Sky King was an American radio and TV series. Its lead character was Arizona rancher and aircraft pilot Schuyler “Sky” King. The series may have been based on a true-life personality of the 1930s, Jack Cones, known as the “Flying Constable” of Twentynine Palms in San Bernardino County, California, although this notion is unverified.
The series had strong western elements. King usually captured criminals and spies and found lost hikers–though he did so with the use of his airplane, the Songbird. The airplanes flown by King changed during the course of the TV series – the first was a Cessna T-50; later on a Cessna 310B was on loan to Sky King from Cessna – but all were named Songbird. The later 1957 version aircraft’s make and model type number was clearly depicted as a “Cessna 310B” and was prominently displayed during the closing titles.
King and his niece Penny (and sometimes Clipper, King’s nephew and the brother of Penny) lived on the Flying Crown Ranch, near the fictitious town of Grover, Arizona. Penny and Clipper were also pilots, although they were inexperienced and looked to their uncle for guidance. Penny was an accomplished air racer, rated as a multiengine pilot, whom Sky trusted to fly the Songbird.
The musical score was largely the work of composer Herschel Burke Gilbert.
The radio show began in 1946 and was based on a story by Roy Winsor, the brainchild of Robert Morris Burtt and Wilfred Gibbs Moore, who also created Captain Midnight. Several actors played the part of Sky, including Earl Nightingale and John Reed King.
“Radio premiums” were offered to listeners, as was the case with many radio shows of the day. For example, the Sky King Secret Signalscope was used on November 2, 1947, in the “Mountain Detour” episode. 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 and trees. The premiums were innovative, such as the Sky King Spy-Detecto Writer, which had a “decoder” (cipher disk), magnifying glass, measuring scale, and printing mechanism in a single package slightly over two inches long. Other notable premiums were 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, broadcasting simultaneously with the first portion of the television version.
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. Mitch, a competent and intelligent law enforcement officer, depended on his friend Sky’s flying skills to solve the harder cases. Other recurring characters included Jim Bell, the ranch foreman, played in four episodes by Chubby Johnson, as well as Sheriff Hollister portrayed by Monte Blue in five episodes, and Bob Carey, portrayed in ten episodes by Norman Ollestad.
Many of the storylines would parallel those used in such dramatic pot-boilers as Adventures of Superman with the supporting cast repeatedly finding themselves in near-death situations and the hero rescuing them with seconds to spare. Penny was particularly adroit at falling into the hands of spies, bank robbers (the best place to hide stolen loot apparently being in the desert of Arizona), and other ne’er-do-wells.
Sky never killed the villains, as with most television cowboy heroes of the time, though one episode had him shooting a machine gun into his own stolen plane. 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, but Grant was able to bring a casual, natural treatment of technical details, leading to a level of believability not found in other TV series involving aviation or life in the American West. Likewise, villains and other characters were usually depicted as intelligent and believable, rather than as two-dimensional. 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 sleek, second 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 short credit roll which followed was equally dramatic, with the Songbird swooping at the camera across El Mirage Lake, California, then pulling up into a steep climb as it departed. 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 show also featured low-level flying, especially with the later Songbird. Many shots showed the airplane “down amongst the rocks and the trees”, to show the speed of the plane as the desert flashed by in the background.