Spirit in the sky: Stearman 2004


by Terry Hogan

In Galesburg there was romance in the sky. It lasted for a week. It took various forms. There were lovers of planes. There were lovers in planes. There was the recitation of wedding vows. There was even the whisper of sweet Italian into the earphones as they flew off into the sunset. Many of the lovers were lovers of the Stearman biplanes that blessed Galesburg with their presence again this year. It is a sight on the scale not viewable in any other place in the world.

In addition to the magnificent Stearman there were also the occasional odd duck and the unique beautiful swan. But all were loved.

The swan that descended on Galesburg was the magnificent MATS Constellation. The Constellation was built by Lockheed in the 1950s and was, I believe, the first continental passenger plane that had a pressurized cabin. There were only 856 of the planes built and only a few remain. If you visited the Galesburg Airport, you had the opportunity to climb on board and see and feel what state-of-the-art passenger flying was like 50 years ago. And if you could spare $250, you could experience it in flight. It is not an opportunity that presents itself often. The Constellation is piloted by Captain Frank Lang who began flying the Constellation in 1954 as a pilot for Eastern Airlines. He told me that he has over 10,000 hours of flying time. He and the plane spend about seven months a year "on the road" flying from airport to airport showing off the old beauty. He says he seldom gets home during those seven months. When it left Galesburg, it was heading for Long Island. It would be about a 3.5 hour flight.

Perhaps in the category of the odd duck was a T33 Jet Trainer in camouflage colors. About 6,500 were built from the 50’s into the 60’s. The one that arrived at Galesburg was bought from the Canadian Government in 2002. It is a 2-seater version of the Shooting Star fighter. It was built by Lockheed as a trainer. It was flown by Paul Keppeler, who when he’s not flying the T33, is a pilot for Delta. There’s got to be love for the old T33 trainer with its jet engines and straight wing design. I’m guessing it gets worse mileage than a VW. So there’s got to be love in that formula somewhere.

A P51 Mustang was back again this year. That has to be the most impressive plane that just looks like what is was built for. It looks like a big engine with wings and guns attached. It must have been a fearful sight to see a Mustang on your tail. Conversely, it must have been pretty reassuring to have them as escorts if you were on a bomber in WWII. It would have been enough to inspire love.

Stefano Rapisarda was back again this year, selling flights in a Stearman. Stefano is memorable and uncommon. He is an engineer with a sense of humor. That’s pretty uncommon. He is also a character. By day he is a desk-bound engineer at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab. By evening and weekends, he flies and he teaches flying. He teaches flying Stearman. He teaches flying gliders. He does it for the love of flying. He learned to fly in his native Italy when he was 17 and still in high school. He flies the Stearman for Blue Sky Aero, Inc. located in Morris, Illinois. Blue Sky is a woman-owned firm. Cindy Limback is the owner and is also a pilot, and a mother. (I forgot to ask her what she did in her spare time.) She bought the company when it became available. She bought it out of the love of flying. She was a pilot with the company before she bought it. Cindy flew into Galesburg on Saturday and did a little of the Stearman flying, giving Stefano a needed break. Business was good for the Stearman flights.

Perhaps, it was a break for Stefano so that he could get ready for the Sunset flight that was booked for the Stearman. The woman who booked the flight was promised (not by Stefano), that the pilot (Stefano) would talk to her in Italian as the flew across the golden corn and soybean fields as the setting sun casts its lingering rays. Stefano appeared to be at a bit of loss on what to say in Italian to this female paying passenger at sunset. I didn’t hear the outcome, but I’m convinced that if he read an engineering manual in Italian, it would have sounded romantic in a Stearman at sunset. The movie, "A Fish Called Wanda" came to my mind.

I suppose in the name of honesty in journalism, I should confess that Stefano gave me a ride in the Stearman. I cannot say enough about the thrill of flying in an open cockpit, just a few feet behind the whirling propeller. We flew over Galesburg and the Knox College campus. We flew over the Q "humps". We flew over the relics of the Purington Brick Factory in East Galesburg, with the long dead chimneys pointing up at us. If you don’t fall in love with a Stearman after flying in one, you should check for a pulse.

Speaking of a pulse, I actually got another ride on a Stearman. The pilot and owner of the Stearman was recently retired from Delta. He flew 767’s on international flights. That sounded like a pretty good resume to me. We flew calmly and sedately over Lake Bracken. It is a beautiful sight from the air. He then climbed to a dizzying height of about 3,000 feet, and performed a loop. He had asked if I was up to it. How can you say no? He told me to hang on to my camera. The idea of being upside down in an open cockpit can be a little disconcerting. Being upside down in an open cockpit was more so, even if only very briefly. The G-force in the loop was more than I expected and both the camera and I stayed firmly in our place. It was a thrill. I’m glad I did it. Now, another truth in reporting. My wife also went up in a Stearman the same day, and survived and enjoyed even more exciting loops and aerobatics than I did. If I had turned down the opportunity, well…you know. It’s that male ego thing.

The Stearman community has lots of good folk. Some have other planes too. I talked briefly with Geri McKeawn who is involved with Angel Flight (www.angelflight.org). It is an organization that provides free flights for children with serious medical conditions, e.g. cancer, who need to travel to get treatments. She was hoping to get a little publicity for the organization. I asked if they were in need of volunteer planes and pilots. She said no. There were many willing to volunteer their time, money, and planes. They needed to get the word out to the family facing a childhood medical crisis who has the need but doesn’t know of their organization. Another act of love in the sky.

If you were in the backyard on Saturday, with the buzz of Stearman flying overhead, and you saw either a Stearman doing a loop, accompanied by a blood-curdling scream, or a Stearman slowly flying into the sunset to the sound of an Italian love song, you now have the inside story.

There was romance in the sky over Galesburg.