ItŐs About Flying

by Terry Hogan


In the heat of the summer, they return to Galesburg.  Dodging thunderheads, hail, rain, lightning and high winds, they return.  It is the largest gathering of their kind in the world.  It only happens once a year.  And it happens in Galesburg. I'm not talking about swallows, or monarch butterflies, or whooping cranes.  I'm talking about the return of the glorious and brightly colored Stearman biplanes.   They return to Galesburg, the adopted critical habitat for the rare and nearly endangered WW II trainer.  They return, despite the spiraling price of aviation gas.  You and I are the lucky ones who get to see them arrive, fly about, and then leave to return home.  It is a wonder.


These Stearman come to Galesburg using various means.  A compass helps. But so does the Interstate highway system, railroad lines, recognizable cities and towns, and the occasional glance at a water tower name. Daylight, good visibility, and good weather are essential for these relics of a time when we were in another war.


If it is a long flight, it is not always a pleasurable flight.  I'm pretty sure I've never seen a lavatory in a Stearman.  And rest areas along the Interstate are not Stearman-friendly.  I've never asked, but I'm guessing that there is a careful balancing of fluids taking place both for the engine and the crew.  This is particularly true if the crew is nearly as old as the plane.


I thought about digging out my reference book on the Stearman, but for most of us the Stearman Fly-in isn't about a particular model, a particular paint scheme, or the number on the plane.  These are important to the owners and the serious fans. For the rest of us, it is about the poetry, the art, and the resonance of these old planes.


The Smithsonian Aviation Museum is a great museum.  It has planes and spacecraft galore. But, it is not the same as seeing them do what they were designed for: fly. 


Flying.  That is all the difference.  These Stearman were lovingly put back together, many from a part here and a part there.  When the last part was put in place, somebody had the nerve to climb in and take it up into the air.  And if it flew and safely landed, and the pilot wasn't scared witless, the plane flew and flew again.  Flying, it makes all the difference.


If you are outside and you hear a Stearman over head, you just have to look up.  Most of us still have enough child left inside to be enthralled by the sight and sound of a Stearman. Stearman fly low and slow.  It gives time to admire and to appreciate.


I have flown in a Stearman a few times.  I've loved it every time.  One pilot did a loop, warning me to hold tightly to my camera.  It scared me silly to be upside down in an open cockpit.  But it was a thrill.  The g-force of the loop was greater than the force of gravity, so I was firmly planted in my seat, not hanging by the shoulder harness.  Nevertheless, when the earth and the sky returned to their "normal and upright position", I was relieved.


A pilot told me of a photo he has framed on his wall at home.  Most visitors think it is just a photo taken from a Stearman, showing wing struts framing a view of a farm field below.  However, other Stearman pilots figure out what it really is. They can tell by the angle of the wing struts.  The photo was taken while the Stearman was flying inverted.  It must have been a hoot.


Come out to the Galesburg Airport and see the Stearman biplanes close-up. Talk with the pilots and crews.  In past years, there has been at least one Stearman that would take paying passengers for a ride of a lifetime. There is a good chance there will be one this year. After a ride, you will never again wonder why Snoopy has daydreams of piloting a biplane, looking for the WWI Ace, the Red Baron.


It's all about flying.