Stearman- It's Worth The Ride

By Terry Hogan

My wife and I returned to Galesburg again this year for the Stearman flyin. Saturday, September 9 was a beautiful day, although a little blustery. To drive out west of town to the airport and see all the brilliantly painted and restored Stearman biplanes sitting in rows at the Galesburg Airport, now there's a memory-maker.

My wife spent the full day at the airport, working with our niece, Diane Brown. They sat under a tent cover, taking names and money for plane and helicopter rides. The rides on a Stearman biplane were, unfortunately, limited to one plane. Quickly the waiting list expanded and the wait, at one point, approached three hours. Demand outstripped supply. The Stearman rides were $55 per person, and since there is only one cockpit available for passengers, the ride is limited to one person or two really good friends at a time. Harold at the airport also has several small Cessna that took several people at a time on rides for only $10 per person. My guess is that he isn't getting rich at that price, but he is making memories for children and families. One of the pilots that took folks for rides is our nephew, Keith Brown. There was also an opportunity to fly in a helicopter for only $20 per person.

The rides on the planes were a little bumpy with the blustery day, but it added to the memories for most of the fliers who had little or no previous experience in small planes. From the air, one could see the Stearman lined up along multiple rows on the airfield and also several in the air, some close, and some merely dots on the horizon. Visions of WWI and the famous fighting ace, Snoopy, came to mind, despite the fact that I knew I was mixing wars. Flights might take you over Galesburg where you see familiar places in unfamiliar ways. Lake Bracken, a relic of the steam locomotives' thirst, was visible in the southeast. The dredging work was clearly visible at Lake Storey. My compliments also go out to the fantastic ability of the Knox and Warren county farmers who seem to have an uncanny ability to make straight rows of corn over vast distances.

From the air, you can see the railroad tracks and Cedar Fork make their ways through Galesburg, as if unaware that an urban area could in anyway interfere with their achievement of their destinations. In the old days, each carried their own products our of Galesburg, but the construction of a wastewater treatment plant has nearly put Cedar Fork out of business, in that capacity.

From the air, I look down on a largely unremarkable or unique city in the Midwest. Many other towns would, to the casual observer, look about the same. There are no obvious signs of Carl Sandburg, of Mother Bickerdyke, or of the Lincoln Douglas debate. But from my perspective, this little urban patch in a sea of corn and soybean was the shaper of my early life. Lake Bracken, Allen Park School, Lombard, Galesburg High School, Knox College, Butler Manufacturing, all are visible below from these small planes. Each of these patches below was home, school, or employment to me. At low altitude, it was a panorama of my youth.

In the afternoon, I spent my time trying to find ways to be useful out at the site of the rides. I enjoyed the coming and the going of the Stearman and listening to and watching the reaction of the Stearman passengers, before and after their rides. Some were high with expectations of the ride. Some were a little apprehensive. On the return, they were excited, and flushed with the pleasure of the experience filling their senses. The sound of the engine; the vibrations like being aboard a purring cat; and the feel of the wind overwhelm your senses. The image of the ground dropping away from those flimsy wings and then, later, rising to batter the wheels stay with you.

As you touch down in the Stearman, killdeer that had the misfortune of calling the grassy field home, cry out in protest. They quickly circle and return to the grass, soon to be driven to the air again by another Stearman. It was a long day for the little killdeer.

It was also a long day for the pilots of the Stearman and Cessna who took passengers for a brief freedom from the ground. Frequent takeoffs and landings, with so many other small aircraft in the area, kept the pilots alert at all times. It was a hard day for the pilots, but they made memories that will be long held. Years later, adults will quiz their elderly parents, ''Do you remember when we were kids and you took us up in a small plane at the airport?'' They probably will remember the thrill of the ride, but will recall little of the pilot whose skill and dedication to working on a Saturday made it possible. My mother still vividly recalls a biplane ride she took with my father and his pilot-friend when she was in high school. She also recalls the noise and vibration of the old Ford Trimotor that stopped in Galesburg and gave rides over 50 years ago.

Toward late afternoon on Saturday, the large WWII bomber, a B25, I believe, started up the right and then the left engine. The engines coughed, sputtered, blew out unburned carbon, but finally smoothed out. Once warmed up, the engines sounded fully up to the task of clawing through the air, and dragging this mass of metal behind them. The old warplane's engines howled as the plane lifted off into the southern sky, about to head for home. However, in a truly gentlemanly manner, the old bomber made not one, but two low flyovers of the airport, with a single WWII fighter flying escort. It would have been worth the trip just to see the old bomber pass by a few hundred feet over the Galesburg airport.

My wife and I were able to take a short ride in the Stearman toward the end of the day. It was exhilarating. For me, riding in the Stearman is on the other end of the pleasure spectrum of paddling a canoe in the silent realm of the Boundary Area of northern Minnesota. The canoe and the silence of the north woods overwhelm your senses by the silence, by the calm. The Stearman ride overwhelms your senses with wind, sound, and vibration. If you find extra pleasure in riding in a convertible, you're a candidate for a Stearman ride.

All of the organizers of the Stearman Fly-in, the Stearman pilots, and Harold and his staff and pilots deserve a great deal of recognition for their work. They are dream-makers for the young and young-at-heart. They are memory-makers for us older folks. If you know one of them, tell them ''thanks.'' If you failed to make it to the fly-in, mark your calendar for next year. Plan on making a few good memories and encouraging a few dreamers. Perhaps you can share the Stearman cockpit with a really good friend and streak across the treetops of Galesburg at 70 miles an hour.

It's worth the ride.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online September 20, 2000

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