Podcast: The Story Behind Walt Disney’s Airplane, Mickey Mouse One

Mark Malone has made a career out of flying Gulfstreams, but one Gulfstream in particular is near and dear to his heart, N234MM, better known as Mickey Mouse 1. After 30 years of sitting in Orlando, Florida, the legendary airplane that helped build the Disney brand has been restored and moved back to Anaheim, California for visitors to enjoy at Disney’s D23 convention.

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Rush Transcript

Matthew Orloff:

Good day and welcome to Aviation Week's BCA podcast. I'm your host, Matthew Orloff. And today we have someone very special with us. His name is Mark Malone, who is a very accomplished corporate aviation pilot in his own right. However, he does have a very special connection to one particular airplane. We'll just go ahead and call it Mickey Mouse One for now, and I'll let him explain a little further as far as what that means if you couldn't figure it out already, but Mark's father actually flew with Walt Disney. And I'll go ahead and let you take that story away if you don't mind, Mark, explaining the backstory of how you got involved with Disney Aviation, what your connection is, and to Walt's airplane, which is now on display in Anaheim after the D23 convention right next to Disneyland. So Mark, could you take it away?

Mark Malone:

Sure, Matthew. Well, my dad was Chuck Malone, and in 1962, he started flying Walt Disney in a chartered twin engine Beech Travel Air Cessna 310, Aero Commander 500 locally around the Southwest Los Angeles area, a lot of times out to Palm Springs, sometimes down toward Disneyland. And Walt could see that there was a great use for general aviation to avoid the slow travel along the highways of the day. Remembering that back then, there weren't the interstate highway system to the extent that we have it today.

Mark Malone:

So shortly after that, Walt said, "Oh, I want to get an airplane." And they bought a 1963 Beechcraft Queen Air 65, put that into service for local flying. It ended up with the tail number of November 234MM. And the controllers went along with the pilots when they called in and said, "Hey, Queen Air 234 Mickey Mouse, climb to 3000."

Mark Malone:

So it became an airplane that was recognized on the radio frequencies across the country. And later, they decided that they needed a larger airplane to go to The New York World's Fair to promote Walt Disney Productions, and they chose a Gulfstream, which was a 1963 model. And at that point, it was just a Gulfstream made by Grumman Aircraft. So they bought serial number 121, was put in service in 1964 and started making trips to LaGuardia to support the building of the 1964, '65 New York World's Fair where Disney showed Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, A Small World, carousel progress and Skyway.

Mark Malone:

And at nine years old, I started flying on the airplane on its very first flight, which was a pilot training flight out of Burbank, California. Got to ride on it for the next 15 years or so. And then in 1979, I started flying with my dad as pilot. Had a great career there, and in 1985, the airplane was transferred to Florida. And at that point, I didn't go with the airplane, but it was an awesome opportunity to fly in Walt's airplane, which was called Mickey Mouse One.

Matthew Orloff:

Just amazing. I'm sure you have a ton of remarkable memories that we'd all love to know more about, but before I ask you that, can you go into the specifics of Walt's airplane, it's range and technical specs, maybe how it relates to airplanes that are flying today? How long did it take to fly coast to coast? Could it even make it coast to coast at the time? To be honest, I don't know.

Mark Malone:

Well, Grumman decided to build the first purpose built business aircraft, meaning it wasn't a converted airline or converted World War II airplane. So they chose a cabin that would hold between 10 and 19 passengers, crew of three. It was powered by jet engines turning propellers. So it was a turbo prop. So it had reliability above and beyond the piston engine airplanes of its day. It was pressurized. So it could fly up to 30,000 feet, and it cruised at 350 miles an hour. And it was a transcontinental airplane with long range tanks. It had 10 hours of fuel on board. So it could easily make the run from Burbank to New York or Burbank to Orlando, which was roughly 2000 miles. Usually they did it with 10 passengers, crew of three, roughly about six and a half hours down, wind nonstop, and then into the wind with a large load that you would have to stop once, roughly eight hours in the air.

Matthew Orloff:

Wow. So you did mention that Walt himself was a fan of aviation. I think it goes hand in hand with the magic of Disney, right? I don't care who you are, flying is magical, right? Even if nowadays people take it for granted. So it seems only right that someone like him would find it quite magical, for lack of a better term. Did he have basically his own cockpit or instrumentation in his passenger seat? I remember seeing that on display at D23.

