Magnificent Flying Machines

My compliments go to Galesburg and all those who help put together this year's fly-in. I think that this is one of Galesburg's best kept secrets but I hope it is widely leaked by next year. Saturday, September 11, was busy at the airport with Stearman landing and taking off, flying by, as well as a WWII vintage fighter and bomber being on display. The die-hards were rewarded with the opportunity to watch these old warplanes startup, taxi and fly out late Saturday afternoon.

The sound and sight of a Stearman overhead is out of the same mode as a steam locomotive charging down the track with the whistle blowing or a genuine steam-powered paddlewheeler splashing its path up the Mississippi, calliope in full voice. They are sounds and sights that except for the insight of a few visionaries would have been lost to us all. They are living history, maintained at great cost by their owners, that bring a moment of joy to young and old alike. What better way to introduce to the young, the importance of saving the best of the past than to see, hear, and maybe fly in a Stearman.

For those who hadn't flown, or wanted to fly more, there was both a vintage Stearman giving rides as well as more contemporary small aircraft. The Stearman rides were $50, but for most of us, it is a ride of a lifetime. To sit in the front, open cockpit and scream along the tops of cornfields at 80 mph with the roar of the engine and the flow of the air is unbeatable. Invigorating is the term to describe sitting a few short feet from a powerful piston driven engine spinning a propeller that drags you through the air.

I saw young children being loaded into the Stearman for a living touch of history. I watched an elderly gentleman in his 80s, on a small, portable oxygen supply, fly off into the near-setting sun on Saturday. All enjoyed their flight of history. I enjoyed their enjoyment. If it were at a circus, the banner would proclaim ''Come ride the Magnificent Flying Machine- A Thrill for Young and Old Alike.'' And I would offer to be the ''barker'' for free.

However, I must admit, that watching the young and old fly away and return was outdone by having the last Stearman flight of the day. Snuggling tightly in the front (co-pilot) cockpit of the Stearman, with my wife, we barreled down the runway and lifted off into the south. The sun had set, but the Galesburg sky was still light with brilliant pink and dark shades of blue. Beneath were Knox County's cornfields, waiting to be picked. As we circled to the east, the lights of Galesburg came into view, and car's headlights were streaming lines on Route 34. Before us were the very basics of gauges telling me very little, but I suppose enough for the pilot behind us. Our elevation reminded me of the height of the top of the Ferris wheel at the Knox County Fair when I was a lad. By this time of the evening, most folks had left for the day, but late Saturday was the best. The exhausted pilot saw the end in sight. The strain of repeated takeoffs and landings all day on a busy runway was near the end. The romance of the flight was emanated from the front cockpit, not the last. The pilot was visibly tired. It had been a long day. This is sometimes the danger of fulfilling your dream. But, he gave us a memorable flight, a cool evening, a beautiful Illinois sunset, and something we will long remember.

I had both a video camera and a 35-mm camera with me. However, the roar of the engine, the moment of the land below, and the whistle of the wind made it purely a video camera event. It just didn't occur to me to stop video filming to take a 35-mm color still. As the Stearman flies so much closer to the ground, the view and the sense of speed far exceeds flying on a commercial jet. Although the Stearman, a product of the 1930s and 1940s is much too recent, one can still expect to see the Red Baron swooping out of the sun, or in this case, the sunset, about to fire a blast against our fragile aircraft.

Of course I am mixing wars. The Stearman was used primarily as a trainer for pilots about to go forth and face Germans, Italians, and Japanese in WWII, not the Red Baron in WWI. I read that the Stearman was a fine tool for that purpose, but I would speculate that it must have been quite a change to go from the open cockpit biplane to the WWII fighter aircraft.

Not many of us can afford the $80,000 to $125,000 purchase price of a Stearman, or even the substantial upkeep for one. However, we all now have 12 months to start setting aside nickels, dimes, and quarters for the ride of a lifetime next year. Five or six dollars a month, set aside in the ''flight of fancy'' fund, will put you into the open cockpit, with nothing between you and the clean air of Knox County, but a propeller spinning at a blurring rate.

For the less adventuresome, or those who couldn't spring for the $50, rides were also being given in small single or twin-engine planes. These rides were much more affordable, although enclosed. I understand that these plane rides are available year round at the airport by calling ahead to make an appointment. I can't imagine a much more exciting birthday gift for a young boy or girl, or someone who is still young in heart, except maybe a hot air balloon ride.

Those of us who stayed late on Saturday were given an unanticipated thrill. The bright WWII fighter, shiny in its reflective suit and the drab WWII B-24 bomber, named the ''Axis Nightmare'' and sporting a skull, fired up their engines to leave Galesburg, but a memory. Smoke and fumes of unburned fuel puff out as the propellers turn over, first, ever so slowly and then at increasing speeds. The engines begin to smooth out and as the rpms increase, the roar of a mechanical lion echoes about and the planes shake in anticipation of their return to flight. The bomber lumbers down the Galesburg runway, late in the Saturday afternoon sun. It moves more like an elephant, appearing to be an unlikely candidate for flight. As it turns toward the south, at the north end of the runway, a roar of thunderous power sweeps back across the dwarfed Stearman. The plane shakes like a dog from a pond and then it is released to race down the pavement. In that moment, all stop what they are doing and watch this beast the represents the best and the worse of mankind, speed down the runway, and creating new history as it does so. For those few moments, kids didn't walk, cry, or talk. Parents become kids again. Commerce in the form of shirt sales, food sales, ride sales, all stop. We, the late Saturday afternoon visitors to the Galesburg Airport are united in watching this beast climb into the air like it and so many of its kind did over a half a century ago. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this moment was worth volumes. As we here too often, ''you had to be there.''

I pondered briefly what it must have been like for the pilots of these old lumbering bombers. I was shocked at their fragile location on the very tip of the plane. Rather than being surrounded by armor for their protection, they were in a goldfish bowl for visibility. These were the times when the pilots still relied on vision to help find their targets, to detect their enemy in much swifter fighters, and to try to keep from crashing into their neighboring bombers. They flew into and out of clouds, or through the darkness of terrifying night bombing raids, massed in numbers for efforts of increased safety from fighters. It must have been terrifying. They worried for their own safety and the safety of their crew, and had the duty to balance this against their mission.

It is history for most of us. All these classic Stearman and the WWII planes served their primary purpose before we were born. For some, only a few now, it is not history, but rather an integral part of their lives. Those remaining WWII pilots and members of flight crews decrease daily. One person's history is another person's defining moment. Events occur in war that will influence its participants for a lifetime. While we glory in the machines, we must not forget the contributions made by those who flew them.

The Galesburg Stearman flyin is an exception event, put on through the concerted efforts of untold numbers of volunteers. It speaks well of Galesburg as a city, as a community, and as a bit of on-going history, in the making. Galesburg has a good thing going and the opportunities could soar, even if only at 80 mph.

It is also a lot of fun. The next opportunity is less than a year away.

Come ride in a magnificent flying machine.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online September 15, 1999

Back to The Zephyr