Nov 062018

Kids of my generation had real heroes. Not the pampered, steroid-bulked athletes with multi-million dollar a year contracts, or rock stars whose greatest achievement seems to be ingesting as many illegal substances as the human body can stand in the shortest amount of time. Our heroes were good guys in white hats who squared off with villains and stared them down with raw nerve and a steely eye.

As a boy, I can remember Saturday morning television as the highlight of my week. Sitting cross legged on the floor I learned about right and wrong and witnessed justice in action in thirty-minute segments. Sure, there were a few cartoons, but even Mighty Mouse wasn’t above dishing out a lesson or two to the bad guys. But mostly I loved those good old black and white (that’s all there were back then) half-hour series of yesterday’s television heroes like Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, and Sky King.

What boy of my generation can forget that strong voice belting out “Out of the clear blue of the western sky comes Sky King!” as the image of a Cessna 310 in flight flew across the television screen and rolled off in a turn to the left?

Schuyler (Sky) King was an Arizona rancher and former World War II naval aviator who rode a palomino horse named Yellow Fury and flew a couple of airplanes, the Songbird and Flying Arrow, while running the Flying Crown Ranch with his beautiful niece Penny. Now come on, ‘fess up guys. How many of you had a crush on Penny? I was too young to even like girls back then, but Penny… she was a woman! A beautiful young woman who rode horses and flew around in airplanes helping catch the bad guys! I may not have known about lust back then, but I sure was in love!

Sky King and Penny (and in the earlier shows, nephew Clipper) had one adventure after another as they chased down bad guys and saved the world (or at least the ranch) from one dastardly plot after another.

Somehow the airplane (or airplanes, since more than one was used during the television show’s run) was always involved, either in watching what was going on from above or getting somewhere just in the nick of time to foil the latest evil scheme. Things were not always quiet on the ground either. Ranch foreman Jim Bell helped catch a bad guy or two, and in one memorable episode his wife Martha, who was the ranch’s cook, clobbered a gunman with a skillet!

Sky King was a popular radio show starting on ABC as a 15-minute series in 1947, and quickly becoming a half-hour show, alternating weekdays with Jack Armstrong through 1950, then moving to the Mutual Broadcasting System, where it continued until 1954. Future TV newsman Mike Wallace was among those who announced for it and touted Peter Pan Peanut Butter to listeners. The Sky King radio character was played by many actors, including Jack Lester, Roy Engel, Earl Nightingale, and John Reed King.

Sky King came to television in 1951 on NBC, and moved to ABC in 1952, where it finished in 1953. But with 130 episodes filmed, there were enough for frequent re-runs and more recently, boxed videotapes.

Kirby Grant, who played Sky King on television, was born Kirby Grant Hoon Jr. on November 24, 1911, in Butte, Montana. Interested in music and acting from an early age, he was considered a prodigy, and his skill as a violinist and a soloist won him a scholarship to the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago.

While in Chicago, Grant formed a band that performed at local restaurants and night spots. He encountered his first bad guy in Depression-era Chicago, when he and his band were playing in a nightclub. When their time was up, one of a group of men said they were enjoying the group’s music and asked if the band would play a little longer. The band was happy to comply, and afterward, the fellow who had made the request placed a $100 bill in the pocket of each musician. Grant later learned the man’s name was Al Capone.

Upon completing his formal education, Grant began performing on radio, stage, and movies. He did recordings for established stars, including Bing Crosby. Crosby was not good at reading music, so Paramount Studios hired Grant to learn the songs, record them with the studio orchestra, and then teach the songs to “the Crooner.”

Grant’s first movie appearance was an unaccredited spot in I Dream Too Much, starring Henry Fonda. Sometimes billed as Robert Stanton, Grant’s second movie was his first western, 1938’s Red River Range, starring John Wayne.

The next four years brought appearances in non-westerns such as Mexican Spitfire, Dr. Kildare’s Victory, and Blondie Goes Latin, among others. Grant played a singer in Hello, Frisco, Hello. The only western Grant appeared in during this period was in Johnny Mack Brown’s The Stranger From Pecos (1943). He also had an uncredited appearance as a pilot in Bombardier (1943), a World War II movie starring Pat O’Brien, Randolph Scott, and Richard Martin.

Kirby Grant’s flying career began in a 1929 Waco. During the early 1940s war effort, Grant made repeated attempts to serve his country as an aviator, but his color blindness destroyed those hopes. He ended up in the infantry until 1945. Upon his military discharge, he was placed under contract to Universal Studios. During his career he made at least 50 pictures between Universal, Columbia, and Allied Artists.

