Getting High With Stearman

by Terry Hogan

Warning, the FAA may conclude that flying in a Stearman can be habit-forming. Yeah, so what so new about that? It’s obvious. Why else would these otherwise normal people, who could pass for your neighbors, or at least your neighbor’s neighbors, spend tens of thousands of dollars in order to fly their own Stearman? It is habit forming. You will have withdrawal symptoms once you have tasted open cockpit flying. Once tasted, you long for more. You are a Stearman addict.

"Hello. My name is Terry Hogan. It has been nearly one year since my last Stearman flight." Yes, I take one day at a time, until weeks pass and then months. The time goes by slowly, but then it is September and time again for the annual Stearman fly-in. And I return. I watch the Stearman, individually, in pairs, or in groups, flyover Lake Bracken early Saturday morning, beckoning me to drive to the airport. There I see them lined up, wings extended like butterflies trying to dry off the morning dew before taking flight.

Occasionally, an engine will growl and come to life- all that power in what looks to be an entirely too fragile frame. The Stearman bounces along the grass and the pilot looks around to make sure he doesn’t do something stupid, before placing her back into her environment.

The world looks different from a Stearman. You can look down and clearly see details of Galesburg and the farmland that donuts it. Knox and Old Main, the spider-like threads of railroad tracks criss-crossing Galesburg, the rail yards, Lake Bracken, Lake Storey are all there, passing by slow enough to be studied. It’s like a step back in time. One only needs the smoke and steam from a "Q" steam locomotive to make the transition complete.

If you are lucky, you may have the opportunity to skim across the parallel rows of corn, waiting for harvest. At low altitude the lazy speed of the Stearman is much more impressive as the corn speeds by under the propeller. As we skimmed across the cornfield, I quickly harked back to my youthful experience of detasalling corn. I pondered, and discarded, the notion whether the Stearman and seed corn folks weren’t missing an opportunity for collaboration. Can you imagine the scene of corn being mechanically detasseled by a Stearman at 80 mph?

It has got to be one of the best-kept secrets. Perhaps it isn’t more widely known, because it is Galesburg’s dirty little secret. One week a year, it legalizes addictive behavior. The Galesburg Stearman fly-in is purported to be the largest Stearman fly-in in the world. I was going to say that the annual Harley Davidson gathering in an obscure western town is like Galesburg’s Stearman fly-in, but perhaps it should be the other way around. Meaning no disrespect to my late Uncle who loved his Harleys, I don’t think they share the level of exhilaration of a Stearman.

Galesburg’s Stearman fly-in seems to me to be perfect material for a PBS show. It has all the classic features of great photography, nostalgia, showing what is best of America, and recording the hard work and final triumph of these dedicated flyer of finding and restoring these beautiful old biplanes. Sometimes "ya just gotta wonder" what these TV folks are doing.

These old, carefully restored Stearman actually fly through the air, rather than being pushed through the air. The roar of the engine, the feel of the air rushing by, the blur of the propeller at what feels like only millimeters from the end of your noise, and the bounce across the grass before separation from earth, is a legal drug. The thrill of the Stearman simply gets into your blood and changes your brain chemistry. Neurons are re-routed and new synapses are developed that send one and only one message- Let us fly; Let us fly today! They don’t call it "a rush" for nothing.

Snoopy, hunting for the evil Red Baron, is nothing more than "Joe Camel" pushing an addictive habit. But I can’t find fault with Snoopy. It is a habit worth having.

So, how did this all begin? Was it a part of a communistic plot to destroy the economy of America by forcing all Americans into debt, buying their own Stearmans. No, it has a more humble beginning.

These wonderful Stearman biplanes that descend on Galesburg like mechanized locusts were, not too surprisingly, named for a guy by the name of Stearman. More specifically, one Lloyd Carlton Stearman. Stearman was an engineer who became fascinated with airplanes and airplane design. He "hung out" with his own kind- fellow airplane geeks who had names like Beech and Cessna (perhaps giving rise to the term "airport hangers"). They formed a partnership called the "Travel Air Manufacturing Company." There, Stearman developed a biplane identified as the Travel Air Series 2000/3000/4000. It was produced in the late 20’s. Stearman also developed larger planes to carry the weight needed by the developing airmail system. An obscure airmail pilot by the name of Charles Lindbergh flew his plane. Stearman, it seemed, was just naturally attracted to aviation geeks, who had no foreseeable economic future.

