By Mark Malone, EAA Lifetime 839836
Walt Disney was a big supporter of general aviation for business travel, ordering four new airplanes in five years beginning in 1962.
Disney legend Animator/Director Woolie Reitherman was a member of Sky Roamers Air Travel, the largest co-op of owner-pilots, based at Lockheed Airport in Burbank, California. Walt asked Woolie to schedule a charter for him in 1962 to see what general aviation, private aircraft flying was all about and was set up with Charles A. Malone, Jr., the chief pilot and general manager, for his first flight in an Aero Commander 500. Walt could instantly see the benefit of traveling by air vs. being stuck on the crowded and slow roads and continued to charter Beech Travel Airs and Cessna 310s with Chuck always at the controls.
Walt made a quick decision to buy a larger and more capable airplane for his West Coast travels and ordered a new 1963 Beech Queen Air 65 with the tail number of N234MM (234 Mickey Mouse was the radio call sign). He hired Chuck to become his personal pilot and set up the Walt Disney Productions Flight Department. His relationship with Chuck became so close that Chuck had an office directly next to Walt’s office suite so trip planning became something Walt personally participated in with Chuck and other Disney executives.
Walt’s brother Roy and some of the other Disney team members were hesitant about riding around in small airplanes of that era so Chuck came up with the idea of demonstrating the value of a company airplane by inviting groups to meet at Burbank Airport and on their lunch hour they would fly over Santa Barbara, Catalina, Disneyland, and be back at Burbank within an hour all while having lunch. The list of company airplane supporters grew rapidly and the Queen Air was in great demand, with Chuck always at the controls and with Walt often in the co-pilot’s seat taking his turn at the wheel and enjoying it with a big grin even when on oxygen due to flying at high altitude.
Big dreams were swirling around in Walt’s head about where to expand the company and he decided the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair would be the place where he would introduce Walt Disney Productions to the world. It had to be an impressive appearance, so Walt had his Disney Imagineers design Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, It’s a Small World, Carousel of Progress, and the Magic Skyway to be set up and displayed in New York at the World’s Fair. This would be a two-year-long effort requiring 100 or more trips transporting the design team back and forth from Burbank to New York and Walt wanted to do this in his own airplane at the times and dates that were most convenient to him. So, with Chuck they settled on the Grumman Gulfstream, and in 1963 ordered serial number 121 which was delivered ‘green’ in December 1963. After the ferry flight to Burbank, it received a custom 15-place interior with two bathrooms, custom-selected cockpit and flight instruments, and its first paint job in the colors of Walt’s company: tangerine orange, black, and white. Leaves from trees in the Disney family backyard were selected by Walt’s wife Lillian and put into the acrylic divider between Walt’s private cabin and the main cabin.
The Gulfstream was put into service in March 1964 using its factory-assigned tail number of N732G and began twice-weekly round trips from Burbank to LaGuardia Airport with most eastbound trips non-stop between 6 1/2 and 7 hours depending on the wind. Westbound with 10-12 passengers into a strong wind usually required a fuel stop but there were many non-stop flights westbound when the winds and payload allowed. With 12,126 pounds of fuel, the Gulfstream had an absolute endurance of 9-10 hours depending on if it was at 27,000 or 29,000 feet. Fuel flow was 1,200 pounds per hour if the final altitude on a transcontinental trip was 29,000 feet and 1,300 pounds per hour if FL270 was the final altitude. Westbound it cruised in the mid-20s for lower headwinds which resulted in higher fuel flows of about 1,600 pounds per hour and thus requiring a fuel stop about two-thirds of the time.
Walt enjoyed being isolated from the normal office interruptions and found that he could plan and strategize with his Imagineers very effectively on the cross-country flights.
Once Walt Disney Productions had shown what it could do at the World’s Fair, its rave reviews gave Walt the financial backing to expand beyond Disneyland and he embarked on tours of the south to locate a warm climate where land was cheap, as he wanted to buy so much land that he would always have room to build the next dream and isolate his ‘project’ from the outside world with barriers of natural land, trees, and lakes as a buffer. Walt surveyed the ground below from his seat thru the large oval window, from sitting on the jump seat and scanning forward, and when a pilot got up for a restroom break he often hopped in their seat and on one occasion announced on the PA that he was the Gulfstream captain, possibly startling some on board. Being a kid at heart, Walt couldn’t help but to beam ear to ear while piloting Mickey Mouse One. From these secret flights, the “Florida Project” developed into the acquisition of 27,000 acres of mostly swamp land bought from hundreds of land owners all before the word got out that Disney was coming to Orlando.
