Ten years of Stearman ownership has taught me a lot about Stearmans. Nothing lasts forever! Nearly 30 years of wear and tear on my plane since its last rebuild had slowly taken its toll on the airframe to such a point that I feared it would no longer pass its annual inspection. For several years I had known the date would soon arrive when I would be forced to either sell or rebuild the plane. I even purchased a larger hangar in anticipation of needing a shop large enough to handle the project. But one day while mowing the lawn, frustrated that I was not at the airport boring holes in the sky, I had an epiphany– I just didn’t have time to build a Stearman. With my work schedule, it would take me a decade to complete a project of that size. So the search began for a shop that would take on the project, make the improvements that I wanted and all the while keep the costs from rivaling the Apollo project.
A friend and FBO owner in Boone, Iowa, that had worked on my plane one summer was my first consideration. After sending him a pleading letter outlining all the problems with the plane, he agreed to take on the project in the fall of 1999. But by the spring of 2000 he had not yet started. He finally contacted me after his own epiphany. The project was too big for him too! He just didn’t have the time.
Next, I approached John Lohmar in St Louis who is president of the National Stearman Fly-In in Galesburg, Illinois. He was enthusiastic about it and would be able to start just as soon as we could deliver the plane to the Creve Coeur airport in St Louis. I was thrilled and relieved to find a home for it for the next year or two. I didn’t want to attempt another annual inspection.
My last flight in the old bird was one of the best. With my attorney and friend Mark Abels along for the ride, we left Boone early one morning, late in March, 2000. Flying south east we searched for the Des Moines river east of Des Moines. Following it at a low altitude, about 800 feet, the air was chilly this early in the spring. I hadn’t flown much during the winter so I really didn’t mind. We had prepared well by wearing layers of clothes, turtle neck sweaters, and our leather jackets. Even so, the cool damp air soaked into our bones and we didn’t really feel warm until late morning.
Our first fuel stop was Ottumwa, Iowa, the original home of this aircraft. N.A.S. Ottumwa was home to a Navy primary training squadron during the war. This is where my father was based for a time as a primary instructor, and where he came to fly my plane for at least two flights in April of 1945 when the plane was stationed there as well. I wondered if the plane some how felt an affinity flying over the same corn fields and small Iowa towns it had 60 years before. We soon left on our second leg of the trip, again following the Des Moines river south east, past Keokuk, down the Mississippi river until arriving at Quincy, Illinois, an hour later.
For me Quincy was a homecoming of sorts. Fifteen years before I had left Quincy after living there for several years while employed by the commuter, Britt Airlines. I was later hired by American Airlines. The place hadn’t changed much, just a little quieter than I remembered.
By the third and last leg from Quincy to St Louis, the visibility had finally improved to better than ten miles, the temp was up to a balmy 60 degrees, and there was even a little tail wind.
Again, we followed the mighty, meandering Mississippi and arrived early afternoon at the Creve Coeur airport, the planes’ new home for the next two years.
John met us as we taxied up to his shop. Soon we were talking Stearmans and what needed to be done to restore my baby. Barb Surber was appointed project manager and would do most of the work. On occasion she would be calling in specialists for such things as welding when needed. I was able to travel to St Louis at least once a month to assist and get some hands-on experience of my own during the process.
Over the years I had several frustrations with the plane that I wanted to address during the project. My plane has the Pratt & Whitney R-985 engine with a modified Beech 18 cowling that the crop dusters had hung on the plane years ago. Nearly all of the 450 Stearman engine installations are unique, no two are exactly alike. Thus, some are better modifications than others. I had had trouble with the cowling, oil lines, the finish, and numerous other little things that caused the plane to deteriorate prematurely.
The first unexpected challenge came early when we uncovered the wings. (It was John who said to me there are no problems in life, only challenges.) I had high hopes that we could just install new leading edges, then recover them. But when opened up we found soggy soft wood in the lower wings near the fuselage where they get soaked with oil, and as many as three and four ribs outward from the wing root. All of this had to be replaced. 50 years of crop dusting and sport flying had taken their toll. The newest wing panel had been purchased from Dusters and Sprayers in 1971 and hung on the plane after a ground loop. All the other panels were much older, and may even date to the original aircraft. Barb went to work on the ribs and I pitched in where I could. Three months later nearly all the gussets had been replaced with new, stronger epoxy glue, new wood crafted in the first four ribs, new walk ways on the top and bottom, new leading edges, and three coats of fresh epoxy varnish. It seemed as strong as a bridge after the repair.
