Stearman: History on the Wing


by Terry Hogan


The Stearman returned. They are history on the wing.  They are a mobile glimpse of when the world was at war.  They were the first planes that many WWII pilots would fly. 


The Stearman was a two cockpit biplane trainer. Each open-air cockpit was equipped with a set of controls. The trainee would sit in front.  The instructor would sit in back.  If the trainee performed well on both the ground and the air, he became a pilot and was most likely sent over seas to Europe, Africa, the South Pacific, or perhaps on aircraft carriers somewhere in the vicinity. 


Many of these pilots never came back.  War was, and still is, a risky business. Those that survived the war have been thinned out by disease and “old age”.  We cannot rebuild an aging human like we can rebuild the Stearman he once flew.  They can be and have been rebuilt.


These Stearman, each with the own stories, came to Galesburg. Many have been restored and fully researched.  If you asked, you were probably given a thumbnail overview of the life of the Stearman. The pilot/owner is likely able to tell you when it was built where it was sent during the war, and where it ended up after the war.  If the pilot/owner didn’t restore the plane, he will know who did, when, and where.      


Up close, these Stearman are amazing things.  Little more than wood, canvas, cable, and an engine that looks and sounds like it is too big to be restrained by what it is attached to.  You likely noticed that many of the planes shared a similar paint scheme.  That’s because many of the Stearman were researched and restored to their original branch colors and numbers.


As impressive as they are on the ground or buzzing overhead, the real treat is to fly in a bit of history.  You climb out of the plane, all smiles.  You might have a bug between your teeth, but there is nothing like flying low and slow in an open cockpit.   Several years ago, my wife was able not only to fly in a Stearman, but also to fly the Stearman. It was a cold and foggy day.  Not a great day for flying. But when she got back on the ground, I thought she was going to wear that smile for days.  


I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised then when I talked with Sarah Wilson, a pilot of a Stearman who was taking folks up in her Stearman, and giving them a chance to take over the controls.  She said business was great.  She was booked up. Despite the economy, folks were plopping down $200 for the opportunity of a life time- flying a Stearman.  As Sarah said, “it’s all the fun of flying without all the costs”.  She says she is planning to be back to Galesburg next year.  So…it is time to start saving your pocket change now.


Three generations of Lloyd Stearman descendants were on hand this year for the fly-in:  daughter, grandson, and great granddaughter were walking about Saturday, looking at the living history created by Lloyd Stearman.  Marilyn Stearman (daughter) said they had been coming since 1997.   I asked the granddaughter if she has much of an opportunity to fly in a Stearman.  She responded with a smile that she just walks around the rows of Stearman and usually somebody offers her a ride.  It might be harder for her soon.  She’s about to head off to Korea to teach for three years.  Stearman are probably pretty rare near Seoul.


My brother, Roger, and I stopped and had a long talk with Fred Wright about his Stearman.  He was busily polishing it up when we walked by. It turns out that he is the proud owner of three Stearman that he has restored.  The one before us was a backup plane.  The one he flew down in earlier in the week had a brake failure. So he flew back to his home airfield in Wisconsin and came back in another Stearman.  He chuckled when he saw the press ID. It seems that a Peoria newspaper had done a story about the brake failure, but reported that he had lost a wheel. (Let the record show that The Zephyr got it right).   


Like any good Stearman restorer, Fred knew the history of his plane.  The information, he said, was available from the Smithsonian, as long as you have the military ID number (not the manufacturer’s number).  With that critical bit of information, the Smithsonian can provide a copy of the flight log for the airplane.  While the amount of detail available in the log varies greatly from plane to plane, if you are lucky it can tell the plane’s military life history. 


There were a reported 106 Stearman this year, but by Saturday when I arrived, many had already left for home or other sites.  But the day was pleasant with a light breeze that carried the odor of grilled steaks and brauts.  It was a good day for the main event- the formation flying contest.  The colorful Stearman tucked up close together contrasted nicely with the blue sky and the occasional fluffy white cloud.


But the fly-in at Galesburg is done for yet another year.  Pilots and co-pilots renewed old friendships, swapped stories, showed photos, and compared notes on “all things Stearman”.  As much fun as it is for the observers, it is clear that the gathering of these grand old flying machines is most enjoyed by the owners.