Adventure in Flight: The Outdoor Channel Steps In After Discovery Breaks A Wing

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Pilots and other lovers of all things GA have been living in bleak TV times since Discovery Wings became the Military Channel. But aviation programming is coming back bigger and better-looking than ever. AVweb's Liz Swaine reports on ''Wings to Adventure.''

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Through my (hopefully not-quite-over) media career and my writing gigs with AVweb, I had the opportunity to meet and hang out with noted outdoorsman Tom Gresham. Gresham is an affable, self-deprecating fellow who lives in the small, north-Louisiana hamlet of Natchitoches. He is the son of Grits, of the mutton-chop sideburns and lengthy outdoor credentials that include ABC's "Wide World of Sports." Tom's lifelong love of aviation began in earnest in 1983, when he and his wife were living in Anchorage, Alaska, during his stint as editor of Alaska Magazine. He got his private pilot certificate at Merrill Field on New Year's Day, 1984, the morning after an alcohol-free and early-to-bed New Year's Eve 1983. Upon becoming legal, he promptly went out and purchased a 1947 Luscombe 8E and put 100 hours on the plane flying around central Alaska. But as is the case with so many pilots, life intruded and Tom put his flying on hold. Two children and 10 years later, Tom decided that flying was an itch that would not go away and he decided to scratch ... in a big way.

In a blur, he purchased and sold a 1959 Cessna 182, a turbo-normalized Bonanza E33A, an A36, a Baron, a twin Bonanza and another A36 turbo-normalized Bonanza. "I think Walter Beech really knew what he was doing," Tom says with a smile and a wink. He was back in business, flying like crazy whenever and wherever possible, going to aviation events, doing a little work for AVweb and talking with other pilots about flying.

Aviation Storytellers

Being a Southerner and an outdoorsman to boot, Tom can weave a good story and he enjoys hearing them, too. Pilots, Tom quickly realized, appreciated not only those good hangar stories, but also information on beautiful and unusual airplanes, interesting aviators and neat flying destinations. He took that knowledge to The Outdoor Channel (TOC), a small, upstart network considered a "barbarian at the gate" in the cable television industry. When the Temecula, Calif.-based network started, it was given no chance of surviving because it wasn't partnered with any of the big guys in the television or cable business. Liking nothing better than proving the nay-sayers wrong, The Outdoor Channel managed to not only survive but thrive with hunting, fishing and outdoor programs that play to a passionate audience of folks who may wear a suit or tie during the week, but tote a Winchester or a G. Loomis GL2 casting rod on the weekend.

Tom was already doing some work with The Outdoor Channel and pitched them on the idea of an aviation show by pilots about pilots. They were polite enough to listen, but not ready to commit the money and resources to make it happen. When subsequent discussions with ESPN and the Outdoor Life Network led nowhere, Tom went back to The Outdoor Channel, where for nearly two years he continued to push his idea to TOC management, who were friendly but noncommittal. But when another show Tom was hosting for the network became their highest-rated program, the mood changed. "It's amazing how much leverage you have when you're hosting the highest-rated show on the network," quips Tom. "Then they say, 'Oh, we want to talk to you about that airplane show.' " They did talk. They followed up their talk with checks, and things started happening quickly.

But Wait, There's More

TOC agreed to air the show, ordering 13 episodes for a 26-week run. After seeing the first tapes that were shot, they upped the order to 26 shows to run 52-weeks a year, told Tom they needed the shows by July 2005, and informed him it was all going to be shot in the still-new, still-largely unknown, still-little-used and extremely pricey high-definition (HD) TV. "It's been described to me that watching HD after watching standard definition after so many years is like you have been watching the world through a screen door," says Tom. "With HD, someone suddenly opens the door and you look out and say, 'Oh my goodness, there are actually individual leaves on the trees and individual blades of grass' and you suddenly see things that you have never seen on TV before. It is just going to knock the socks off of the pilots who watch it." The intense beauty is the upside. The downside of HD is that all the miles and miles of standard-definition archival video and film isnít compatible, very few photographers know how to work with HD, and even fewer places can edit it. Make that a double, please, and keep the bottle on the bar.