We next moved on to the wing center section. The wood in this was so soft nearly everything except the hardware needed replacement. Rather than lose another month or two, John had another brand new wing center section that had just been completed months earlier just waiting for a buyer. With a little work we were able to make my fuel tank fit, and after a pressure check, it showed no signs of leaking.
The next phase occurred through the fall and winter of 2000. We took everything off the frame, bead blasted or stripped the parts, then painted them with Epibond primer and a top coat of Jet Glow light gray glossy paint. This gave the interior of the plane a nice clean looking light gray that I found particularly attractive. No longer would it be that dirty, dark green zinc chromate. Most parts were in good shape and were reused with new hardware bolting everything together. What we call the bird cage, the stringers that make up the outer shell of the fuselage, were beyond repair with too much corrosion. So it was back to Dusters and Sprayers to purchase three new sections, a left, right, and belly section. The next unexpected set back came the day after the frame had been bead blasted and was sitting on a saw horse. Barb noticed a black tar substance in a puddle beneath the frame. The blasting had opened small holes in the lower tubing near the tail. Previous builders, perhaps the original crop dusters, had inserted some kind of preservative inside the tubing, probably used engine oil. This had coagulated into a hard tar that could not be removed. Four feet of lower tubular steel had to be cut out and new tubing welded in to repair the corrosion.
Another frustration was the plumbing of the oil lines. A large ten gallon oil tank from a BT-13 had been added years ago behind the pilots seat. This allowed for excellent cooling, but because of the way the lines were laid out, as much as a gallon of oil could not be drained during an oil change. I wanted to re-plumb these lines so the drain valve was at the lowest point in the system. Barb and I built a small hinged door which we installed on the belly of the plane below the tank to allow all the oil to be drained during an oil change. Also added was a small electric oil pump from Oilamatic to serve as a pre-oiler, which allowed oil pressure to be obtained before engine start, improving engine wear.
During this time nearly all the instruments from both cockpits were sent to Kansas Instruments for repair and fresh painted faces. This included placing the Stearman logo on both airspeeds and altimeters. The turn and bank gyros were repaired, and one valuable addition was the installation of a dual CHT and EGT gauge. At this time the starter was sent out for overhaul, and the oil cooler was sent to a cooler shop for flushing and pressure check.
The Avionics Place in Rockford put together my dream radio package. For years I had coped with portable comm and intercom systems. We installed a Garmin GPS-COMM and transponder with encoding altimeter located in a radio rack on the back of the front seat within easy reach of the pilot. A P.S. Engineering intercom made for high noise environments was placed in a new electrical/switch panel along the right side of the cockpit. I then contracted with a local trophy shop to make several brushed brass cover plates labeling the switch panel, circuit breaker panel, and various placards around the cockpit with engraved lettering.
The fire wall needed attention as well. The original had been modified to fit the curve of a stock Beech 18 cowling giving the plane a more streamlined look that I preferred rather than the front heavy look most 450 Stearmans have. I had hoped to merely repaint the old one. But it was full of too many holes and was badly dented. Barb convinced me she could easily fashion a new one out of a clean sheet of stainless steel sheet metel. She then added aluminum angle along the edge and used the old one as a template to drill holes and mount all the push rods for the engine controls. It was so beautiful I was moved to put in a few hours with a one inch sanding disk adding rows of circles, ala Spirit of St Louis, to the back of the fire wall where the front seat passenger will see it.
The cowling was the next challenge that I was anxious to improve. The original version had the exhaust exiting the right side of the engine just like the smaller Continental. When my cowling was added in 1977 they cut holes in the right side to accomodate the exhaust. This weakened the cowling because there was only room for one clamp near the exhaust pipe. I wanted to move the exhaust to the bottom of the engine and add a clamp to the right side to strengthen the entire installation. Barb called in her resident welding expert, and he made the custom exhaust piece to extend out the bottom. Together, Barb and I started cutting sheet metal, hammering rivets, and installing the clamp on the cowling. In two days we had a new and improved cowling.
On close inspection the flying wires were a little more dinged up than I remembered, and there are more of them than I imagined too, 28 of them to be exact. More than a dozen had sharp edges from nicks and cuts or were worn in spots. John allowed me to buy several used ones from him that were in good shape, but I still needed at least nine new ones. I understand there is only one supplier left now a days, and he gets them from the only manufacturer in Scotland. Fortunately, Stearman wires are still plentiful.
