Well, this tale is one of fulfilling those lifelong dreams. Like quite a few flyers before me Iam sure, that fellow Bach gave me the bug for flying two wingers before I had even seen one close up. I knew it would be a passion once I started and although gaining my PPL I resolved to wait until I could afford to buy my own biplane and be free to fly as I chose.
There the dream slumbered until fate intervened on a business trip to Atlanta many years later with a chance glimpse in a hotel foyer of a brochure for the Air Superiority Group offering biplane flights out of Dekalb-Peachtree airport. I was out there in an hour. It was the first time I had seen a Stearman. A Yellow Peril. Back home in New Zealand it was all Tiger Moths. But this thing was huge with presence and a glistening radial engine and oozing “come fly me”! I forget the name of the Pilot but he was friendly as could be blending right in with his aircraft.
From the moment we were strapped in and that radial fired into life I was a Stearmanite! We flew over downtown and Stone Mountain and he gave me the stick for a few turns and that was it. I knew we were back on track.
Upon returning home to Auckland an internet search brought up the SRA site. I started to gather all the info I could and found quite a Stearman community out there. Plus in the previous few years 5 Stearmans had made it onto the New Zealand register. None for sale unfortunately. I spent many months watching the websites and Trade-a-Plane on line closely to get a feel for a good component spec/price mix. New Zealand being so far from anywhere I eventually homed in on a fellow in Sweden with a nice example. But at the 11th hour I was put in touch with an owner in Christchurch New Zealand wanting to sell up. The proximity and price made a big difference (sorry Oskar!). Ironically I was immediately overseas again and the following week found myself in Germany only an hours flight from PT-17 SE-BOF, # 561 in Sweden trying to finalise the purchase back in New Zealand by phone!
It was a pivotal decision, whether to go new, trouble free and expensive or handy, cheap and inherit the maintenance/overhauls? SE-BOF was a well priced, nice condition lowish engine hours example at USD80,000 but a long way away with shipping costs et al of another USD8,000 plus.
A week earlier I had hastened down to Christchurch (at Lat 44º 500 miles South of my home Auckland) to meet PT-17 ZK-STM (41-25235). It was a bonding at first sight. STM was far from immaculate, he had had a hard life as a duster prior to restoration twenty years ago and for the past 6 years he had been logging 600 hours hauling tourists through quick aeros. He had a patch or two, some cracking fuselage and wing paint and an engine 50 hours short of TBO. But he was structurally sound, certified standard category, good fabric, was flying right now and looked king of his patch parked out on the winter grass of Wigram airfield. I liked the traveled look of him. Priced to sell at USD58,000 and his owner was an A Cat instructor so there was my free rating!
The deal was done on a handshake and we spent two afternoons flying in some cold winter skies over Christchurch practicing landings, loops and spins. After 3 hours I had my Stearman ticket and a total of 13 hours tail dragger time! Now I was just waiting for a fine break in the weather to make the trip home.
My commitment was soon put to the test. I expected maybe another 50 hours out of the engine and then to run it over time. But two weeks later whilst being ferried to another field for its “annual” STM spat the dummy and was grounded with metal and bearing race pieces the size of marbles clogging the oil filter. Advised over the phone of this grave news I had pause for thought of our aeros a few days earlier (albeit within reach of the field). I was starting to learn the fickle ways of aircraft ownership. This was the engines second bearing failure (950 hrs), the first being replaced at 350 hrs.
Undaunted I knuckled down to the task of acquiring a new engine. Luckily STM had literally gasped his last outside the hangar doors of Pat Scotter a local IA and 747 pilot. Pat took us on as his “basket” case and saved our bacon. With no one in New Zealand experienced overhauling W670’s the best local offer I could get on an overhaul was 12 months. So I turned my sights to the USA. Put in contact by friends with John at Golden Age Services in Fresno firstname.lastname@example.org we shipped my W670-6A core to LAX and had a beautiful zero time -6N overhaul back by Christmas complete with roller bearing mod courtesy of Holloway Engineering.
