Knoxville Flying Boatmen

Several Vagabonds were bought by an amateur marine stunt group called "The Flying Boatmen of Knoxville, Tennessee" who entertained thousands with closely coordinated barrel rolls, tight V and trail manuevers, spin-outs and other thrill-a-minute tactics.

The pictures below are from Mike Crowder who used take rides in these boats as a kid for 25 cents...

Write up as posted on the Knoxville Flying Boatmen facebook page:

“A Spectacle of Spray and a Touch of the Daring!”
The Story of the Flying Boatmen

The decade of the 1950’s produced a character in boating not seen before or since. The charm of those unique hull designs with eye-catching curves and sleek spray rails revealed an age of expression, right down to the mahogany flag posts. In those days, simplicity reigned supreme and nowhere was this more apparent... than in this unforgettable era on the water.

Boating in the ‘50’s began to take on the appearance of imagination and color. Vessels were pure vintage complete with a “tail fin” look that conveyed an innocence now seemingly lost forever. This decade of boating offered “the look” of personality with a hint of performance. These were the good ole days many of us dream of getting back to. Now, close your eyes and try to imagine the idea of multiple, yet identical, classic crafts amplified across the water some 20 times! That is exactly what the Flying Boatmen of Knoxville, Tennessee brought to audiences for over two decades.

Conceived in 1953 by an Air Force colonel, the Flying Boatmen Club was the nautical answer to the aeronautic shows still performed today by the ‘Thunder Birds” and “Blue Angels.” Colonel Scott Fellows, stationed at Knoxville’s McGhee – Tyson Air Base, imagined the possibility of performing maneuvers such as echelons and diamonds, but executing these formations on water instead of in the air. He had quite an original idea, so in 1953 he took his vision from paper to pond. Fellows knew a concept of this caliber needed help plus a little luck along the way, and sure enough, his first big break came in the form of an introduction to a fellow named Dixie Loy. A marine store sales executive, Loy knew all different type boats, numerous potential drivers, and the many east Tennessee lakes. Fellows had the concept, but Loy had the commitment over the long haul to make the Flying Boatmen a household name in east Tennessee. Fellows would move on in due time, and over the years, it would be Loy’s unwavering dedication and matchless connections that would propel the Flying Boatmen to national prominence.

With Fellows concept, and Loy’s contacts, the search was on for the right hull capable of handling rough water punishment without sacrificing maneuverability. The answer: The Feather Craft Vagabond…a lightweight v-hull aluminum boat featuring a rudder from bow to stern complete with the “tumble home” curved sides. It was this distinctive design which provided an unmistakable look from the grandstands and an unbeatable performance from the driver’s seat. Feather Craft had the product and the Flying Boatmen never strayed away. In over 20 years of active performance, the club never found another hull that offered all of the intangibles of the Vagabond. The Feather Craft made the Flying Boatmen…and sadly, it brought on their demise. When the Vagabond model was discontinued in 1959, the Boatmen were on borrowed time.

But in 1953, it was all systems go as Loy assembled a number of enthusiastic boatmen from Knoxville. The original Flying Boatmen drivers came from all walks of life: a police chief, a home builder, a TV news man, auto mechanic, factory foreman, tour bus driver, and upholstery manufacturer give an idea of the career diversity represented in the club. But the author of this story can tell you first hand of one trait these great men all shared: They were SUPERIOR drivers, and even better people. All of them. History tells us the original Mercury astronauts represented “the best of the best” and the original Flying Boatmen drivers took on a similar quality. No weak links in the bunch! While many of these unique and colorful individuals have since passed on, yours truly has had the pleasure of being on the water with a number of these gentlemen and have witnessed the split second timing and their matchless high-eye coordination with the throttle. These men could put a Feather Craft into a space others wouldn’t dare. They could span the river lined up only inches apart running full speed…and never flinch. These guys were good. And their shows were even better.

