A Stearman Story

//A Stearman Story

A Stearman Story

For 28 years, 1943 Boeing “B75N “, N number 5 165M languished in a back corner of the main hangar at Barber Airport on the north side of Alliance, Ohio. Barber Airport is located a couple miles north of the factory that built hundreds of Taylorcraft airplanes and gliders before, during and after World War 11. Alliance and the Taylorcraft plant originally was home to a locally designed biplane called the Argo and I understand Waco Aircraft built a few aircraft here before moving to Troy, Ohio. The Taylorcraft plant now houses an abrasives manufacturer, but the two intersecting runways are still visible hiding under a heavy growth of underbrush just north of the plant. The factory, to many residents, will ever be known as “the old ‘Taylorcraft plant”.

Forrest Barber holds court over his small grass airfield. The son of the founder, he is easily the most colorful personality of local aviation. Forrest hosts the annual Taylorcraft reunion, a gathering of Aeroncas and several EAA and local aviation events. From time to time he attempts to donate his airport and land to the city in hopes of developing a major reliever airport but the citizenry always rises up to portray all local aviators as greedy, self-absorbed crazies dedicated to turning gasoline into noise.

In 1948, one O.K. Brown, (I never really knew him and never heard him called anything but “Brownie”) purchased Airframe 38029 from the Aircraft Sales Co-op in Cimarron. OK for the sum of $450.00 cash. He enlisted the aid of one Cletus Wilhelm, a local ex-Air Transport Command pilot to fetch the plane from Oklahoma. Clete and his girlfriend set off for Alliance in June of 1948. By the time they reached Indianapolis, the “first officer” had her fill of Stearmanship, deplaned and took the bus home. Al Barber, Forrest’s father, converted the airplane to civilian registry. A fairly light coat of yellow paint was sprayed over the military markings, the insignia of the Civil Air Patrol replaced the large fuselage squadron numbers. For the next four years, a number of local pilots flew the plane a total of 111 hours. Rumor has it that lack of brake power caused the airplane to be hangared in 1952, the year coincidently I became an Embry- Riddle trained, 37 1/2 hour pilot. Other than the propeller being turned over occasionally, the airplane never saw daylight until Sept. 1981.

That Stearman sitting in the back of the hangar, all complete and all original for that many years drove many a normal man crazy with desire but Mr. Brown would never sell it. I wanted that airplane as badly as anyone. One day I went to the Brown home to measure a bedroom for new carpet (I own a small family retail business). I had never met Mr. Brown personally so when I knocked on the door, he hollered “Come on in, I’m on the phone “. After a time, he emerged, a tall, good-looking man, in his 70’s 1 guessed, with an impressive waxed mustache. He muttered something that sounded like “cheap son-of-a bitch”. What’s the matter I inquired? “‘Why that cheap son-of-a-bitch” won’t give me what I want for my airplane .“ “What do you want for it?” I heard myself say. Twelve-Five!! DONE, I heard the same voice say, knowing where the five hundred was coming from, though not sure of the twelve part. We shook on the deal and I told him I’d dis-assemble it and take it home in a week. “What the hell do you want to do that for? He said. “Put some air in the tires and fly it home.” Incredulous as it might seem, that could have been done with the purchase of a couple tires. The tires incidentally cost twice what Mr. Brown paid originally for the airplane.

As we dragged it out of the hangar and were starting to dismantle the airplane to take it home, one of a half dozen” airport bums “ watching the process came up with the idea that we should start it up. We’re tearing controls off and they’re dumping gas in the tank, rewrapping the primers with string, replacing missing” 0 “rings etc. The inertia starter crank goes in, an old guy ,with a couple missing teeth ,is yelling at a couple of young kids to turn it faster, “make it sing”. Well it didn’t go the first time, but on the second cranking series that stout-hearted old Continental coughed, barked, belched some smoke and within 10 seconds was running just like 28 years was the day before yesterday. Cheers and tears ensued. Cameras snapped and one guy had a recorder and a microphone held close to capture the sound of the engine. I’ve been around them all my life and I’m convinced that airplane people are just crazy as hell. We finished the tear down, trucked the airplane the twenty miles to my private 1700 foot airstrip and embarked on a repair and recovery job that should have taken two years. It would be fourteen more years before “Brownies Old Stearman” would deify gravity again. Meanwhile he and Mr. Witheim, whom I wanted to give one more ride, both passed on.

The old military fabric was tested before being removed and it still checked in the green. The original military markings easily surfaced with a steel wool rubdown. With the help of Mr. Ken Wilson ,who researched the airplane, and provided new stencils, I marked it just as it left the military complete to the wrong side up Navy star on the bottom wing. This airplane had its original wood prop which is still in use. It had been an instrument trainer in Dallas, TX, Glenview, IL, and Norman, OK. It had a canopy at one time and was still carrying around the canopy rails which I removed. I finished it with Ceconite and 15 coats of Randolph butyrate dope. I’ve flown the plane for 10 years and the cover still looks pretty much like new. I can’t say the same for the enameled areas which have discolored and chipped somewhat. When I put the airplane back together, I put everything back just as it came off including the infamous brakes and sure enough, they still didn’t work worth a damn. I fussed over the brakes for a year and finally had an automobile mechanic friend come down and take a look at it and turn the drums. It took him about three minutes to suggest I put the set of brake shoes marked L on the left side and those marked R on the right side. Don’t you just hate a smart alec? With the Dusters and Sprayers master cylinder kit installed, you can almost get it stopped. About the only other concession to modernity was an Air Repair tank starter powered by a Concorde battery. I got too old to make that inertia starter sing.”

The best part of owning a Stearman is putting a Cherokee or Skyhawk pilot in the front seat, about an hour before sundown when the winds are calm and the air is cool, letting them fly somewhat closer to the ground than at 2500MSL that every light plane pilot in Ohio flies, then circling to a legal altitude, poke the nose down, look for 120 knots, bring that nose up and over in a nice big barrel roll. Follow that with a gentle loop, capped off with a hammerhead ,then pray to the biplane gods for one more decent landing. You taxi back to the hangar, the sun slips behind the hill, the engine ticks over in that slow ”count the blades idle”. Pull the mixture, sit a moment and savor the blessed silence, interrupted only by the faint clicking noise the cooling engine emits. The smile on your passengers face almost justifies the price of ownership.


By |2016-11-13T09:33:38+00:00August 23rd, 2003|Flying-Wire|Comments Off on A Stearman Story

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