Stearman Storming Galesburg


by Terry Hogan


There are not only destructive winds that fly into Galesburg at 70 mph.  The equally exciting and much less destructive Stearman are once again coming to the Galesburg Airport.  It is a reunion piled on reunions.  It is, I'm told, the largest gathering of Stearman in the world.  It is also a reunion of the extended family of Stearman owners and pilots.  They renew acquaintances, swap stories, show photos of children or grandchildren, and even share a Stearman story or two.


The Stearman are scheduled to begin arriving in Galesburg just after the Labor Day weekend, with the peak of activities for the public occurring Thursday through Saturday, September 6 through 8.  The schedule of activities is available on the Internet.


Blue Sky Aero will be back again to offer rides in a real Stearman.  They will be offering 10 minute and 20 minute rides in an original 1943 Boeing PT-17 Stearman, powered by a 220 HP, R-670 Continental engine.  I can personally attest that while sitting in the front cockpit with the spinning propeller only a few feet in front of you, the engine sounds and feels much larger.   This Stearman is very close to original design, however a 12 volt battery and starter system have been added to avoid the original hand crank or "hand propping."  Cost for a ride of a lifetime will be $60 for ten minutes or $100 for twenty minutes.  The skyrocketing price of fuel has not spared the Stearman. The PT-17 consumes over $60/hr in fuel and you can imagine what maintenance and insurance do to the hourly cost of operation.  


Weather permitting, Blue Sky Aero Stearman will begin taking riders on Thursday, September 6.   Typically, Thursday is the best day to avoid the long waits that are more likely to occur on Friday and Saturday as more folks come out to admire these wonderful old planes.


I suppose I should back up for those folks who may not know much of the Stearman history. This is an 11,200 feet overview (the ceiling for the PT-17).  The StearmanŐs claim to fame was its role in WWII.  The slow double cockpit biplane was used as a "starter" for training pilots.  The front cockpit was used as the student's spot and the instructor rode in the second cockpit.  Of course, this necessitated two sets of controls so the plane could be flown from either cockpit.  Perhaps this was the origin of the "back seat driver?" 


After the war was over, the Stearman fell on hard times.  Many became junk.  Some were transformed into "barn storming" or used as crop dusters.  Of the over 10,000 Stearman built, only about 2,100 remain.  Those remaining are a tribute to these old planes and their owners and restorers. These little wood and fabric planes, attached to a radial engine, are over 60 years old. 


I have been lucky enough to fly in a Stearman a few times. It is a memory that will stay with you. Although you are flying at less than 100 mph, the open cockpit, the engine noise, and the low elevation constitutes "real flying."   On one flight, a pilot did a long, slow, loop.  He warned me to hold my camera tight.  It was a thrill, but while flying upside down in an open cockpit, my camera was not my highest concern.  Of course the "G-force" kept me firmly in my seat so I wasn't hanging from the safety straps, even when my head was closer to the ground then my feet.  My wife, Louise, has also flown in Stearman.  She has even flown a Stearman and lived to tell about it, so she probably should be writing the article.


Frankly, I think Stearman are addictive. They provide a "rush" and they drain every spare cent out of your pocket.  I've not heard of a "Stearman's Anonymous" but maybe it is just kept quiet.  There is a Stearman that is kept at a small municipal airport near my home.  I recognize the sound of the engine overhead and know that when I look up, I'll see a Stearman. 


Warning: Stearman can become habit-forming.  Discuss the dangers of Stearman addiction with your spouse and children before coming to the Galesburg Airport.   Then throw caution to the wind and have a good time.  If you can afford a flight, take one.  If not, you can buy a Stearman shirt, hat, poster, or other memory of the day.


Come out and see the largest gathering of an old WW II-era biplane.  Bring a child or two, or at least let your bored inner-child run free for a few hours.


Stearman are neat and not easily forgotten.