Silent Sky


by Terry Hogan


The sky is once again silent.  The roar of the Stearman is no more.  The 35th annual Stearman Fly-in is over. They came from Iowa, the Northeast and even as far away as Seattle.  They renewed old friendships, traded stories, drank the odd beer or two, and had a good time.  As one pilot told me, this is mostly like a family reunion.


And perhaps like a family reunion, it had a couple of exciting moments.  One was planned. The other was not.  John Mohr performed barnstorming stunts that would have scared the old barnstormers.  He flies a Stearman with a conventional 220 hp rotary engine.  But  he does unconventional things with it.  I'd like to go on at great length and describe what he does and how he does it.  But I cannot.  I lack the expertise and the vocabulary.  But I can say, when a Stearman is free-falling "like a rock", with the engine stalled, it holds your attention.  He gets the engine started just a few feet above the runway and is off into the sky once again.  It is hard to believe that he does this all with a plane built in 1943.


During the week, John also flies, but it is a little more conventional.  He flies for Northwest Airlines.  I'm guessing he doesn't try barnstorming tricks with 100 paying passengers screaming behind him.


The other exciting moment, perhaps more nearly an eternity was unplanned.  It is likely an event that the pilot, the plane’s owner, and the crowd will not soon forget.  It occurred on Friday, about 5pm.  It involved a WWII and Vietnam era vintage Skyraider.  A Skyraider is a prop plane with fold-up wings that was designed and built for use on aircraft carriers.  The wings fold up as a space-saving mechanism, given the cramped space for planes.   I saw that the pilot was about to start the old plane up, and I knew the powerful old engine tended to smoke and look pretty impressive until it warmed up.  So I stood nearby and took photos as the engine cranked over and fired to life.  I took photos of the old plane as it taxied out to the runway and waited for a clear moment.  The wings were still in the fold-up position as the pilot waited.  There was a pause in the landing of Stearman and he taxied onto the runway to take off to the south.  The wings were still folded.  The pilot hit the throttle and the great warplane sped down the runway for take off.  The wings were still folded.  Pilots on the ground yelled and waved, but it was to no avail.


Finally, either the pilot saw his oversight, or someone reached him on the radio. He aborted the takeoff.  He taxied over to the return runway.  He lowered the wings and taxied back north for another attempt at a takeoff.  In so doing, he had to taxi by all the other pilots who had witnessed the embarrassing and dangerous oversight.  He made another run down the runway and safely lifted off.  Unlike the general practice of the old warplanes making a circle and a low pass over the airport, the Skyraider flew off into the distance.  He probably wasn't in the mood for a "fly by".


And then there is the story of Todd Harders who flew his Stearman to Galesburg.  He bought the Stearman in 2001, after a search for it.  It wasn't just a Stearman.  It had been his Dad's Stearman.  The Stearman had been purchased in 1976 by his mother as a gift for his father.  In 1984, his father had a heart attack and could no longer fly.  His father sold the plane, and died in 2000.  Todd and his mother searched for the plane and bought it back in May of 2001.  Now Todd flies it to the Galesburg fly-in, as his father, Dick had done years ago.  The fly-in really is like a family reunion.


Many of the Stearman headed home Saturday morning.  They left early to avoid the thunderstorm that was coming in from the southwest.  Probably over half were gone by noon on Saturday. I talked with one pilot who was staying until Sunday morning.  He and four other pilots were flying out together, heading to the west coast.  He was returning home to Seattle.  It would take him 17 hours and eight stops for gas to return home.  This would require two days. His son was accompanying him on the flight.  I am told that a 220 hp Stearman has a 42 gallon tank and can fly for about 2 hours and 55 minutes at cruising speed. 


I saw a new wrinkle this year.  Someone discovered small hammock seats were available at discount stores that worked perfectly stretched between the front wheels of the Stearman.  This provided a place to sit, off the ground, and in the shade cast by the engine.  Apparently the only downside was the constant vigilance for dripping oil from the overhead rotary engine. The old rotary engines are known for this attribute.


I talked with Ron Anderson.  He has rebuilt Stearman for 40 years.  He had one for sale at the fly-in.  It took him two years to complete the rebuild.  I asked him if it was hard to sell something that took two years of his life.  He said no, it was how he had made his living for years.  But his wife said that she became attached to each plane, and it was hard for her to see them go.


Finally for those who have been bitten by the desire to fly in a Stearman but can't come up with the $150,000 to buy one, Blue Sky Aero was back again. It was selling rides in a Stearman for $50 and up.  I talked with several customers, and all were thrilled by the experience.  Stephano and the owner, Cindy Limbach, were giving rides on Friday, and Stephano had the honor on Saturday.   I'm not sure who had the most fun.  It may have been the customers, or it may have been the pilots, enjoying the pleasure of sharing the thrill of open cockpit flying.  It is a hoot.


The sky is once again silent over Galesburg.  But a lot of memories were made during the 35th annual fly-in and hopefully, plans were being made for the 36th.