Mark Malone:

Well, back when Grumman built the Gulfstream and then later the Gulfstream II, all of those airplanes were delivered from the factory in a green configuration, meaning they were primer painted on the outside, no interior and only what they called flyaway avionics. So you had basic radios to fly day VFR. When you got to one of the handful of outfitters, you chose the interior, the paint scheme and the instruments up front. Every Gulfstream was different because the customers speced it out. So in this case, the Walt Disney airplane was flown green to Burbank, California. Pacific Airmotive Corporation was an outfitter that took Walt Disney's ideas and they made them into a custom interior that had 15 seats, three couches, two bathrooms, fully functional galley with an oven and a cockpit up front with all-weather flight instruments. It had long range fuel tanks. So like I said, it had 10 hours of fuel onboard at long range, which would be flying at 29,000 feet. The lower that you flew, the more fuel you burnt and the lower range or lesser range you could get.

Matthew Orloff:

So really one of the first true business aviation uses for passengers on the very first business aviation aircraft would be used specifically for business.

Mark Malone:

So this airplane, its claim to fame was a large cabin and long range. During the same basic timeframe, the Learjet 23 came out and the Jetstar, those airplanes, due to engine technology, were shorter range. They didn't have coast to coast capability. And for the most part, you couldn't stand up in them. So Walt chose his airplane, not for its top speed, but for its long range, because his projects required coast to coast, transcontinental travel, and he preferred to do it nonstop. He also liked the idea that it was a stand up cabin. He himself obviously was creative talent and he liked to fly with his Imagineers. Those are the people who thought up the rides, they designed them. They figured out how to build them. Once they were built, they tried to figure out how to operate them. So this wasn't a one-time event going back and forth. Gulfstream probably made over a hundred round trips back and forth in support of the New York World's Fair. And that was to show Walt Disney Productions to the world audience.

Mark Malone:

And that then put Disney on the map so that they could buy 27,000 acres, which ended up being the Florida project. And from that, they got companies to help sponsor their development of The Magic Kingdom and Epcot and build out Walt's dreams. And all of it was made possible by the Gulfstream, doing these trips where all the talent could be together, creative on the airplane, oftentimes with Walt, and they were disconnected from the ground, the interruptions of the office, the latest emergency knock on the door, something's got to be done. So in the airplane, they could just brainstorm and got a lot done.

Matthew Orloff:

That's amazing. This airplane is responsible in huge part for building the Disney that so many people know and love today. And after seeing it on display at D23, I got to give you a ton of credit, it looks gorgeous. And for those who don't know out there, two things, D23 is a convention they hold every year, for lack of a better term, for Disney fanatics, which was very, very fun to attend. Thank you, Mark, for getting me in. And Walt's plane was on display this year after being in Orlando since 1992, you said, Mark. We got to give you some credit, because you've really been responsible for restoring this airplane, getting it back out to Anaheim for it to be on display for everybody to see and share with the world. Can you explain real quick the process and the amount of work you had to go through to make this happen and to bring it back and put it on display in the nice shape that it's in?

Mark Malone:

Well, the airplane in 1992 was retired and its last flight was from Orlando Airport and it landed on Disney's World Drive, which was just a highway going into the park there. And it was hoisted over into the back lot of the MGM Disney Studio. And from there, it was put on display in the back lot tour, I think for about 12 years. When the Star Wars Land was developed, there was no longer room for the airplane so it was put into storage, but not in a guest area.

Mark Malone:

And a couple years ago, the company decided that it'd be nice to show Walt's airplane. And so they repainted it in Florida. Walt, when he was alive, had it tangerine orange, black and white stripe. In Florida, it was mainly blue and white, and it had a big Mickey on the tail, and it was used to promote the company on Goodwill flights up and down the east coast into the Midwest for most of its life actually.

Mark Malone:

So it was a big project to get the airplane prepared to move because it was no longer airworthy. So a team surveyed the airplane, figured out it could be taken apart and four semi-trucks brought it out. The wing itself is a single piece. It's roughly 80 feet long and the fuse lodge was separated and the tail was separated and the props removed.

Mark Malone:

So 10 days later, it arrived in Anaheim, California. The trucks backed it into the Anaheim Convention Center, which is roughly like a basketball arena. And in 14 hours, the team had put the airplane back together again, touched up the paint, installed the lighting, the sound, the backdrop curtains. And if Gulf Stream was showing a brand new airplane today, they couldn't have done a better job than what the 30,000 guests that passed through the arena this past weekend saw.

Matthew Orloff:

And I can certainly affirm that it. It looked spectacular. The plane itself was beautiful, and then there was also a nice display of information, photos of Walt, which we definitely hope to share, and just artifacts from the interior that have been kept in such great condition. Thanks so much to the work you've done to preserve this airplane.

