Specks on the Horizon


By Terry Hogan


It won’t be long now.  They’ll first appear as specks on the horizon. Then you’ll hear the sound of the motor.  It is a sound that no other “flying machine” makes.  The Stearman biplanes, their owners, their pilots, and their families and friends will be returning to Galesburg once again.  It is one of Galesburg’s best kept secrets.


These Stearman get older, and better, every year.  Unfortunately, those who actually flew the planes in the process of becoming pilots in WWII are becoming fewer in number.  When I first began covering the annual fly-in, I could find the occasional elderly WWII pilot who came to Galesburg to revisit a part of his youth.  Undoubtedly it was a part of his youth that stayed with him, whether he talked of his experiences or kept them to himself.


For those who might not know, many of the Stearman served as trainers to prepare young men to go fight in the skies of Europe, Africa and the Pacific. The Stearman was a slow moving biplane that placed the young trainee in the front cockpit and the more experienced trainer in the back cockpit.  Each location had controls that could fly the plane.  There was not air force, per se, in WWII. Instead there was the Army Air Corps.  In addition, there were air craft for the navy.  Both groups used Stearman as trainers. And each group had their own color schemes for the Stearman. 


Like so many planes, the stories vary somewhat on how “forgiving” these trainers were.  But they must not have been too bad.  They served their purpose during WWII and then found various jobs after the war.  Many were applied to the scrap heap, to be uncovered and restored later.  But others became “barn stormers” or ended up with the less glamorous job of crop dusting.


In time, like with many of the other WWII aircraft, the Stearman became important as  flying history.  Stearman were converted back to their original colors.  Records were dug into to find the history of the particular Stearman that was being restored.  Old parts and pieces of Stearman were recovered, refurbished, and returned to service.  Some parts were used to make molds to cast new parts.  The art of stretching cloth over wood frames was redeveloped and thousands of hours of hard work and meticulous details went into the restoration of these planes.  


If any of you have restored an old car or an old house back to original conditions, you can appreciate the effort that went into these slow and low flying Stearman that represent the period of time when flying was flying.


I don’t own a Stearman.  I never will.  I have had the opportunity to fly in a few over the years.  It is an experience that will not be forgotten.  The noise, the wind in the face, and the propeller spinning at what feels like only a few inches in front of you.  The Stearman is also a photographer’s delight..  But it also allows opportunity to take photos from the air, without the intervention and glare of glass. Only the spinning propeller and the wires strung between the wings need to be accounted for.


For the owners, pilots, and family, the Galesburg fly-in is an opportunity to renew old friendships; to compare notes, and to see who has sold or bought a Stearman, and perhaps to inspect a newly restored Stearman that has entered their ranks.  Many of the pilots are or were commercial pilots, but have chosen the open cockpit as their preferred “off the clock” form of flying.  After all, it was probably the love of flying and adventure that brought them to flying in the first place.  But the 737 or 747, after a time, probably becomes more like flying a bus than an airplane.


Generally there is the appearance of a few non-Stearman at the fly-in.  I don’t know if that will be the case this year.  In the past years, I have fallen in with the Mustang which is, in my mind, the most glamorous of WWII planes.  It sounds, and looks like a big engine that somebody attached wings to.  It must be quite a thrill to ride in one.


If you have children or grandchildren, take them out to see a part of aviation history.  They may not be interested in WWII. But when they see these brightly colored biplanes bounce along the grass runway and slowly climb into the sky, they will be fascinated. 


History is made every day.  And it is lost. At some point, it is likely that many of these Stearman will be relegated to being silently on display at a museum.  The roar of the engine; the wind in the face; and the sight of them growing from a speck on the horizon to a bit of living history will be lost.


Don’t lose the opportunity to show a bit of living history to your children or grandchildren.  Take them to the airport. Show them, up close, these fragile wood and cloth planes that represent a period of our history when flying was flying.


Don’t let them see the specks on the horizon disappear from view, not knowing what they are and what they were.