The wings were sent off the airport for covering by Jim Deniston, a specialist whohas been covering planes for a living for years. He did a masterful job, and at my request used Ceconite and a one inch stitch on the wings rather than the two and one half inch stitch required by regulation. This gives the fabric a good deal more strength behind that 450 HP prop blast, as well the 170 MPH I sometimes hit during aerobatics. After much discussion, Barb was convinced to build a rig to mount the finished fuselage, so that it could be turned like a rotisserie for covering and painting. She painted a coat of white before the silver on the fabric so that the interior of the fabric, which is visible inside the cockpit, would have a nice white hue and not the usual blue or pink. The final top coating was Acry-Glow, a very high gloss polyurethane that gave the plane an outstanding shine. For ten years I had agonized over how to paint the plane, and finally settled on the same red and white custom sunburst. However, we added blue pinstripes and just exactly the right shade of red and white to really make it look special.
One of the last things I did before the project was finished was to research the history of the plane. It has had a tough life. The government purchased the plane in 1943 for $9120.00. It’s first assignment was at the Naval airbase in Ottumwa, where it completed the war as a primary trainer. In 1946 it was moved to Corpus Christi, then later to a storage field in Glynco, Georgia. In 1947 in was again moved to the Navy Blimp hangars for storage in South Weymouth, Massachusetts. Finally, in 1950, it was sold to a shop in Arkansas for conversion into a crop duster. 1 have not been able to determine the selling price, but it was probably a few hundred dollars. The earliest logbooks to the aircraft had been lost long ago, but I have the microfiche from 1950 up to the present to start the civilian history. In the 5Os it had at least one engine failure which resulted in a forced landing, requiring a total rebuild. Later, a hail storm destroyed the wings requiring another rebuild and covering. Later still, a ground loop required a new lower wing panel to be installed. In 1977 it was moved to Miami and converted back into a two holer sport plane. By 1991, I owned the plane and in 1992, my own engine failure occurred (a rod broke) at the National Stearman Fly-In where I was able to make a safe landing. The engine was zero timed, and nine months later I was flying again. By my count, this is the fifth time a ground up restoration has been performed on this plane. lf others continue the effort with their Stearmans, then these planes will be around for a long, long time. Lets hope so.
The first test flight was an event that will stay in my memory for a lifetime. Lets put it in perspective. This was the last week of September, 2001. Some of my co-workers at American Airlines had, only weeks before, lost their lives in the worst terrorist attack in our nation’s history. Even planes that I had flown, the B-767 and 757s were involved. The enhanced class B airspace was in effect in the STL TCA, under which the Creve Coeur airport sits. With a heavy heart and a determination that general aviation would not be destroyed, I had been on the phone to the local FAA administrator, the local ATC director, and even one of the senior FAA administrators in Washington, in an effort to get approval for a local test flight. They were all very polite, but only three weeks after 9-11, they were all very firm— no VFR test flights. Finally, some restrictions were lifted and with a flight instructor in the plane, I could take off on a local VFR flight. Thirty years experience, 18,000 hours, and I needed a CFI in the front seat, unbelievable.
The engine started on the first attempt, and rumbled in that low distinctive sound that feels so good from a Pratt & Whitney R-985. With John in the front seat we taxied out for some fun. All systems checked OK, so the first flight was really just a hop off the ground to see that the airspeeds would come up. Next, a take off for real. I then spent an hour or so just flying circles around the pattern to check the rigging. It needed quite a bit of rudder and aileron. The plane would roll to the right, but yaw to the left. A little tweeking to the struts and tail wires would improve this over the months. A job that is ongoing. The throttle was rather unresponsive, and lagging. I didn’t know it then, but a stiffener had been left off the firewall causing the engine push-rods to deform the firewall when either the throttle or prop lever were moved, thus causing the slow engine responsiveness. During my first landing the wind had picked up more than I anticipated. All of these things, plus landing on hard surface caused me to have a very uneasy feeling. With the cross wind and yet to be fully rigged plane, I nearly ground looped on the concrete runway! I cobbed the power and that big beautiful engine pulled us out of what would have been the worst disaster in my career. Forewarned, the next landing was a squeeker.
The very next day repairs were made and the flight to my home in Poplar Grove, Illinois, was bitter sweet. My long time Stearman buddy, Tom Forys, had suffered a stroke, and later passed away. The most amazing thing is that after all the headaches, frustrations, set backs, monthly bills and soul searching cost overruns, my wife has still not divorced me. Life is precious and life is sweet. My advice; cherish these moments of freedom and flying open cockpit.