Though HD was definitely a curve ball, The Outdoor Channel showed they were true team players. "To their credit, the very first thing the folks at TOC said was, 'This show has got to appeal to the core constituency; it's got to appeal to the pilots first,' " says Tom. "They told me, 'Don't make it fluff, don't make it so broad-based that you are telling people airplanes are cute.' That allows us to get into some meat about flying and planes that you might not get otherwise." "The aviation community has never had a program like this one," believes TOC Executive Vice President Jake Hartwick. "We want to serve that community. Even though the aviation community is not huge, it's pretty big, and we think this show will appeal to a much, much broader audience. We human beings have been fascinated with flight ever since the days we lived in caves. We feel there will be a great crossover audience." TOC is betting its current 26 million U.S. households on it. Their signal is potentially available to 74 million total viewers, some of whom they hope will call Dish, DIRECTV or their cable companies and order The Outdoor Channel in order to see this brand-new flying show. It certainly has not hurt that TOC CEO Andy Dale is a private pilot who believes that flying and the outdoors are joined at the hip and that there is a whole, wide, wonderful world beyond the asphalt of the city limits. "I don't think anyone doesn't get excited about flying," says Dale. "It's universal, there's no age bracket, no gender or ethnic restrictions; everyone seems to love planes. I think our audience will absolutely lap it up. We may not all be pilots, but we aspire to be, we dream to be. We want to cater to that audience, to develop something new. Other networks have done aviation, but we don't see a lot of GA focus ... people like you and me going out and flying. We try to identify areas that are underserved and this is a big one."

Move Fast, But Do It Right

Once Tom got the green light, life went into fast gear. He had to quickly assemble a crew that not only knew TV, but understood aviation, a potentially complicated endeavor. Anyone who has ever cringed watching the local TV newscaster describe a "Twin-engine Cessna 150 that threatened the White House today," or tease, "A near fatal plane crash today ... in which no one was hurt," knows that TV and aviation don't always mesh. Sometimes aviation and video don't mesh, either. Tom began shooting stories for his new show, but after working with several photographers who didn't "know" aviation, he decided it was a life complication he did not need. When he discovered EAA had a TV division, it seemed that his prayers had been answered. "I went and talked to them and they were interested, and it seemed like a no-brainer to have people who have been shooting aviation for decades shoot and edit the show," says Tom. He hired Scott Guyette, the head of the EAA's television division, as Wings to Adventure's chief photographer and director. "He's been shooting video of airplanes for more than 15 years," says Tom. "He is a Cub owner and pilot." Also brought into the "Adventure" fold were photographer Jim Soyk, a freelance shooter who knows both airplanes and video and is wickedly funny in a soft-spoken, Wisconsin cheesehead sort of way. Tom also hired Scott "Gunny" Perdue, a friend he originally met at Oshkosh while camping next to each other in the North 40. Perdue is a former Air Force F-15 pilot who owns a Stearman and a Bonanza. Scott is the show's formation pilot, which has increased Tom's comfort level exponentially. "Scott is such a good stick he can jump into any plane and fly formation," brags Tom. "Scott is also a logistics magician; he handled logistics for Air Force One for nearly a year and he handles logistics for the show. He is a real organized guy. Walter Atkinson is with Advanced Pilot Seminars and will be doing pilot tips for us. Walter is an old friend -- he owns two planes, a Beech 18 and a Bonanza, and holds both an ATP and A&P." Production assistant Meredith Gresham is Tom's daughter, a recent graduate of Middle Tennessee State. And I and my PZL 104/35A Wilga will be doing "fun places to fly" segments, among other things. The Wilga draws a crowd wherever she goes, giving me a great opportunity to regale the assembly with details of our new TV show.

The Wings to Adventure Team. From left to right: Meredith Gresham, Jim Soyk, Scott Guyette, Scott "Gunny" Perdue, Tom Gresham, Liz Swaine, and an unnamed assistant.