He  co-starred with a white dog named Chinook in a Royal Canadian Mounted Police series loosely based on the books of James Oliver Curwood.  The series ended in 1954 with Yukon Vengeance, which ended Grant’s movie career, but television was waiting.

Grant’s agent approached him with the role of Sky King and set up a screen test. Several weeks later he was notified that he had been selected for the part and went to the studio to meet his TV niece, Penny (Gloria Winters) and nephew Clipper (Ron Hagerthy.) They were to live on the Flying Crown Ranch near the fictitious town of Grover, Arizona and fly around in the Songbird. Grant had earlier purchased a 1946 Cessna T-50 Bobcat, which became the first Songbird.

After only eighteen episodes of the series, the project was canceled due to a parting of the ways between sponsor Derby Foods and its advertising agency. Kirby Grant left Universal to join Wilding Studios in Chicago as a writer-director. In early 1955, he was approached by Nabisco, the company wanted to pick up the Sky King series if he would agree to return to the starring role. He agreed, and in the next six months a year’s worth of episodes was produced. 72 episodes were filmed through 1959. They were always filled with excitement and danger, and the flying scenes made the series a hit. It was definitely one of the must-see programs for youngsters on the Saturday morning television lineup.

Grant did as much of the flying as he could get away with in the series, but it seemed the location sets were always visited by insurance representatives. Kirby Grant was a licensed pilot, and it was tough for him to let anyone else do the work. Many of the scenes were filmed around Apple Valley, California. The interior scenes were shot in Los Angeles. The only mishap that occurred during the filming of the series occurred when Grant stopped the Cessna 310B a few feet past the camera and buried the nose gear in a soft spot.

The history of the aircraft used in the television series has a bit of mystery attached. In 1956, Grant sold the original Songbird to a rancher friend for a dollar because it had dry rot in its main spar and his friend wanted a restoration project. Grant replaced it with a new Songbird purchased for $72,000. It was a 1956 Cessna 310B. The last aircraft used was a 1960 Cessna 310D. This plane was only used for promos and not in the actual television show.

The first Songbird apparently never did get restored, and ended up in a barn in Clinton, Missouri. One day the FAA contacted the owner and asked if he still owned the airplane. He told them that he did, and that it was currently in pieces. They informed him that someone was flying around the country to air shows in a Cessna T-50 with the same tail number and claiming that the plane was the original Songbird. That person reportedly soon had his license revoked by the FAA.

The second Songbird, a Cessna 310-B, had a more bizarre story. The file on the aircraft suddenly stopped in 1970. There are reports that it was stolen in 1970 and used to smuggle drugs across the Mexican border, and that its pilot was killed when the aircraft crashed while sneaking into the United States with a load of marijuana. As late as 1981, the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) listed the aircraft as a drug runner and had it on its hot sheet.

Bizarre story? It gets better. George Norvall of General Aviation News, who had written a series of articles on famous airplanes, claims that the plane crashed in 1957, killing the pilot six weeks after filming the stock shots and opening sequence with the new Songbird, and that the wreckage was still locked in a garage in Los Angeles. The widow of the pilot who was flying the plane at the time it had crashed kept the plane all of these years.

Whatever happened to the Songbird, Kirby Grant’s fate is known. When the series ended he moved to Florida, where he spent much of his time in fundraising efforts for cerebral palsy, heart disease research and prevention, and other programs as his way of saying thank you to the public who made him successful. In 1978, Kirby Grant suffered a massive heart attack, resulting in a triple bypass and a new valve, but soon he was on the mend.

Following his heart attack, the FAA suspended his pilot’s license. Grant worked with Sea World and the Florida Festival in its public relations department and was the Daytona Air Fair’s Grand Marshal. Kirby also was an announcer with the Great American Air Shows. He tried his hand at real estate development, and there was talk in the 1970’s of reviving Sky King and plans on opening a Sky King theme park. The project never happened. Grant was always cordial and friendly, sometimes surprising his fans at film conventions by proving to have a fine singing voice.

On October 30, 1985, Kirby Grant was driving to Cape Canaveral, Florida to watch a launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. He was to be honored by the shuttle astronauts for his achievements in encouraging aviation and space flight.

