“Before we wrap up for the day, I’ve got just one more thing I need you to do.” This came from Jim Busha, EAA’s director of publications — my boss’ boss. It had already been a long and tiring day, but, filled as it was with airplanes and airplane people, it didn’t feel like it, not even a little.
I gave him an upbeat “Sounds good!” He frowned a little and said, “You won’t like it.”
As Jim will tell you, when he says something like that, he’s kidding 98 percent of the time. Identifying the remaining two percent, the times when he is serious and not, as he says, “just yankin’ ya” is something that has confounded teams of researchers (read: employees) for years. There are no experts in this field, but I’m proud of my modest success rate and was pretty sure I saw one corner of his mouth rise almost imperceptibly in some kind of proto-smirk.
“I need you to go Stearman flying,” he said.
The Stearman, for those who don’t know, is a classic biplane that first flew in 1934. It was the backbone of flight training for all branches of the U.S. armed forces before and during World War II. It’s a big, solid, open-cockpit masterpiece with a rumbling radial that surrounds you in the sights, sounds, and smells of history. I’ve always wanted to fly one, but, somehow, in more than 30 years of talking my way into stick time in scores of types, I never had. And now, sitting there on a flawless Friday afternoon at the aptly-named Stearman Field Airport (1K1) just east of Wichita, Kansas, I was going to get my chance. I gibbered some kind of incomprehensible but enthusiastic response, and it was all set.
Jim and I, along with J.T. Meidl and Scott Giese of our photo/video department, were in Kansas to gather stories for Sport Aviation and Vintage Aircraft magazines, along with additional content for the web and our monthly chapter video magazine. We spent a couple of days with the International Cessna 195 Club as they celebrated the type’s 70th anniversary with a fly-in at Stearman Field, and most of a day with James “Don’t Call Me Jim” Wiebe of Belite Aircraft, shooting and flying the company’s new two-seat Chipper. By late Friday afternoon, we’d pretty much wrapped everything up. And that’s when Jim told me that he “needed” me to go Stearman flying, and, as it turned out, Scott and J.T. had Stearman flights laid out for them as well.
I was paired up with Randy Hardy, owner of Hardy Aviation Insurance in Wichita, a genial bear of a man with a down-home drawl, a quick laugh, and a beautiful 1943 Boeing PT-17 Stearman. The guys around the airport, including fellow Stearman owner and EAA CEO and Chairman of the Board Jack J. Pelton, give Randy a hard time about his airplane — they call it a “big Pitts” because it’s not painted in military colors. He just smiles and threatens to raise their rates and it all works out.
When it was time to go, I clambered into the front cockpit, grabbing the handholds, swinging a leg over, standing on the seat and then sliding down. I buckled the harness and pulled on the cloth helmet and headset, and Randy fired it up. The big radial, a Continental R-670, whined through a few blades, then each of the seven cylinders barked to life. Randy taxied us out and took off, and we drifted easily up and over the farmlands of south-central Kansas.
Randy formed us up on another Stearman — there were at least four in the air at the time — and did a flawless job, keeping us tucked in nice and tight. We broke off and then it was my turn. It’s impossible not to feel the history when you fly an airplane like this. Seventy-five years ago, teenage kids were struggling to learn to fly in Stearmans, getting pushed through their lessons by hard charging instructors before being sent on to the T-6 and then, from there, into fighters, or off to multiengine training before moving on to bombers and transports. And, of course, waiting for them at the end of all of this, was a war in which nothing short of the fate of the world hung in the balance. The pressure must have been unimaginable.
It’s almost enough to make me feel guilty for giggling like an idiot once it set in that I was finally flying a Stearman. I say almost enough because I believe that the giants of the greatest generation are happy to see their history preserved, and to know that their sacrifices created a world so full of prosperity and so entrenched in freedom that we have the luxury of flying these airplanes simply for the pure joy of it. So the idiot giggled, guilt free.
After raising the wings to make sure my path was clear, I did a few 360-degree turns at varying degrees of bank, and the airplane was rock steady. The stick is a solid, wooden affair, like a Louisville slugger, only bigger, and the pedals are wide apart, making it feel a little less like a cockpit and more like a saddle. The controls are firm but not terribly heavy, and well-balanced. The airplane does just what you want it to do, as long as you know how to ask. Like most vintage types, you have to use your feet, leading with rudder into and out of turns, for instance. After some turns, I threw in some lazy eights that grew ever lazier until they turned into baby wingovers, and I really felt like I was getting the hang of it.
“You’ve done this before! You kept that ball smack-dab centered the whole time,” Randy said from the rear cockpit.
“Thanks,” I called back. “But I think the altimeter’s broken up here — it didn’t move at all during the turns.”
“Naw, buddy, you’re just that good!”
It really wasn’t me, it was the airplane, not to mention the glass-smooth air that parked itself over Kansas that evening.
Randy steered me over to McMaster Gliderport (29KS), where I’d flown the Belite Chipper earlier that day. I followed him through an approach and a landing, then tried my first takeoff. Now, the closest analog to the Stearman that I have any reasonable amount of time in is the de Havilland Tiger Moth, the Stearman’s British and Canadian counterpart. If you want to know the difference in how they handle, all you need to do is look at them. The Moth is trim and elegant, and flying one is like conducting a string quartet. The Stearman, on the other hand, is burly and proud, and feels like playing the sax for Glenn Miller. Everything about flying the Stearman calls for more strength, and more authority. My first takeoff proved this as we wallowed down the runway tail low, not making much progress because I hadn’t pushed the stick far enough forward. My first landing was nothing to write home about it, either, but the second one went well, settling on to the grass in a gentle three-point, and keeping it what I’ll call “fairly-to-very” straight on rollout.
As the sun eased toward the horizon, Randy’s only direction was “go play!” For a little while, we just cruised, finding the meditative serenity that only comes when you feel the wind in your face behind a noisy, oily engine, your view framed by wings and wires.
And then I spotted a high school football stadium. The field was lit, the stands were full, the game was on, and the players were too young to demand a TFR. I called “Randy — smoke on, now,” and then did absolutely nothing fancy, just a smooth 360, tracing the shape of stadium a bit more than a thousand feet up. Closing the circle, we hit our wake, the only bump during the entire flight. I called for smoke off and did a quick wing-wag, laughing silently to myself because, more than 30 years after I graduated, this geek was finally cooler than the jocks at a high school football game.
Thanks to a temperature inversion, my salute to the home team, or whatever a big smoky circle actually is, hung steady over the stadium until we were too far away to see it. Randy did the landing back at Stearman field, slipping beautifully down final, causing an unexpected but not unwelcome blast of heat from the upwind side of the engine, wheels chirping lightly on touchdown. A perfect end to the perfect end of a perfect day.
Big thanks to Jim for making this happen, to Scott and J.T. for their part of an extremely productive trip, to Jack for his hospitality, and, of course to Randy for his generosity and for being a much better instructor than he claims to be. Watch for the Cessna 195 story in the December 2017 issue of Sport Aviation, and my report on the Belite Chipper the following month. And watch for me to own a Chipper, a 195, a Stearman, and a Tiger Moth, of course, just as soon as I win the lottery.