The themes for the 2006 AAA-APM Fly In were “Square Tail Stearmans” and “Crop Duster Days”. “Square Tail” Stearmans refers to the civilian model airplanes that were produced in the 1920’s and 1930’s by the Stearman Aircraft Company of Wichita, Kansas and are readily recognized by their distinctive squared off shape of their rudders. That is in stark contrast to the more rounded contoured shape of the rudders of the famous Stearman PT/N2S military trainers of WWII.
It was also very fitting that the themes included “Crop Dusters Days” and recognized those airplanes such as Stearmans, Travel Airs, N3N’s, Wacos, Champs and Cubs, etc. as well as the pilots who made their livings flying those airplanes in the early days of the agricultural aviation industry. After all, many of the antique airplanes flying today, including a large portion of the civilian model Stearmans, owe their survival and ultimate restoration to their secondary careers in the aerial application business.
At the present time there are forty-four civilian model Stearmans known to exist, including three that are not registered with the FAA and subsequently do not have N numbers assigned. Of these forty-four, twenty are currently in flyable condition. However, two of the flyable airplanes, Stearman 4E, NC11224 and Stearman 6L, NC795H, are un-licensed (no annual inspection) and currently are on static display at the Yanks Air Museum in Chino, California. So in reality, there are only eighteen civilian model Stearmans actively flying in the United States. Four of the registered airplanes are on permanent display in museums and those remaining are either projects or just represents FAA aircraft registration paperwork.
On Saturday the reunion of “Square Tails” was completed by the arrival of Bill Hammond, from Griffin, Georgia, in the 1930 Stearman Model 6L, “Cloudboy”, NC787H, owned by Ron Alexander. This was the second Model 6 built and was delivered to the U.S. Army Air Corps at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio as a Model 6A. It was subsequently designated as the XPT-912 by the Army Air Corps. After testing it was eventually returned to the Stearman factory where it was used for engineering test work for about 3 years until it was sold to George Hart of Wichita, Kansas. At his request it was converted to a Model 6P with the installation of a Wright J-5 engine and is registered as Model 6L. The Stearman Aircraft Co., along with other well-known early aircraft manufacturing firms, helped Wichita, Kanas become the capital of American Aviation, a distinction it held for many years. Surely, that is a legacy of which to be proud.
The Stearman C-3B was a three-place open cockpit biplane which was produced between 1927 and 1929 in both passenger and mailplane versions. The mailplane version was designated as the C-3MB and was licensed under ATC No. 137. Several other variants were built in small numbers, such as the C-3H and C-3K, which varied primarily in the engines that were installed. They were licensed initially under the Group 2 Approved Memos. Eventually, all such variants were converted to C-3B configuration and carried on Stearman Co. records simply as Model C-3Bs. In total, 143 airplanes considered as Model C-3Bs were built in Wichita beginning with C/N 105 through the final airplane completed, C/N 248.
The Stearman Model C-3R was the final version of the C series of airplanes produced by the Stearman Aircraft Co. It essentially was a product of necessity due to the new Wright J-6 engine which was coming into the market. The J-6 would be a revolutionary modular type engine, available in five, seven or nine cylinder versions of varying horsepower. The new J-6 series engine would prove to be an immediately welcomed benefit to the flying service operators and private owners as well since it would require less maintenance while at the same time provide greater reliability than the other engines then in use. With the cessation of production of the dependable Wright J-5 “Whirlwind” engine in the near future, a new airplane had to be developed quickly to take advantage of the new power plant.
Currently there are fifteen Model 4s known to exist, one of which is not registered on the FAA Aircraft Registry. Until just a few years ago there were only two Model 4s flying, but in recent years there have been quite a number of new restorations that have appeared on the antique airplane scene. Presently there are eight Stearman Model 4s in flyable condition, but only seven of these are actually flying as one is on the static display at the Yanks Air Museum in Chino, California. Perhaps the ultimate tribute to the Model 4 was given by its designer, Lloyd C. Stearman, who has been quoted numeroustimes as having said, “It was the finest airplane I ever built.”
