Selling Happiness: The Airplane Man
By Elizabeth Morrisey
In the past 25 years, Tony Faria has handcrafted about 25,000 airplanes using 100,000 recycled aluminum beer cans, soda cans, juice cans – any kind of can you can think of. The 85-year-old Polk City resident, known as the “Airplane Man”, says he makes the biplanes out of love and he can make any custom order using your favorite beverage.
“It’s very surprising to see how many cans are out there,” he says. “There are some cans with really nice designs.”
Coca-Cola and Budweiser are his biggest sellers and the biplanes are about 7 inches long and 7 inches wide. Ordering online costs about $27 or catch him selling at a local market and the planes are cheaper.
Faria, who worked as a machinist in a factory, says making the airplanes is really quite simple. He cuts the tops off, cleans the cans, cuts off the bottom then uses templates for the body, wings and tail. And from start to finish it takes him about 20 minutes.
Faria’s wife, Betty, is amazed at his talent. “He can see a can ahead of time and know what it will look like. He’s got it down to a science.” But it did require some trial and error before he perfected it.
Originally from Connecticut, Faria began crafting the airplanes with a former aeronautical engineer after retiring in 1990. They saw airplanes made with a full can instead of flattened out aluminum and wanted to change the design. A few years later with several planes ready to sell, he went to his first craft show up north and his 40 planes sold out in two hours.
“They were a hot item in 1995 and 1996,” he says, recalling a time when he had to construct 1,500 airplanes for events that big-name companies were holding. Canada Dry and Pepsi higher-ups got wind of the unique biplanes and wanted them for attendees. So the family rallied together and formed an assembly line to get the job done.
“It was a family affair,” says Faria, who made Polk City his permanent residence three years ago. “They were involved and we enjoyed it. I love what I’m doing, so it’s not that difficult.”
Knowing people from all over the world have his biplanes, gives him a smile. “We’ve had visitors from everywhere,” he recalls. “Some people visiting the U.S. from Ireland brought home a Guinness plane.”
You’ll see plenty of inventory and templates scattered throughout his backyard workshop. Faria also has cherry, oak and birch wood stands, made by his nephew, and wire hooks to hang the planes on.
He even has specialty templates for the original Star Wars cans released by Pepsi in the late 1990s. Harley Davidson used to produce beer and Faria was lucky to get the cans and sells those as well. Throughout the years, he’s seen lots of unique designs such as a knight in shining armor, elephants, and Santa.
How does he obtain all of these cans? It was a little more challenging up north where he had to pay a fee to get the cans. In most New England states, people pay a deposit fee when purchasing cans and residents can receive money when redeeming their empty ones.
And what to do with all of those soda tabs? Faria donated the tabs to the local Connecticut VA Hospital – about one million of them.
Here in Florida, he has friends that save them, but he said right now he’s not going out of his way to get them. For now, he and his wife Betty are happy selling them at a few local events, such as the Winter Haven 2nd and 4th Saturday Market each month, the Haven Holiday Market in Winter Haven on Nov. 12, and Munn Park’s Snowfest on Dec. 3 in Lakeland. And their website gets them a few orders.
Although sales have slowed down and some health issues have arisen, he still enjoys assembling them. “The planes make retirement enjoyable,” he says. “It’s a challenge and I love a challenge.”