In 1927, Stearman left Travel Air and formed Stearman Aircraft, with the help of a few of his friends. Having some success in California, but developing debt, Stearman Aircraft move to Kansas and received financial assistance. Stearman planes became successful and were used in mail transport, by the Forest Patrol and by industry. But the stock market crash and subsequent depression put a serious crunch on the airplane industry. Few could afford to feed their habit.

However, the military need for aircraft to train pilots brought success to Stearman. By 1939, Stearman was producing docile Stearman biplanes by the hundreds for the army and the navy (no air force back then). With the war, America needed pilots, and trainer aircraft to train them in. The Stearman biplane filled that need, and in so doing, was produced in greater numbers than any other biplane in America’s history. The navy version of the Stearman (N2S- ) was initially painted yellow and got the nickname "Yellow Perils." This reliance on yellow explains the large number of faithfully restored Stearmans at the Galesburg fly-in having the same shade of brilliant yellow.

About one-half of the army and navy pilots for WWII were trained in Stearman. One young pilot who went on to some minor success after the War acknowledged that his first plane was a Stearman. He was George Herbert Walker Bush. I suppose his greatest claim to history- his 15 minutes of glory- would have to be that he became the first "Bush Pilot." (He later was elected to political office, as I recall.)

History records that the mighty little biplane that could, did. A few Stearman did find their way into battle. Stearman were used by a few brave souls in the Philippines and elsewhere against the Japanese. Some were rigged with machine guns, others were used to flow low and slow (what other alternative would the biplane have) to take photos of Japanese positions.

Stearman also manufactured a few planes designed with weapons. For example, five were designed and built for Venezuela in 1941. These were equipped with 320 hp engines and two .30 caliber machine guns mounted on the lower wing, safely away from the propeller.

Stearman also provided trainers for Canada, but the open cockpit design proved unsatisfactory for winter training.

After the war, the trainers were dumped on the open market for anyone who would buy them. They soon found a slot in the new business of crop dusting. Stearman were refitted with larger engines and the front cockpit disappeared, being replaced with a tank for holding up to one ton of pesticide. With the big engine and a ton of pesticide, the Stearman became planes adapted for flying a foot or so above the crops. In those days, DDT was often the material sprayed. By 1948 there were several thousand Stearman in the lucrative business of crop dusting. It’s only a guess, but I bet any mosquito dumb enough to bite a crop duster probably quickly died from the pilot’s DDT body burden.

There were a few Stearman that seemed, by my way of thinking, to have found a better way of making a living. A few Stearman were float-equipped. Given a choice of skimming over cotton while spraying a poison, or setting down on a pristine north woods lake for some serious fishing, I think I could make the choice.

And yes, a few Stearman, like wayward children, left home and joined the aviation version of the circus. The low and slow Stearman was tinkered with and became an aerobatic performer. Typically, the smaller engine (220 hp, normally) was removed and replaced with a larger engine (e.g. 450 hp Wasp) to provide the power to do more daring climbs. Ailerons were also added to the top wing. In 1979 the "Red Baron Stearman Squadron" began flying about the country in brilliantly painted white and red modified Stearman, sporting the larger 450hp engines. They, with the aid of trailing smoke, perform "barnstorming" shows, raising money for charities. These modified Stearman are the extroverts of the family.

But no amount of my "yabbering" about the thrill of flying in a Stearman will get the job done. You just gotta get a ride in one for yourself. It will be something you can look back on, for years, and if you have a video camera, take it with you. It’s a ride.

We owe a lot to these fine people who come to Galesburg and let us admire their lovely planes. Each is a work of art. Each is a work of love. Each is a demand on their pocketbook. Despite that, they fly in to Galesburg from all directions through rain, sometimes cold, with rather Spartan comforts (all right, actually NO comforts) to soften the long travel times.

We also owe a lot to the Galesburg-area folks who quietly do what needs to be done to allow this to happen year after year. Volunteers are the quiet, overlooked folks, whose reward is often only their own sense of accomplished.

So go to the airport. Admire the planes. Take a ride if you can possibly do it. And thank a volunteer. Each action will make your day a little more memorable.

Would I "Stear" you wrong?

Recommended Reading:

"Stearman, A Pictorial History" (1997) by Jim Avis and Martin Bowman, published by Motorbooks International. ($39.95). The title doesn’t do this book justice. It has fantastic photos, including some from the Galesburg fly-in but it is more. It has more history on these wonderful old biplanes than you will ever need. I should acknowledge my heavy reliance on this work.