Grant, 74, was traveling east on State Route 50 near Titusville, about 8 a.m. He attempted to pass a slow moving car ahead of him when that car also pulled to the left to pass a vehicle in front of it. Grant swung to the right, overcorrected, and slammed into a ditch filled with at least three feet of water. The former actor was thrown from his car and seriously injured. Passing motorists stopped to render assistance, but it would do no good. Kirby Grant Hoon, Jr., television’s beloved Sky King, was dead. He is buried in the Missoula Cemetery in Missoula, Montana. His simple headstone makes no mention of his long acting career, inscribed instead with just his name, the years of his birth and death, and a single musical note, perhaps to symbolize his return to his roots, not only in Montana, but as the musician he started out to be.

Kirby Grant may be gone, but the legacy of Sky King lives on. He touched the lives of those who watched his show, sparked an interest in flight in a generation of young Americans, and taught us that good guys always prevail, sometimes with the help of a good airplane and a pretty blond girl at their side.

Thought For The Day – An expectation is a resentment waiting to happen.

Nick Russell

World-Famous, New York Times Best Selling Author, and All-Around Nice Guy!

  19 Responses to “Sky King’s Final Landing”

  1. I watched every chance I got.

  2. Thank you for a nice bit of nostalgia. Sky King was one of my favorite shows growing up, and it was interesting to learn more about the starring actor.

  3. Thanks for memories of my childhood also.

  4. Loved Sky King on TV!

  5. I remember an episode of Sky King where the Songbird was supposedly being used for some rather nefarious activities.Of course we all knew that it couldn’t be our beloved hero behind the dirty deeds, but the evidence involving the Songbird certainly seemed to point in that direction. It wasn’t until near the end of the episode that the case was solved. Turns out that the less-than-reputable Songbird had the wrong number of points on the crown logo, and therefore wasn’t the real one. Sky King remained our hero!

  6. Thank You Nick for a great blog post. It brought back memories of those years watching Sky King. Seems we are in the same age group, as every tv show you mentioned was watched by me. Have a great day and I hope your back isn’t giving you too much pain.

  7. Wonderful story and I remember many a Saturday morning watching Sky King. What a truly great show! You probably also remember the cartoon Rick O’Shay from that time period which also portrayed true heroes. Thanks Nick

  8. Thanks for the memories, Nick! DH and I just spend some time on Wikipedia looking up additional information about the show – and about the Cessnas.

    Virtual hugs,


  9. Yup, Sky King was on my must see Saturday list.

  10. I loved that show.

  11. Thank you for the memories! Couldn’t wait for Saturday mornings to watch Sky King and Penny! Great post! ???

  12. […] really enjoyed my good friend Nick Russell’s blog a couple of days ago entitled Sky King’s Final Landing. His mention of Sky King, The Lone Ranger, and other Saturday morning stalwarts led me to […]

  13. Wow, this is an Awesome blog. Saturday morning was an important time in my childhood. Sky King was great show. It was on at 10am. You not only refreshed my memory, but researched many facts I didn’t know. Thanks for a trip to the past

  14. I made a Songbird out of two toothpicks and glued on two pieces of paper for the fuel tanks. I flew along with Sky during every episode. Eventually ended up as a commercial pilot. That show was my inspiration.

  15. I remember the old Sky King show. I grew up watching the re-runs on Saturday morning TV in the early 60’s. He was the first “action hero” I ever saw and I liked, even to this day. His adventures reflected a strong sense of right and wrong and he embodied, for me, the best of both worlds. He was a cowboy, and he had an airplane instead of a horse. Take that Lone Ranger!

  16. Brings back memories. I’m not sure I ever saw the TV show. I was totally hooked on the radio show and Penny.

  17. Jeff Myers
    I went to the EAA Museum Bookstore in Oshkosh Wi. They have all the episodes of Sky King for sale. There are something like 3 episodes per tape. These will take you right back to those Saturday mornings that we all enjoyed.

  18. After my twin brother and I watched Roy and Dale on Saturday mornings, we watched Sky King. Trigger, Buttermilk, Nellie Belle and Songbird.

    Thank you for reminding us just how good Sky King was and remains today. Someday may there be reruns!! May we never forget the joys of good reigning supreme over evil.

  19. Thank you for a wonderful article.

    I glued myself to the TV every Saturday morning specifically to watch Sky King.

    Because of Sky King I had one ambition in life from about 6 years old. I knew I wanted to become a pilot and I did.

    My father eventually purchased a 310D (when I was 10) which was my first twin after building hours in singles.I named her Songbird Too. I still own her.

    You blew my mind with one fact you related though.

    I was born November 24, 1956.

    Sky (Kirby) and I share a birthday. I guess that is provenence.

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