Tom is excited about the team and the big adventure that lies ahead. "We have a team of people who know airplanes, who are talented, and who know television. But it's not enough to say we know airplanes ... we're not producing airplanes, we're producing television. And for it to be compelling TV it has to be fast-moving, but it must ring true with pilots." Shooting for the show has been fast and furious over the past few months. The crew has already visited locations in the Pacific Northwest, California, Florida, Texas and Louisiana and will be traveling to EAA AirVenture in July. How much more fun can it be than to get a bunch of airplane-loving people together and tell them to go create a show about aviation? After a lot of long days, challenging shooting assignments, hours of formation flying, and miles of high-definition video tape, Wings to Adventure is finding its legs. Most of the shows will have a similar format: Each will profile an airplane and a fly-in destination, and give tips on both aviation-related gadgets and better flying techniques. Interesting aviation people like Marion Cole will be featured talking about when flying really was seat of the pants, and the only aviation-related gadgets available were the pilot's eyes, the horizon, and if you were lucky, a water tower.

Dream Job

After a hard day of shooting when we're not too pooped to chat, we love talking about the fascinating people we're meeting, great airplanes we're getting to fly and really fun places that cater to pilots ... and we are already compiling our personal list of so-far favorites. Tom is enamored with Steve Culp's personal "toy store," his hangar at Shreveport, Louisiana's Downtown Airport. Tom says Steve's WWI-replica Sopwith Pups are "eye candy" that are so pretty even if they didn't fly they would be worth seeing. Gunny's a warbird nut, and got to fulfill a lifelong dream of being PIC on a P-51 while shooting a story in Kissimmee, Fla., about a Mustang flight operation called Stallion 51. Gunny says flying the Mustang was as wonderful as he always knew it would be. My favorite destination so far is Cedar Key, a little island off the Gulf Coast of Florida where cab driver Judy Bason monitors the Unicom, meets you at the airstrip and whisks you away to some of the best seafood you will ever wrap your lips around. She whisked and we ate, and here's a tip you can take to the bank: When visiting Cedar Key, eat lunch at the Seabreeze Restaurant. Order the heart-of-palm salad with peanut butter ice cream dressing and follow it up with some of their truly mouth-watering, locally harvested clams. Stay the night at the haunted Island Hotel and know that if you are awakened by someone tickling your toes in the middle of the night, it will be someone or something not of this world. Believe it or not. Photogs Scott and Jim fondly remember a shoot that had fun people, great airplanes, and good eats: It was the First Sunday Bunch at Jumbolair, the private strip outside Ocala, Fla., where John Travolta has a modest little home. Once a month, Jumbolair owners Terri and Jeremy Thayer welcome all-comers to food and fun and to show off the longest FAA-approved private airport in the world, all 7,550 feet of it. After lunch, you can sit on the jet-blast berm and watch Cessnas and Cirri land and take off on a runway built for 707s.

Liz and her Wilga.

All this is just a smidgen of the places we've been and things we've seen, caught on tape and being edited now, and all in high definition. The Outdoor Channel is high on the potential of the new show, planning to debut it in July on both their standard channel and their new high-definition channel, HD2. "We are about to embark on a wonderful journey, so buckle your seatbelt," says TOC Executive VP Hartwick. Show creator Gresham agrees: "My wife calls airplanes time machines because they allow you to go places that are not possible otherwise," says Tom. "One of the messages we want to leave with the show is 'Let us share with you what you can do with an airplane.' When you have wings, you have a time machine and they really are Wings to Adventure."



If you don't currently get The Outdoor Channel, no worries. If you are a Dish Network or DIRECTV subscriber, you can add TOC to any existing program package for $1.99 a month. For Dish, call 1-800-333-3474 and specifically request The Outdoor Channel "a la carte." If you are DIRECTV, call 1-800-494-4388 and do the same. Cable is a tougher nut to crack. Getting your local cable provider to offer TOC may require you calling, writing, pleading, whimpering, simpering and/or threatening to switch from cable to a satellite service. Use whichever method works best for you. Also, in coming weeks, the Wings to Adventure Web site will be updated with actual content, which will include schedules of where we'll be shooting and a way for you to get in touch with us and let us know about neat airplanes, cool aviation people and fun places to fly. We want to meet you and hear from you! The next place we'll be shooting will be EAA AirVenture, so look for us there and on The Outdoor Channel beginning in July.


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