Davenport recalls appearing at an air show in Youngstown where the USAF Thunderbirds were performing. When he entered the pilots' lounge dressed in full barnstorming regalia--hat, tie, button-down shirt, and baggy pants--the military pilots and air-show workers present asked what he was supposed to be.
"I explained to them, 'A barnstormer is who made you what you are today,'" says Davenport. "Barnstormers made the aviation world."
Davenport wants to rekindle the excitement and romance of early flight in a population rendered blasé and even hostile by commercial air travel. He and Ace, his two-passenger 1929 Curtiss-Wright Travel Air 4000, typically draw long lines wherever they go. "Ace has got a personality," says Davenport. "He says, 'Come on and jump in, because you are going to have fun.'"
Others wax less anthropomorphic. "It's the appeal of a restored historic plane and the magic of an open cockpit," says Becky Caldwell, executive director of the Virginia Highlands Festival, an arts and culture event where Davenport has appeared the past two years. "To be up there and to see everything with your own eyes--not through that thick glass of an airplane window--you can reach out and touch the clouds. It's stunning."
Caldwell says Goodfolk & O'Tymes will be back for this summer's festival, in the small community of Abingdon, Virginia. "I can't imagine not having him," says Caldwell. "I think people would wonder what was wrong with us if we didn't have a plane flying over town every 15 minutes."
From parachutists to a president
Growing up in the small farming community of Jamestown, Ohio, Davenport couldn't even ride in a small plane. He started building models--the plastic and rubber-band varieties--at age 7, and by 11 was racing radio-controlled aircraft. But "my parents were afraid of small airplanes. My dad didn't think they were safe," says Davenport. He had two similarly flight-obsessed friends "and they were flying and I didn't get to, which was heartbreaking."
But his parents encouraged him in other ways. Davenport's father, a pipefitter, built his son a workshop in the garage, where Davenport often stayed up all night assembling models. An indifferent student, he benefited from indulgent teachers who let him turn almost every assignment into something plane-related. As a teenager, Davenport walked to local schools where he encouraged students to get involved with modeling. "The people who fly model airplanes are good ones to be around," he says. "They teach good values."
When Davenport turned 18, his parents accepted the inevitable and sent him to a local flight school. Commercial pilot license in hand, he badgered the owner of Skydive Greene County, among the oldest civilian skydiving outfits in the country, for a job. It was there that his barnstorming career began. Davenport traveled all over North America to fly planes at skydiving events and parties, as well as for the Navy SEALS, who were training in Tucson. Davenport reckons during those years he flew hundreds of thousands of civilian skydivers. "You do a lot of repetitions in a day: getting the skydivers up fast and then bringing the plane down fast," he says. "You're like an elevator."
The skydiving years fattened Davenport's résumé with experience as the "pilot in command" of bigger, multiengine planes. That helped him land a job, in 2000, flying cargo for USA Jet Airlines in Detroit. He also flew passengers: most notably Barack Obama, who was headed from the Iowa caucuses to New Hampshire during the 2008 campaign. "There were 20 Secret Service agents and 50-plus news media, and they were doing standup interviews during the flight," says Davenport. "I wish I would have taken a picture with him."
Davenport's next stop was NetJets, a Berkshire Hathaway company that sells fractional ownership in private planes. (Asked about NetJets' elite clientele, Davenport is respectful of their privacy. "I've flown very high-caliber athletes, movie stars, producers" is all he'll say.) "I thought I would retire there," says Davenport. Then down slammed the recession. So in 2009, he accepted a job with a military contractor, which took him to Afghanistan and Iraq. In January 2014, a friend who was a civilian contractor, along with two American servicemen, died in a plane crash in Afghanistan. Davenport escorted the bodies back to the United States. After that, "I said, 'I can't do this anymore,'" says Davenport.
