Stearing Back to Galesburg

by Terry Hogan

It is hard to believe that a year has nearly gone by. The Stearman are on Galesburg's horizon once again. It's been a tough year on Galesburg - Maytag and the dismal treatment Galesburg received by the Burlington Northern for "Railroad Days". But the Stearman keep coming back. I hope Galesburg appreciates what it has, and turns out for them. It is a spectacular sight. It is a view from our past. It is living history. It is a museum brought to your doorstep, or at least to your airport.

I wonder if Lloyd Stearman, in his wildest dream, ever envisioned the love and attention that his design, his plane, would provoke. Stearman are not cheap. They're not cheap if you buy one fully restored, or if you buy a "basket case" and restore it yourself. It is an act of love. It is, perhaps, an act of madness. It is an effort to bring back what flying was like before "flying by wire". No computers intervene between the pilot and his meager controls. It was art as much as mechanics. The pilot "feels" the plane, or at least he'd better.

They will fly in by the "ones" and the "twos" from all parts of the U.S. For many, it will be a long, windy, loud trip from home to Galesburg. Bad weather can make it worse. These Stearman don't cruise at 30,000 feet and 400 mph. They fly through, not over, the weather. It is a commitment of time and money for the owners/pilots to come to Galesburg. They see friends who they haven't seen for a while. But they also share the sweat of their brow with those who want to come and see a flock of Stearman. It is a bit of living history that few have the opportunity to see. But it is in your own backyard. When they fly over, it is uniquely their sound.

I wrote an extensive article about the Stearman last year. It was criticized by a Zephyr reader as being too long. The comment was published in a letter to the editor. That's the bad news. The good news is that I at least know that someone is reading the column.

So, I won't go into the long history of the Stearman, other than to say there is a long history. When you look at them sitting at the Galesburg Airport, or flying slowly across the sky, there is a reason why they are of various colors. Some were trainers for the Navy. Some were trainers for the Army. Each had its own colors. Others served in a civilian capacity as crop dusters, etc., and may have had a larger engine installed for that task.

But perhaps the most important history is how the individual plane was saved. Someone bought the plane in a state of decay and painstakingly restored it into an operating work of art. They climbed into the "back seat", fired the engine up, and headed off into the sky. Just a handful of gauges, a pair of goggles, a leather helmet, and they were off. As the altimeter climbed, the hands of the clock spun back in time- the 90's, 80's, 70's, 60's 50's, and 40's to a time when America was facing a historic challenge.

Young men in the teens and early twenties marched out onto the runways across America, and climbed into the cockpit. They were harangued, encouraged, challenged, and perhaps coerced to learn to fly this biplane. If successful, these young men would move up to bigger, faster, more deadly, but perhaps not better, flying machines. They were preparing for war. If successful, they would become pilots. They would fly in Europe, in Africa, and in the Pacific to bring victory and peace back to America. Some would survive and return home. Some would not. But many took their first leap into the air in a Stearman.

I have flown in a Stearman several times now. I love it. I wish I owned one. I do not. I never will. But I have learned with the passage of time, that I need not own everything that I admire or love. But I do look forward to the return of the Stearman to Galesburg. I will be there. I will be standing along side the Stearman somewhere at the airport, hoping to hear someone say, "Would you like to go for a ride?" It is an unlikely outcome. But hope springs eternal. And even if I don't have an opportunity to sit a few feet behind the whirling propeller of a Stearman, like James Thurber's Walter Mitty, I can dream.

There is absolutely nothing like the open cockpit of a Stearman, racing along at 80 to 90 mph. Wind blows in your face. The engine noise throbs in your ears. Galesburg, Lake Bracken, Lake Storey, pass below. Other Stearman can be picked out against the horizon. Although historically incorrect, one cannot help but like Snoopy, look on the horizon for the Red Baron. But this description is inadequate. It's just something you have to experience.

I hope that you will come to the Galesburg Airport and visit these wonderful men and women and their "magnificent flying machines" (yea, I just had to use the phrase at least once). Ask about the plane, the plane’s history, and how it was flying to Galesburg.

These folks saved the Stearman from certain death. Now it is up to Galesburg to ensure that the Stearman Fly-in doesn't go the way of the Railroad Days. But it's not an altruistic exercise. Go. Learn. Ask questions. Appreciate the living history.

Perhaps, if you are really, really lucky, you may cruise across the Knox County cornfields at 80 mph. But check the sun. The Red Baron was notorious for flying out of it to get the first shot.