Sky King was an adventure series aimed at younger viewers, essentially a modern western with a twist, about a rancher hero who flew a plane. Schuyler ("Sky") King, played by Kirby Grant, was the owner of the Flying Crown Ranch, located near the town of Grover, Arizona. The owner and pilot of his own plane, christened the Songbird -- originally a Cessna T-50, later replaced by a Cessna 310B -- Sky King knew the airways as well as he knew the geography of his ranch and the surrounding community. And flying was an activity shared by the other members of his small extended family, his niece Penny ($Gloria Winters) and nephew Clipper (Ron Hargethy), who were both young and eager pilots -- Penny, in particular, was depicted in later episodes as a capable competition flyer. A soft-spoken upright citizen and a pillar of the community, Sky was always willing to place the Songbird at the disposal of County Sheriff Mitch Hargrove (Ewing Mitchell) and other authorities in time of need. His adventures included tracking robbers, modern-day rustlers, and other criminals -- even spies -- as well as difficult rescue missions and searches, and mercy flights. Although he was depicted as a man of action, Grant's portrayal of Sky also emphasized safety and responsible behavior, both in and out of his aircraft. Additionally, the series tried to be as realistic as possible in depicting aviation and its role in the post-World War II world.
Sky King had originated in 1946 as a radio series, the work of creators Robert Morris Burtt and Wilfred Gibbs Moore, two pilots -- American and British respectively -- from the First World War, and writer Roy Winsor. Sponsored by Derby Foods, the makers of Peter Pan Peanut Butter, the radio show was an instant hit and was still running in the early 1950s. It made the jump to television in 1951 and was in full national syndication by the following year, also under Derby's sponsorship. Kirby Grant, a musician, bandleader, and actor of the 1940s, was cast as Sky King for the television show -- Grant was, in fact, a pilot himself (and the son of a pilot), though the flying on the show was done by Paul Mantz (who was listed as aerial advisor to the show) or employees of his company, Paul Mantz Air Services. With his easy-going charm, which was equally in evidence whether he was being totally serious and taciturn or gentle and jocular, he was an ideal adult male role model for a series such as this, and his familiarity with aircraft gave him a natural ease in the cockpit scenes that made them work especially well. Gloria Winters, who was 18 when the series went on the air, played his young teenaged niece Penny, and remained with the show for the six-year run of the series -- as was usually the case in programs aimed at younger viewers, the characters didn't evolve too much over time, and even in the final season, when Winters was in her mid-twenties, Penny King was being played as a teenager. Ron Hargethy's Clipper King, who shared their adventures in the first season, was later written out of the series. Some of the familiar faces that appeared during the run of the show included Monte Blue, Pierre Watkin, Gregg Palmer, and James Flavin. Jack Chertok, who was best known as the producer of The Lone Ranger television series, was listed as producer of the series in its early seasons, and it was his company that put the actual filming together starting in 1951. By the last two seasons, when Nabisco had taken over as sponsor, the program was listed as a McGowan Production, with credited producers Dorrell McGowan, Clark L. Paylow, and Stuart E. McGowan. As with most syndicated shows, the series was always a low-budget production, early episodes reportedly costing as little as $9000 to shoot -- in addition to three planes used for the aerial sequences, a professional mock-up of the cockpit, also provided by Cessna, was seen in close-ups. The series was very closely identified with its sponsors, Derby Foods (Peter Pan Peanut Butter) and, later, Nabisco, which both produced special commercials keyed to the series' setting and characters. And, as on the radio show that preceded it, both offered merchandise associated with the Sky King character. The early programs introduced Sky as "America's favorite flying cowboy," showing the T-50 Songbird shooting directly over the camera. In the later seasons, when the 310B became the Songbird, the opening credits of became especially entertaining and exciting: The Cessna with its two wing-tanks was seen at high altitude, as a deep-voiced announcer declared, "Out of the clear blue of the western skies -- it's Sky King!" and then the Songbird swept low across the desert at high speed. The low-altitude flying shots were always very dramatic, but the end credits did equally well with high-altitude shots, the Songbird miles above the ground as a bracing orchestral theme, dominated by horns and brass, played a sweeping dramatic theme, which resolved itself just as the plane banked hard to the left, implicitly off on a new adventure.
Thousands of American pilots (including several astronauts) across at least two generations count Sky King as one of their childhood inspirations. The series is also very fondly remembered for its quiet emphasis on values such as honesty, fairness, and good citizenship. Seventy-six episodes of the series were produced between 1951 and 1958, and the program remained on the air in syndicated reruns, mostly on Saturday mornings, into the end of the 1960s. (For years, there was an unsubstantiated rumor -- eventually debunked -- that a vault fire had destroyed the negatives for an additional 64 episodes, but only 76 shows were ever produced). Kirby Grant was very moved by the reactions of young fans to the series and the character, and he actually bought the rights to the show following its cancellation. He reportedly had plans to revive it, and also hoped to create a real Flying Crown Ranch, as a retreat for children -- he was very involved with public service work across the 1960s and 1970s, but he was never able to secure the financing for these ideas. Ironically, he was killed in a car crash in 1985, while on his way to the lift-off of the Challenger space shuttle. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi
- Kirby Grant