Davenport--who had always dreamed of starting a business like Goodfolk & O'Tymes--had begun shopping for a biplane in 2009. But antique airplanes for sale are rare; ones that fly are rarer still. In 2010, before leaving for the Middle East, Davenport acquired a piece of property in southwest Ohio, near where he grew up, and built a grass runway and a hangar. (Goodfolk & O'Tymes is 26 miles from where the Wright Brothers constructed the first test-flight facility, on a site now occupied by Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.) In 2013, he bought the Travel Air for $100,000 from a ride operator in Iowa, who was aging out of the game.
Painted in orange and white in tribute to the Flying Aces, a Depression-era circus, Ace evokes nostalgia for a time when technology still felt magical. You can imagine it taxiing across the lawn of Jay Gatsby's mansion, a champagne-tippling flapper balanced on each wing. "When you ride in a plane like that, you feel like you are going back in time," says Kate Tiffany, a history teacher who helps Davenport in the summers.
Davenport appreciates his craft's whimsy, but loves it as a workhorse. "One reason I picked this airplane is that it's not a museum piece," he says. "It's used to flying hard all day." (The man he bought it from taught Davenport how to maintain and repair the plane. He now has a mechanic that does it.) Davenport says that Ace was originally owned by Andy Stinis, the official skywriter for Pepsi in the 1930s. Later it was a crop-duster, and then one of a handful of Travel Airs giving rides.
The name Goodfolk & O'Tymes was suggested to Davenport by a friend who is the son of Richard Bach, the Jonathan Livingston Seagull author who was himself a barnstormer. "The idea is to call the pilots Mr. Goodfolk and Mr. O'Tymes," says Davenport--although the company to date has just one pilot. "When I go to events, I dress up as Mr. Goodfolk."
A 30-minute excursion for two passengers taking off from Goodfolk & O'Tymes' headquarters costs $280. But Davenport earns roughly 80 percent of revenue from barnstorming trips, during which he charges $75 to $90 per passenger for 15-minute rides. He will set up at airfields and plant signs along the road: "Biplane Rides: Turn Right." He also flies Ace to air shows, festivals, and other events in places like Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Event organizers typically cover fuel expenses and may also pay an appearance fee. "I do really well with the hot-air balloon festivals, because they aren't flying if it's windy," says Davenport. "I can go in and do a lot of rides."
Between flights, Davenport sits in the cockpit of the running craft while his "Scooters"--friends like Tiffany who travel to events with him--process credit cards, have passengers sign waivers, and strap them into their seats. "Some kids are a little afraid, but I talk them out of it," says Tiffany, who wears a flight suit and leather cap on those occasions. "Dewey made a coloring book [about Ace], and I will pull that out and we'll look at the pictures."
Tiffany and Davenport's other helpers are volunteers; he has no paid employees. "Scooters," he explains, are named for the little boy who carries the gas can for Robert Redford's barnstorming character in the 1975 movie The Great Waldo Pepper. "At the end of the day, Scooter gets a free ride," says Davenport. "I buy my Scooters dinner."
Goodfolk and O'Tymes is profitable, says Davenport, but not vastly so. It costs him about $150 an hour in fuel and maintenance to operate the plane. On a busy weekend, he brings in almost $500 an hour. "But if I fly three hours to an event and it rains and I've done $1,500 in two days, then I am in the hole," he says. "So you pray for great weather. That's how barnstormers lived." (Davenport still flies for NetJets, for the insurance coverage.)
Of course, no one starts a biplane-ride business to get rich. Davenport loves two things: planes and people. With Goodfolk & O'Tymes, he can indulge his passion for both. Wherever he travels, Davenport--invariably natty in his barnstorming attire--wanders into town, eats at the local coffee shop, and shakes hands. "I tell people, 'Come on out and meet Ace,'" he says. He especially likes flying little kids and veterans. "I did a Wounded Warriors weekend and flew a guy who was in D-Day," says Davenport. "He had his grandson with him."
Davenport says he dreamed of a business like this when he was a little boy, building models. Having achieved that dream, he is supremely happy. "l live free, like a bird," says Davenport. "The wind blows. I fly. That's my whole business plan."