Making use of the downtime Pat had given STM a thorough tidying up and come mid January we were ready for that homeward flight again after an intensive learning curve. I think Pat was beginning to wonder if that Stearman was a permanent fixture.
January 13th and joined by my partner Stephanie we were ready to take STM home to Auckland some 500 miles north as the crow flies. It had been 5 months since I had last sat at the controls of a Stearman and Pat
was exhibiting some concern for the fate of all his hard work. I had some concerns of my own. As did Steph! It reminded me of John Guilmette. Mid way through the engine overhaul I had visited John in Fresno to admire his handiwork. I recall a flicker in Johns eyes when I told him my total and tail dragger hours followed by him holding his forehead and requesting a refill from the margarita jug. Seems a few people wanted me and STM to make a successful team!
To match STM’s makeover Stephanie and I dressed for the part. I had searched the internet for a maker of authentic A-2 jackets and again found someone in my own backyard. The Real McCoy’s in Christchurch just a 20 minute drive from my Stearman. I turned up for a fitting on the spot and met the owner Masahide Ishizuka. Go have a look at his website on www.realmccoys.co.nz . Masahide collects original WW2 flight jackets and he has a fabulous collection of all descriptions. He exports all over the world and supplies jackets for many well known pilots like Chuck Yeager, Bud Anderson and some of the pilots in the Reno races like Strega, Dago Red, Critical Mass. These jackets also feature in the HBO series “Band of Brothers” by S. Spielberg and T.Hanks and in the upcoming “Hart’s War” by MGM with Bruce Willis. He fitted me out in an authentic replica horsehide USAAF A-2 and Stephanie in a USN G-1. We have worn them flying ever since.
Even though it was mid summer there was a persistent cold unsettled SW weather pattern in effect for the month and it was far from tropical. For four days we waited out the worst of the weather and I put in a couple of hours of touch and goes whilst Pat played with the carb settings. At around 13 degrees Celsius at mid-day it took the Continental 220 a good 15 minutes to warm up. Come the Friday and the weather forecast was for a day or two of relatively settled cool southerlies blowing up the east coast of the country.
After a quick cramming of our gear and tie down stakes (the size of fence posts) into the baggage compartment we were taxiing out onto the grass at Rangiora airfield giving full throttle and heading off into the blue yonder and our first Stearman adventure. We followed the river out to the coast and turned north with an hour to run to Kaikoura airfield. After 10 minutes Stephanie and I understood the correct Stearman attire for a cold southerly and we were about 3 layers short. With collars zipped up and heads hunkered in we set off along the coast casting an eye about the steep hills and cliffs for those sudden landing spots. They seemed few and far between and the sea looked rather uninviting. Eventually the sun came out and I could see Stephanie resting her head back and watching the clouds roll past a few hundred feet above us. I was concentrating on the light turbulence we were getting off these seaside cliffs and wondering what the Kaikoura mountains held for us up ahead.
At Kaikoura airfield there is a whale watching tourist operation and we could hear the pilots chattering of likely sightings on the radio as we came up the coast. It’s a spectacular field, on one side 100 yards from the cold Pacific lashed gravel beach and on the other quickly rising to the 7000ft of the Kaikoura Range within a few miles. We joined downwind for the grass and once parked up, lay by the Stearman soaking up the sun until we had thawed and then we both donned some extra layers.
Although tempted to grab some of the famous local specialty – Crayfish (rock lobster) we knew a small southerly front was expected to come through that night and we wanted to reach the safety of a hangar at the next stop Omaka another hour north. So with a line of cars watching from the road we were soon fueled/oiled and off again. It was quite something flying north along the narrow belt of deserted dunes and gravel beaches of the Kaikoura coast with the green bush clad inland range towering above us on the left and the Pacific Ocean stretching out to the horizon on the right.