Walt saw so much value in the company Gulfstream 159 that he ordered the Gulfstream II (GII59) immediately upon its announcement, securing serial number 17. With this announcement the first Gulfstream was re-designated the Gulfstream I. Walt was so proud of his airplanes that he had models of three of them in his office for his guests to see: the Gulfstream I, his personal Beech King Air 90, and the just-ordered Gulfstream II.
Walt died unexpectedly in December 1966 and his brother Roy O. Disney committed the company to build Walt’s dream in Florida and named it in his honor, Walt Disney World. Since Walt Disney World was no longer a secret, the tail number was changed to N234MM and pilots and controllers alike called it “234 Mickey Mouse” instead of the usual Mike Mike. In the early 1970s, Mickey’s face was added to the tail.
The Gulfstream now began twice-weekly round trips from Burbank to Orlando Executive Airport, taking the same group of Imagineers back and forth from 1966 to 1982 while Walt Disney World was built and several years later Epcot was added.
It also went out on a month-long tour twice a year to promote the classic animated films or new releases, often with talented Disneyland kids of 18-20 years old going out to tour the country for their first time. The emcees of Disney’s stage show The Golden Horseshoe Revue, Wally Boag and Fulton Burley, told the stories while the kids in costume performed before several live audiences a day including TV shows, news, mall shows, and performing at children’s hospitals.
The Gulfstream’s role was to promote the company projects bringing radio, TV, and print media from their hometown to visit and report on what was going on at Walt Disney World and including in their stories that they rode on Walt’s airplane and sat in his seat. The airplane itself starred in two motion pictures, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and Now You See Him, Now You Don’t, both starring Kurt Russell.
In 1985, Gulfstream I was transferred to Florida after the completion of Epcot and was repainted in blue with a giant Mickey on its tail to continue its goodwill tours for another seven years before being retired, which required it to be landed on World Drive and then hoisted into Disney’s Hollywood Studios where it was put on display for the back lot tour until the attraction closed in 2014.
Mickey Mouse One was recently refurbished and displayed for thousands of appreciative visitors at D23, Disney’s fan expo held recently at the Anaheim Convention Center Arena. It had been taken apart and transported over land by four tractor trailers and was put back together INSIDE the arena in 14 hours. Stage lighting and numerous displays of artifacts put together by Ed Ovalle of The Walt Disney Company Archives were on display, including its ferry flight west in primer green. Also displayed was Chuck Malone’s pilot logbook describing Walt’s first flights in a Gulfstream where on November 23, 1963, they found out the sad news of President Kennedy’s death when they deplaned in New Orleans after a scouting trip to Florida and San Juan. Ed and Mark participated in a Disney Archives presentation about Walt’s airplane which was attended by a capacity crowd of about 800.
As the most famous Gulfstream of all, the airplane established some pretty good numbers:
-350 miles per hour cruise at a time when 200 mph was more normal in a DC-3
-30,000-foot maximum altitude — pressurized, air conditioned, and radar equipped
-Non-stop transcontinental range
– 8.5 hour range with reserve with light load. Up to 10 hours endurance
-15 passengers and crew of three
-Hot meal service
-Flown 277,282 miles over two years from Burbank to New York in support of the World’s Fair
-Starred in two movies
-20,000 hours in flight — 10,400 hours flown by Chuck Malone, Walt’s personal pilot
-83,000 estimated passengers were carried
-23 years displayed on the Backlot Tour
-Accident-free service life of 29 years
Mickey Mouse One was disassembled once more and trucked to the Palm Springs Air Museum where it will become their centerpiece exhibit opening on Walt’s birthday, December 5. Walt’s Gulfstream now is on long term loan on public display at the KPSP airport. The exhibit will include many displays and artifacts from the life and times of Mickey Mouse One, Walt’s airplane.
Chuck, Walt’s personal pilot, was my father, and he took me along on the very first pilot training flight in 1964 when I was 9 years old, the first of many flights I would take for the next 25 years. In 1979, I joined dad to fly Walt’s Gulfstream and flew it as captain for Walt Disney Productions until 1985 when it was transferred to Florida. My son Miles Malone also became a Gulfstream I pilot and flew the type as captain for Phoenix Air. Gulfstream noted that three generations of Malones all piloted the Gulfstream I. Both Miles and I are flying Gulfstream 550s and own a 1963 Beechcraft Travel Air D95A which was Reserve Grand Champion at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2009. That brings the story full circle — Walt Disney first chartering a Travel Air and starting the Walt Disney Flight Department 60 years ago with my father, then all three Malones flying the Gulfstream Is, and now the Malone family owning and flying an award-winning Beech Travel Air of our own. Our Travel Air has kind of a catchy tail number — N234M!