Aria in the Air


by Terry Hogan


Galesburg was once again blessed with the arrival of the beautiful Stearman.  Shades of blue and yellow with the occasional red or gray for variety.  The sound of the engines is unmistakable.  As they cross the vision in ones, pairs or groups of four they are poetry in motion.  They are a bit of living history, lovingly restored, maintained, and operated for the pleasure of their owners and the rest of us.


I was only able to view these magnificent plans on Saturday morning.  At that point, the numbers on the ground were in the 40’s, I suppose.  It was hot even in the morning, and the crowd was small. It allowed for easy viewing and for those who wanted to, for talking with the pilots.


I have no way of knowing, but I’m guessing the economy and price of fuel for both the planes and those who were going to travel by car to Galesburg to see them may have influenced attendance. Gas for the planes at Galesburg was in excess of $3.60 a gallon.  And in level flight and reasonable weather, a Stearman get about 5 minutes of flight on a gallon of gas. That makes about 12 gallons an hour or over $40/hour for fuel.  This, I learned from a pilot as we watch his plane being topped over with about 22 gallons of gas.


He had traveled from New Jersey to attend the Galesburg event. He talked almost poetically about the fun and thrill of flying his Stearman.  He had recently returned from the Saturday morning dawn flight and described the fog seen below, hanging closely to the corn fields below. He recalled the pleasure of diving down into the fog and circling, watching the path cut by the propeller as he climbed back about the level of gray.  He said he was surprised that there wasn’t a law against having so much fun.  All in all, I don’t think he felt too bad about the increasing fuel cost.


He recalled trying to repeat an old “barnstormer” trick called a “Delsey Dive”.  A roll of toilet paper is tossed over the side of the Stearman and then as the paper unrolls, the Stearman through a series of maneuvers, cuts back and forth through the paper streamer, cutting it off in sections with its wings.   Delsey was apparently the name of a brand of toilet paper when the dive became popular.  He and his copilot gave it a try.  They toss the roll of paper over the side and began the maneuver.  The toiler paper was nowhere to be seen.  Apparently it had failed to unroll into a streamer.  It undoubtedly hit the ground with a paper-soft thud. It probably wasn’t Delsey paper.


Walking around, I watch another pilot cleaning a Stearman upper wing with a telescoping handle and a curved, C-shaped soft brush on the end.  He was removing those pesky bug remains.  I asked if that was a commercial tool or whether he made it himself.  The brush started out as a circular brush, not a C-shaped brush and it was intended to dust ceiling fans.  He merely bent it into a C-shape fitting the curve of the wing and giving a double width. He was in business.  Pretty clever.  It made that upper wing easy to clean.  He then showed that the brush detached easily allowing hand cleaning of the lower wing. He must be the “Martha Stewart” of the Stearman pilots.  There is clearly more to being a Stearman pilot than just flying the plane.


Unfortunately, there was a crash of a Stearman on the way home from the fly-in.  Apparently some sort of engine problem brought the Stearman down into a bean field near Canton.  Despite flipping upside down, there were no injuries to the crew, but some damage to the plane.  The plane is now resting with a sympathetic farmer until arrangements can be made to truck the plane back home for repairs. 


And yes, Stefano, the singing, romantic Italian pilot with Blue Sky Aero was back again, giving rides in a Stearman for those who had a little spare disposable income. Perhaps you were lucky enough to hear the roar of the Stearman engine, accompanied by the strains of an Italian aria overhead.  He had been in Galesburg all week.  For those who were able to take a ride with Stefano, I’m sure that they will remember the thrill of the take off with the roar of the engine strapped to the little canvas-covered plane. Perhaps as the plane lifted off, there was a passing thought of, “Does he really know how to fly this?” or “Do I really have enough life insurance?”   But it is a flight experience like no other.  It is both experiencing living history and making (personal) history all in one flight.


The pilot was right.  It really ought to be illegal. 


It is just too much fun.