If you ever saw the Flying Boatmen perform, your remember the spine tingling image on the horizon of multiple Feather Crafts emerging like an army, show flags proudly waving in the breeze, an impressive “Big V” of Vagabonds growing larger and larger as the formation approached the show area. “A spectacle of spray and a touch of the daring!” the show’s emcee would exclaim. And on any given day, fans would be treated to a fleet of Feather Crafts ranging from nine up to 17 boats depending upon driver availability. (Club rules maximized the membership at 25). Following the introductory Big V formation, the Boatmen would blend a majestic, soothing formation with the excitement of split-second timing by means of the “Vagabond Parade.” This popular maneuver featured the boats in two columns approaching the shore at full speed, only to peel back and criss-cross at the rear of the twin column. It is difficult to describe with the word. You simply had to see it. Through decades and literally hundreds of shows, the author is only aware of two collisions of any significance. Both occurred during the Vagabond Parade. Again, this incredible safety record is a tribute to the quality of the drivers and the hours they committed to practice, year after year after year. After the Vagabond parade, the Flying Boatmen would break into multiple groups and showcase many of the traditional diamond, echelon, and small “V” formations their Air Force ancestors made famous. Then it would be time to show off the incomparable turning radius of the Feather Craft by creating an “Old Western Wagon Wheel” and even a classic full speed Figure 8! (And it was no maneuver for the faint of heart).

The Flying Boatmen would then build the moment for the climactic close by pushing the Feather Craft to its performance limit. One unique quality Fellows and Loy may or may not have bargained for in the Vagabond was its ability to literally “spin-out” at full throttle and change direction with a massive show of spray and thunderous roar of the outboard motor. In this instance, the steering wheel is rapidly turned hard all the way in one direction while the bow of the boat digs causing the/stern and prop to come completely out of the water. The bow and stern swap ends, then the entire hull rocks back down in the water as if dropped from a two story building. (The author strongly discourages any attempts of this particular maneuver, and if you’re thinking of attempting such a stunt in a Feather Craft Rocket, be prepared to go swimming). The spin-out provided an exciting close to the show that literally brought spectators to their feet time and time again. “Split the Hair” always quickened the pulse of the audience as two boats would proceed downstream, a single boat upstream with just enough room to pass between the other two. Once through, all three would perform a wide open “spin-out.” It was quite a crowd pleaser. The end of the show featured each boat performing a single spin-out close in to the audience on the shore line, followed by “double spin-outs” with two boats spinning simultaneously, and finally, the hair-raising triple spin-outs executed with amazingly few feet separating each boat. Total run time of a performance averaged 45 minutes to an hour.

Down through the years, only one thing has ever been known to top the grace, precision, and excitement of seeing these Flying Boatmen shows…and that’s seeing the Flying Boatmen at night! That’s correct. The Flying Boatmen rigged their Feather Crafts with special frames of multi-colored lights and performed these identical stunts after dark. “Spectacle” does not do it justice. Imagine the difficulty of running such close maneuvers in broad daylight, only to turn around and demand the same precise patterns, and at times when the only ray of navigation light is coming from the moon. Somehow, someway, the Flying Boatmen always pulled it off.

With the club being based in Knoxville, local crowds were treated to regular performances, particularly downtown “between the bridges” exactly where the popular Vol Navy gathers today for University of Tennessee football games. But the club loved to take their act on the road, and it was never for money. The Flying Boatmen traveled their families and their boats, all for the love of boating, nothing more. In their hey day, the club was nationally recognized and sought after by a number of communities and boating clubs. The Flying Boatmen resume included such stops as Lake Michigan in Chicago, Fontana, North Carolina, the Potomac in Washington, D.C., Poplar Bluff, Missouri, Atlanta, Georgia, Silver Springs, Florida and other aquatic destinations. Even their caravans on interstates and highways were show-stoppers. This parade of colorful blue, gold, and silver Vagabonds stopped traffic everywhere they went. Entire families were outfitted in special white Flying Boatmen oxford button downs with embroidered red canvas jackets (and in the early days the drivers sported the classic black captains hats). If you were a child and your parents were in the club, as was yours truly, you enjoyed a fun and memorable childhood.