“Speedmail” The M-2 was a big seat mailplane which followed the same basic style of construction as the C-2s and C-3s that were currently in production. Its external appearance was similar to them and it resembled an enlarged version of the C-3MB mailplane. However, with an upper wingspan of forty-six feed and a gross weights of 5578 pounds it dwarfed its smaller siblings. It was designed specifically to meet the demand for increased load carrying capacity that was needed in the burgeoning airmail system. The graceful large M-2 “Speedmail” had a cargo space of ninety-one cubic feet that would carry just over on thousand pounds in payload at a cruise speed of 125 mph. For Varney Air Lines, it was the answer to the problem.
The resulting new design, designated as the Model 6 “Cloudboy”, was exactly what was needed. It was small, light entry level type biplane which would be less expensive to build and to purchase, but still retained the ruggedness, dependability and overall performance that had been the standard of the Stearman brand. It was designed to take advantage of the new Wright J-6-5, R-540, engine of 165 hp., but with the future military applications also in mind, it was structurally capable of taking power plants up to 300 hp. Even though it would ultimately be built in limited numbers, the Model 6 would help the Stearman Aircraft Co. survive during the phase out of its big biplanes until the time when its only product would become the famed two-seat “Kaydet” military trainer of WWII.
The depression hits the US hard in 1929 and Lloyd Stearman sees the need for a bigger aircraft to carry on the airmail tasks of the successful and rugged little Stearmn C3B. The fully NACA cowled Model 4 would be offered in several configurations as Junior and Senior Speedmails (see list below).
At the end of the production run in 1931 31 Speedmails would lavish the skies. All identical with the exception of power plants and a tail group change toward the end of the production run. Several Speedmails would be fitted with massive “Mulligan” wheel pants and extensive speed fairings for private and cooperate customers. The single seat Senior Speedmail mail planes would work the CAM (contract airmail routes) for American, Varney and Western in a utilitarian configuration as working airplanes. American Airways would operate 12 4CM-1 Senior Speedmails for a 4 year period eventually using them as instrument trainers before retirement in 1935.
Our family airplane NC485W was one of the original American Mailplanes as a Wright powered machine flying from Dallas, Corpus Christy and Chicago and a short stent at Grand Central air terminal in LA. It was at Grand Central that our 85W was featured in the Shirley Temple movie “Bright Eyes”.
At the end of the Speedmails useful commercial and corporate life Mel Carbarry in Selma California bought up many of the tired old airplanes and converted them to crop-dusters. Most of all the 9 Speedmails flying today exist because of Mr. Carbarrys vision for the airplane.
Our Speedmail would end up at David Tallichet’s storage facilities scattered from California to Kansas. I would make a deal with him to buy the remains of the airplane and a clear title for $6000 in 1989. Over the next three years my family and I would restore/rebuild the airplane to a Sr Speedmail 4DM configuration with a R985 450 hp Pratt and Whiney engine and a 2 place front seat with dual controls. This included new wings, sheetmetal, landing gear, wheels tail group, systems and 80 feet of new steel tube in the fuselage. Because of the lack of drawings the project would not have been successful without help of Ben Scott in Reno Nevada who allowed us to reverse engineer his flying Speedmail for many of the structural and linkage details. Ben and I have become life time friends and have flown countless trips criss crossing the nation the last 20 years with our Speedmails in formation.
My family and I have flown NC585W nearly 1600 hours over the last 20 years with countless treasured memories. I have flown the airplane from Chicago to San Diego in one day taking off in the dark and landing in the dark a real tribute to a 1929 design. The airplane has a 5 hour range with reserves’ at 135 mph true across the ground at 10,000 ft and will hold a compass heading with your feet on the floor. The airplane is well harmonized and extremely stable in turbulent air.
The airplane likes to wheel land tail low with excellent runway tracking. The soft oil filled oleos and big wheels make touch downs almost imperceptible in calm winds. Cross wind tolerance is far superior to the PT Stearman due to long upper ailerons and short lower wings and a big powerful rudder always in clean air even when tail low. The cockpit is very comfortable and roomy with wonderful ergonomics. I can remove or put on a flight jacket or sweater in flight with ease.
The rear cockpit is far aft of the upper wing trailing edge and fitted with a winter windshield configuration which makes the rear seat nearly windless. I am proud of the fact that both of my Sons Jay and Ryan fly the airplane well and will continue to enjoy it for decades to come. Lloyd was right it was the best airplane he ever built.