Halfway to Omaka we decided to cut inland and follow the road on a more direct route between two strands of the now foothilled Kaikoura range. Our first introduction to moderate turbulence. The shallow hills set up a surprising amount of wash from the Southwesterly which the higher ranges had sheltered us from. We got kicked about for 15 minutes before things smoothed out as we came onto the plains of the Wairau river valley. Omaka is uncontrolled but within a Military airspace. We were quickly cleared through and joined overhead Omakas star shaped 3 strip pattern. Here I was reminded of the vagaries of wind and the usefulness of checking the windsock again on short finals. Having completed a longer than usual flare and consuming a good ¾ of the runway I glanced at the sock and noticed I had just made a tailwind landing! Swinging gusts can be misleading.
The locals happily obliged with some hangar space and we retired to a warm motel room in town, exhilarated but tired after 2 hours in the air over some beautiful terrain.
The temperature was still determinedly unseasonal and a new forecast was predicting a strengthening westerly flow, a lowering cloud base and showers that evening persisting for a day or two. New Zealand’s geography runs north-south with many microclimates and we knew it would be fine East of the Ranges on the two main Islands. Trouble was our next leg took us northeast along the coast of the Marlborough Sounds for 30 miles then striking across Cook Strait – 30 miles of notoriously rough, open seas and 20 more miles on up the West coast of the North Island. We decided to try it whilst the cloud was still holding at a scattered 1500ft base. Visibility was good and we could see the western shore which was heartening. Airborne at our now customary 11am start we were soon fighting moderate turbulence in the lee of the hills at 700ft along the rugged coast. Once we reached the Tory channel entrance to the Sounds we struck out to sea for our way point Mana Island some 30 miles away with the nearby Wellington Airport Tower frequency on standby. The journey proved surprisingly quick with a brisk tailwind. We listened very intently to the W670-6N but Johns creation did us proud purring without a care in the sun and ignoring the waves below. A quick orbit at 1000ft over an interisland passenger ferry plunging through the seas and we were soon calling overhead at our next stop Paraparaumu Airport. Not the most elegant of landings in the blustery conditions bouncing along the grass on one wheel, then two, but hey we held straight. A few gathered friends at the hangar conferred and gave me a 5/10 but acceptable for a beginner!
That night we stayed with family and looked forward to the next days crossing to the eastern side of the Island and hopefully more settled weather.
With a brisk westerly off the sea we lifted off at 11am again and held north along the open sandy beaches at 1000ft in sun and scattered cloud watching the people below. Thirty miles on we gained clearance from the tower at Ohakea Military base and climbed inland and eastwards to 3500ft looking for a break in the clouds hugging the Tararua Range that divides the Island at this point. Finding a gap we were over and into the clear, warm sun of the Wairarapa regions rolling farmlands. After an hours flying we touched down on the wide grass at Dannevirke where we were just in time for the AGM of the New Zealand Gyrocopter club!
The Stearman proved the hit of the day with many interested onlookers despite the buzz of the gyrocopters and a pilot learning the art of topdressing in a locally made Fletcher aircraft. Having scoffed a few of the clubs fundraising sausages we were soon off again tracking ever northwards to Hastings and wine country. This was a beautiful hour of warm summer sun and ridge running at 3000ft like a glider picking up the updrafts off the north-south ridgelines 1-2000ft below. At Hastings we tied the plane down with our post size stakes taking great care not to swing the tomahawk up through the wing fabric on the backswing! We left STM in the lee of some pines and retired to the town to taste the local vintage.
Once again the wind was predicted to swing southerly with another weak front due that evening. This was the most mountainous leg requiring us to strike out Northwest for the interior of the North Island and cross 80 miles of the forested Kaweka Ranges en route to Lake Taupo. We set off early to beat the frontal system and were soon battling some mild bumps along the foothills to the north . After a half hour or so we had climbed to 4000ft beneath a solid 4500ft base and were passing craggy bush clad peaks. The turbulence as we crossed the successive ridgetops through the pass was increasing and near the middle of the ranges we suddenly felt the Stearman move as if grabbed by a large invisible hand and plunge quickly and forcibly straight down several hundred feet. I regained control as the downdraft abated, still 500ft or so above the valley floor and after a few seconds of checking the instruments Stephanie piped up “ that wasn’t you was it”? Another dramatic example of a leeward draft in mountains.