Matthew Orloff:

So to end off, I would like to share something special that you mentioned that I was hope was hoping you would speak more on. You mentioned your son flies the same model airplane, which would make him the third generation G1 pilot, which to my understanding, must not exist anywhere. There can't be three generations of pilots who have flown this particular aircraft. Don't fact, check me on that, because I'm not a hundred percent if it's true, but I would not be surprised if it was. So tell us what is your son up to? That's amazing.

Mark Malone:

Well, of course my dad, Chuck Malone, started the flight department and they got the G1 and he became I think the highest time pilot, 10,400 hours in a single airplane, the Disney G1, and then I was fortunate enough to fly it for about seven years as a pilot. My son, Miles Malone, he joined Phoenix Air out of Cartersville, Georgia, and they were a large Gulfstream 1 operator. Miles was assigned to Naval Station Point Magoo out in California, and he flew shuttle missions to different Navy bases and islands on a two or three times a day basis for about six years.

Mark Malone:

So a couple years ago, Gulfstream found it interesting that there were three Malones, Chuck Malone, Mark Malone, Miles Malone that had all flown the Gulfstream 1 with a significant number of hours. And I don't know if it's a record, but it's certainly something that our family is very proud of, because my dad spent a tremendous amount of time and effort out of his life to establish a safe flight department for transporting Walt Disney and his family, the company officials, the Imagineers and guests in support of Walt Disney Productions and Walt Disney World, Epcot. And it's really my dad's legacy that was on display at the Anaheim Convention Center with a little bit of highlights that Mark and Miles also were lucky enough to fly an airplane just like he did.

Matthew Orloff:

Well, it's such an awesome legacy. And might I add the name Miles Malone? What a perfect name for a third generation pilot. I wish I thought of that honestly. But anyway, I really appreciate your time here, Mark. Last question for you, do you have any childhood memories of flying with Walt? Maybe something he said that stuck with you or just something that just sticks out? Because a lot of people who are now enjoying his creation, his empire, never knew him, were not alive at the same time that he was, which unfortunately, he was lost too soon. So any memories that stick out to you?

Mark Malone:

Well, back in the early 1960s, the company was small. My dad, Chuck Malone, when he started the flight department, was assigned an office directly next to Walt's office in the Disney Studio in Burbank, California. Walt was very interested in being hands on in developing the aviation department with trip planning. It's just really unheard of that your chief pilot has an office directly next to you. So that's how Walt started. That's how close he was with airplanes. And at eight years old, I started flying as an invited guest by Walt on trips my dad flew, .one in particular was to San Diego, Walt wanted to go down and see SeaWorld. So he said to my dad, "Bring your wife and your son and let's go check out SeaWorld." So as a young kid of eight years old, I went down there and I remember him as a genuinely nice grandfather-type person.

Mark Malone:

And so I felt really fortunate to have known him personally a little bit. And he obviously died in 1966 when I was just 11. So I didn't know him as an adult, but he was a very generous person. Every Christmas I'd get gifts, hand signed cards from him. He was the Grand Marshall of the Rose Parade in January of 1966. He sent a picture signed to Mark, my best Walt Disney.

Mark Malone:

So the aviation department and airplanes in general allowed Walt to dream big, to build what he was dreaming and then have the world come and see it. So it was really all because he got a Gulfstream and he was able to spread his wings. Florida was so important because he could buy land cheap down there. He basically just bought swamp land, land that nobody else wanted from hundreds of owners. And from that, they spent a couple years dredging out swamps, making beautiful blue lakes. And then from the sand they piled up, they were able to build The Magic Kingdom, Contemporary Hotel, Polynesian, the monorail and then expanded into Epcot. So it all started with the mouse, as they say, in this case, it was 234 Mickey Mouse.

Matthew Orloff:

It really is incredible. Just amazing. This airplane in much part turned Orlando, Florida, which was really just a bunch of marsh lands into what we now know it as today. And I'll actually be heading there next month, ironically for the NBAA Base Convention. So funny how that came up from nothing but swamp lands hugely in part because of Disney. And I must say everything you described about him as a person from your memories really lives up to what I would've pictured him as in my head, if we were lucky enough to have him around.

Matthew Orloff:

So with that said, Mark, thank you so much for being a part of this week's podcast. For those listening, we'll be back soon with more episodes. And until then, blue skies, everyone and stay safe. Thank you.

Matthew Orloff

Based in Los Angeles, Matthew Orloff covers business aviation for Aviation Week Network.