Many assume the club got its name from its close kinship with the Air Force “Thunderbirds,” but that is not the case. In the early days of the club, the Boatmen were performing on Lake Allatoona near Atlanta. During a planned spin-out, an excited reporter from the Atlanta Journal Constitution exclaimed, “My gosh man…look at those Flying Boatmen!”…. and the name stuck.

If you were fortunate enough to be voted into the club, you then had to pass weeks and months of driver training before any consideration was ever given to performing in a live show. And if you did not own the complete package of Feather Craft boat, Johnson outboard, and Gator trailer, you were automatically disqualified. These were the brands associated the Flying Boatmen. Another key element Loy brought to the club was the staunch support of these three companies. From its inception to its last performance, Feather Craft, Johnson, and Gator were exclusively used and endorsed by the Flying Boatmen.

Another name synonymous with the Flying Boatmen was “charity.” These big-time drivers were also known to have big hearts. Fund raisers for organizations too numerous to mention were a consistent deed performed by the club. Many a special needs child experienced the ride of their life in the incomparable Feather Craft Vagabond. Their ear-to-ear grin was all the satisfaction the drivers and their families ever needed. Many of those special rides took place in Knoxville on the fair grounds known as Chilhowee Park. A very modest man-made “lake” provided barely enough depth for the Vagabond hull to make dreams come true for many kids, big and small, young and old alike. It is amazing that one of the most enduring memories the people of east Tennessee have of the Flying Boatmen are their boat rides in Chilhowee Park. Given its tight quarters and shallow draft, it’s possible those rides may be the only ones ever experienced on that body of water…and only in a Feather Craft.

Another body of water navigated expertly by the Flying Boatmen was the wild and winding Ocklawaha River near Ocala, Florida. This was boating at its finest featuring all the thrills and tight turns of a roller coaster. Given the narrowness of the channel and the unpredictable S turns in the river, most vessels could take this stretch at no better than half-throttle. The Feather Craft was the proven exception. Some incredible color motion-picture film from the late ‘50’s capture the Flying Boatmen “skating” the Ocklawaha at full throttle speeds. (Skippers beware: For this river, you never want to get caught on the outside of another boat’s rooster tail (wake) when taking a tight turn. In the blink of an eye you could go from “Flying Boatman” to “Flying Bankman”). The Ocklawaha became a favored destination of the club throughout its life span. Not surprising, it was the discovery of Loy.

In 1981, some five years after the final show, the Flying Boatmen held a reunion at their familiar club house location lake side in the Louisville community of east Tennessee. (The club house remained and was maintained by a couple of the surviving original members until sometime in the early 1990’s when it was donated to charity). On this day in 1981, the author remembers seeing all of his childhood Flying Boatmen heroes through the eyes of an eager teen-ager, having just arrived at the realization of being born too late. It’s true, I missed the hey day of the Flying Boatmen but came along just in time to see a number of shows and experience the “Spectacle.” I was 11 years old the last time they performed an official show. Now I was sitting at the reunion with my parents listening to my Dad (former driver and always the emcee) introduce a lot of the famous names and faces associated with the club. As he approached the end of his speech, Dad predictably saved his best line for last… “And ladies and gentlemen it gives me great pleasure to recognize MR. FLYING BOATMAN……… Dixie Loy!” With that, I witnessed Mr. Loy, once a proud, stocky, powerful man now weakened by old age and a stroke, become emotional over his introduction. At that very moment, I remember thinking there would come a day when I would regret not being able to hear his amazing story of the Flying Boatmen recalled in his own words.

Let me assure you. That day has arrived.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Steve Early is the son of former Flying Boatman, Jim Early (driver and show emcee from 1955-1972). He lives in Knoxville, Tennessee and is the owner four (4) Feather Craft Vagabonds, including his father’s original show boat. Two of Early’s Feather Crafts, both 1959 models, are in prime showroom condition with minimal hours of original use. Early fulfilled many of his childhood dreams throughout the late 1980’s and ‘90’s by cruising with several of the original Flying Boatmen drivers in a number of their famous formations.


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