Those Magnificent Flying Machines

By Terry Hogan

I’ve learned to mark the end of Summer by their arrival and departure. These beautifully restored Stearman and their pilots come and share their beauty with Galesburg for a few days. We are lucky. The Stearman fly over Galesburg, over Lake Bracken, over Lake Storey and visit some of our neighboring towns. This year their magnificent sound had to compete with the cicada.

They are the Harleys of the air. It takes little attention to discern the sound of a Stearman from other aircraft. Just like the Harley. They are American and played a role in "The War". Just like the Harley. They entice people to reach deep into their pockets to own a piece of American history; to be a part of something special. Just like the Harley.

I must admit that I was disappointed in the loss of the one Stearman that had shown up in recent years to take passengers for a ride. Although the price was high enough to cause a moment’s pause, the price provided an opportunity of a lifetime. But there was no pay for play this year. Many disappointed potential riders showed up at the airport tent to take a ride in a Stearman. Many found solace in the very affordable, but slightly less memorable, ride in one of the non-Stearman planes that were providing rides for only $10 per person. It was undoubtedly a long and tiring day for these pilots, repeating numerous takeoffs and landings, on what I assume is the Galesburg airport’s busiest day of the year. But they gave nice tours and on a flight I took, I was able to see Lake Bracken, the railroad humps, Galesburg, Lake Storey, and a fantastic view of all the Stearman lined up at the airport.

In my roaming around at the airport, I met an elderly man who was a Flying Fortress bomber pilot during WWII. His first flight training was with a Stearman in North Carolina. He related that his instructor told him that if he ran into problems with the Stearman, to let loose of the controls. The Stearman would land itself, the instructor assured him. I think we both knew this was probably a little hyperbole, but it makes a good story. His trip to England was by boat. He flew the Flying Fortress bomber from 1943 to the end of the war. He was based in northern England. On his first flight, the plane came back with 19 holes – from flak. He was never shot down, and oddly (to me, anyway), he never had "his plane". There was no nose art, no pet name for the plane, and no record of flights on the fuselage. The crews flew whatever planes were available. Damage was so common to the bombers; that planes were repaired, place into service, and repaired again. At the end of the European war, he flew a bomber home. He expected to be assigned to the Pacific War, but it ended while he was still in the States.

He and his wife traveled to England a few years back to visit the site where his bomber group was located. He said he was expecting a small monument or other marking to show this little piece of history. They found the place. It was now a turkey farm. They found some pieces of asphalt to confirm their location. That was that.

I last saw him Saturday at about 5pm near the entrance to the Stearman area. The hoopla was over. Spectators were going home. Many Stearman had left and others were being buttoned up for the night. He was hoping to find someone who would give him a ride in a Stearman. I hope he found someone. With all the flag waving and patriotic songs, it seems a small enough thing to do for someone who put his life on the line, facing flak and fighters over Europe, nearly 60 years ago. And it all started for him with his first flight in a Stearman.

We all have reasons to enjoy the Stearman and the Galesburg Fly-in. His was the best that I heard this year.