A few minutes after this we enjoyed some company as 4 Harvards and a Chinese Nanchang pulled alongside returning northwards from an airshow. After a quick wave they were off again pulling ahead through the pass. Thirty minutes later we
were overhead Taupo enjoying the views out over the lake to the volcanoes shrouded in cloud on the southern shore.
I guess I had been slacking off because here STM gave me a few slaps around the chops and then gracefully pulled my fat out of the fire as if teaching me to pay attention. Distracted by some descending parachutists immediately south of my strip I found myself making a curved approach a little too sharp and high. Undeterred I kicked in some sideslip and shed the height but letting the speed go high at 80+ mph. No matter I thought we will just flare short of the field and shed some speed. Of course I had forgotten of the increase in speed during the translation back to straight and level and found myself roaring over the fence, throttle off, at full cruise on a short 700 yard strip! Here was my next mistake, I decided to press ahead and put her down. Well we touched down a two wheeler at 80 mph and steering STM was like swinging a tomcat by the tail. I felt it move hard right and yelled out “groundloop!” to Stephanie as I kicked in full left rudder and got it back but we were still hurtling down the grass remaining with some painful looking 10-20 ft scrub charging at us. Mindful of nosing her over with brake and now too late to go round there was little I could do except let her roll and lose speed until it was safe to brake and then pray! Well 100 yards out I gave it as much brake as I dared and amazingly STM braked straight and level and pulled up within spitting distance of the scrub. I nonchalantly turned and taxied round to the fuel pump already starting my landing postmortem. We found a hangar just as the front arrived and the rains set in for the night and I was left to reflect and learn.
By noon the next day the front had passed and cloud had lifted to a 2500ft base and the weather was light winds and 1/8 cloud further north. For the first time the temperature had picked up and in 20 degrees Celsius the engine was noticeably faster to warmup. Airborne once more we followed the Waikato river and crossed forests, Hydro dams and finally flat farmlands touching down briefly at Matamata for the ever required oil. Being a new overhaul we wanted to keep the Continental well topped with Mineral Oil and STM was burning about a litre an hour.
Here whilst taxiing we experienced a lockup on the right brake (Hayes). After a 360 trying to free it up I pumped the brake and it came loose. It did it once more whilst taxiing out to the runway. There were no local facilities and after a few hundred yards of taxiing it seemed to have disappeared. Another friendly warning from STM.
We took off uneventfully and finally at about 4pm we struck the coast again and ran north at 1500ft to the offshore islands of the Hauraki Gulf and home. Now the air temperature was really picking up and in open jackets and shirts we and STM enjoyed our first true summers day loafing along at 1825 rpm in the sun over the inner harbour and Auckland City. For the first time on the whole trip the engine temp reached the mid 60 degrees and STM was obviously in his element enjoying climes somewhat closer to his origins.
It had been quite an educational delivery trip. In 12 hours in the air we had flown mountains, varied coastlines, river valleys and open sea, grass strips a plenty to crossing military zones. And STM had started my flying lessons which I am still attending.
Since then we have fitted Red Line brakes, new tires, rejigged some instruments and now we are reconditioning the wires and tie rod ends. Next we will touch up the paintwork. All in all we have probably spent as much as if we had bought SE-BOF in Sweden. But we never would have met the people nor learned as much as we have and it’s all in the journey.
First time firing up with the new W670-6N. 1 SMOH. “I better make this look good. Pat’s watching…”
Bedding down for a starry night at Hastings
ZK-STM watching his modern day cropdusting descendant and remembering his California dusting days in the 50’s . Note the ground crew – flat out
Climbing out at Lake Taupo