The series had strong Western elements. King usually captured criminals and spies and found lost hikers, mostly by flying his airplane, the Songbird. Two twin-engine Cessna airplanes were used by King during the course of the TV series. The first was a Cessna T-50 and in later episodes a Cessna 310B. King and his niece Penny and sometimes her brother Clipper lived on the Flying Crown Ranch, near the fictitious town of Grover, Arizona.
The series was set in Arizona, but actually filmed in the high desert of California. The ranch house used for exterior shots of the Flying Crown Ranch is an actual home in Apple Valley, California, although it has been extensively remodeled since those days. Other locations were shot in and around Apple Valley, California and the nearby San Bernardino Mountains, George Air Force Base, and Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. Interior filming was done in Hollywood.
It was expensive for a kids' show, but most of the budget (about $9,000 per episode) went into aircraft, vehicles, fuel, and sets. This meant that some standard production methods had to be abandoned, giving the series a more realistic look. For instance, in some shots, pilot Bill Fergusson actually did taxi the 310B rather than simulating movement by towing or dolly shots. Plymouth provided several 1951 woodie station wagons for the series.
The radio show began in 1946 with several actors playing the part of Sky. "Radio premiums" were offered to listeners. For example, the Sky King Secret Signalscope. Listeners were advised to get their own for only 15 cents and the inner seal from a jar of Peter Pan Peanut Butter, which was produced by the sponsor, Derby Foods. The Signalscope included a glow-in-the-dark signaling device, whistle, magnifying glass, and Sky King's private code. With the Signalscope, one could also see around corners. Other offer included the Sky King Spy-Detecto Writer, which had a cipher disk, magnifying glass, measuring scale, and printing mechanism in a package slightly over two inches long. Another was the Magni-Glo Writing Ring, which had a luminous element, a secret compartment, a magnifier, and a ballpoint pen all in the crown piece of a "fits any finger" ring. The radio show continued until 1954.
The television version starred Kirby Grant as Sky King and Gloria Winters as Penny. Other regular characters included Sky's nephew Clipper, played by Ron Hagerthy, and Mitch the sheriff, portrayed by Ewing Mitchell, who was a competent and intelligent law enforcement officer that depended on his friend Sky's flying skills to solve the harder cases.
Grant and his wife Carolyn had three children. In the early 1970s, they moved from California to Florida. After he left show business, he became the public relations director for Sea World in Orlando, Florida. Kirby Grant was killed in a car accident near Titusville, Florida, on October 30, 1985, at the age of 73. He was driving east on Florida State Road 50 to attend the launch of the space shuttle Challenger when he was forced off the road into a canal. Grant was ejected from his vehicle and, according to Florida Highway Patrol he was not wearing a seat belt. Grant had received an invitation from one of the astronauts on that flight and buried in Missoula, Montana.
Many of the storylines were pot-boilers; Penny would often fall into the hands of spies, bank robbers, and other ne'er-do-wells. Sky never killed the villains, as with most television cowboy heroes of the time. Sky King was primarily a show for children, although it sometimes broadcast in prime time. The show also became an icon in the aviation community. Many pilots, including American astronauts, grew up watching Sky King and named him as an influence.
Plot lines were often simplistic and villains were usually depicted as intelligent and believable. The writing was generally above the standard for contemporary half-hour programs, although sometimes critics suggested that the acting was not.
Later episodes of the television show were notable for the dramatic opening with an air-to-air shot of the Songbird banking sharply away from the camera and its engines roaring, while the announcer proclaimed, "Out of the clear blue of the Western sky comes Sky King!" The end title featured a musical theme, with the credits superimposed over an air-to-air shot of the Songbird, cruising at altitude for several moments, then banking away to the left.
The best-known Songbird was a 1956 twin-engine Cessna 310B used in episodes 40 through 72 and was provided by Cessna at no cost to the producers and piloted by Cessna's national sales manager for the 310, Bill Fergusson. Fergusson got the job after the motion picture pilot already selected was deemed unqualified to land the airplane at some of the off-airport sites required.
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