My first flying love has always been the Stearman, and if you hang around Stearmans long enough, you probably also have an affinity for large, radial engine, tailwheel airplanes. This usually generates at least a passing interest in agricultural airplanes, or still commonly called “crop dusters”. The dusting has long since been replaced in most applications with liquid chemical spraying.
Before I ever owned a Stearman I was enamored with ag flying. The thought process being if I could never afford a Stearman, there was still a corner of aviation left where I could fly radial engine taildraggers for a living. That was over 20 years ago, now I own a Stearman, and my interest and appreciation for ag flying has only increased, the two were bound to intersect at some point.
If you browse through any aviation classified ad featuring Stearmans, a primary selling point is “never a duster”, which despite what FAA records may indicate, planes of this vintage having never gotten down and dirty for a living is about as likely as “never been wrecked”. They surely exist, but it’s an aviation unicorn, some were just restored to stock configuration more thoroughly than others.
The truth is, in addition to large production numbers, the Stearman owes its current strength in numbers to the agricultural industry. If you really dig into your Stearman’s logbooks and FAA history, it may prove a far more interesting journey than where it flew when it was in military uniform. After WWII when the BT-13s, N3Ns, PT-22s, PT-19s, and other types were either destroyed, or pushed into the corners of airports all across America to decompose, the Stearman was just getting started on its second career.
After the war, hundreds, if not thousands of Stearmans of all types were purchased at government auctions to anchor the nation’s agricultural aviation fleet. Boeing’s design directive for the Model 75 was to produce an aircraft that was durable, simple to fly, and maintain. The rigors of primary training proved the design could take a beating, while large production numbers also made acquisition easy, and spare parts plentiful. Along with the planes, came the skilled, and recently un-employed pilots of WWII, making the perfect combination of talent and hardware to expand the agricultural aircraft fleet.
Innovation is the result of necessity, and crop dusting operators wasted no time making use of the still lightly regulated industry, and the entirety of surplus available to them. For a few years, Stearmans flew with a simple hopper replacing the front cockpit, but still using the issued Continental or Lycoming engines. It didn’t take long for operators to hot-rod their dusters with R-985 and later R-1340 engines, enclosed canopies, metalized fuselages, and wing tip extensions. Later, purpose designed high-lift wings using stock hardware were developed. Toward the end of the Stearman’s dusting life, many were barely recognizable as the simple trainers they once were, but morphed into highly capable ag airplanes. Any modification, addition, or change that could increase profitability or efficiency was incorporated with little consideration for aesthetics. Depending on who you ask, modifications proven on the ag fleet also paved the way to transforming the Stearman into a prized aerobatic platform. During the golden age of airshows throughout the 1960s and 70s, performers like Marion Cole, Bill Adams, Johnny Dorr, climbed higher, rolled faster, and made more noise thanks to the modifications born of crop dusters’ ingenuity.
Stearmans were widely used in ag flying around the world from the end of WWII until well into the 1980s, and even beyond in limited applications. The appearance of purpose designed agricultural aircraft from Piper, Grumman, and Leland Snow of Thrush and Air Tractor fame, slowly but steadily rendered the Stearman obsolete as a viable agricultural airplane.
In the 1960s, as the Stearman was being phased out of ag flying, a movement began that slowly saw the Stearmans being restored to stock, and custom conditions to be used as prized sport planes and warbirds. Much like the post war aviation world’s haste to rid themselves of surplus military aircraft, the Stearman duster was becoming extinct. Little value was placed on worn out, corroded, and cut-up ag planes except as parts donors for the emerging warbird movement and restoration market. Fast forward to 2015, when a dirty, working Stearman duster shows up at the National Stearman Fly-In at Galesburg… it draws a crowd.
SAVING THE BEAST
The aptly named “Beast” is a 1942 A75N1/PT-17. Al and Mike Schiffer operate Al’s Aerial Spraying in Ovid, MI since 1977. In addition to the aircraft that earn their living, they also go to great lengths to preserve aviation history. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to research its life prior to 2004, but how the Beast made its way to Galesburg starts there.
Aerial-applicator Warren Walkinshaw operated a large spraying business north of Fargo, ND, from 1946 until his passing in early 2004. Walkinshaw operated up to twelve ag Stearmans, and a stock ship for field checking and pilot training. After his death, the business assets were sold at auction in 2004 to include a large amount of Stearmans and parts. The Schiffers’ never operated Stearmans, but recognized the historic potential of preserving a Stearman in ag configuration. Al and Mike attended the auction, but prepared themselves with knowledge from one of Walkinshaw’s pilots who advised them which airframe to bid on, as well as which wings, engines, mounts and spray equipment to select. They shipped their truck load of Stearman parts to Pete Jones at Air Repair in Cleveland, MS for assembly and ferry flight back to Michigan.
N5413N lives a sedentary, retired life now, but the Schiffer’s bring it out for flying displays at local airshows. As a testament to their commitment to preserving flying history, they occasionally allow a qualified pilot to fly the Beast. This is the only way to truly appreciate the Stearman’s history, and how far the agricultural aviation industry has evolved.
During dinner at a convention last year, I sat next to Al and we began talking about different airplanes and the Beast came up in conversation. I said “the folks at Galesburg would love to see the Beast attend”. Al’s reply was “Great, want to take it there? We’re busy that time of year.” I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to attend the fly-in, but I committed on the spot and followed up periodically to see if Al was serious about the offer, turns out he was.
The first time you see N5413N, you have to remind yourself that it’s still just a Stearman, because it looks like a much larger airplane. The Pratt & Whitney R-1340 up front creates an illusion of size, the ag wings with extended tips add another few feet of wingspan. The tips look to be of a Roletto style, but not a production type, these were hammered into shape. They are a perfect example of a great design, locally implemented. The versions installed on modern ag planes don’t look much different. The tail sports a rudder from an Emair MA-1B adding several inches of surface area and height. The main gear is stock, except the larger tires which I’m sure I saw on some other model of farm equipment. The empennage has a very nicely designed Tri-Pacer fork and nose wheel being used as a highly effective locking tailwheel. The tall gear adds several inches to the ground clearance, which is immediately noticeable the first time you make your usual effort to climb on the wing and come up short. The low deck angle is also evident. More on that during the flying discussion.
One of my first thoughts when I volunteered to fly the Beast to Galesburg was how am I going to get anywhere with a 46 gallon fuel tank? Duster ingenuity beat me to it. The Beast has a standard 46 gallon center tank, with a 19 gallon tank mounted on either side. Both auxiliary tanks gravity feed into the main, using it as a header tank. I never attempted to explore the fuel range, and limited my legs to about an hour and twenty minutes. The 10 gallon oil tank consumes the baggage compartment. The only place to carry baggage or equipment is the hopper… with a hatch about 8” x 8”. I successfully transported two large soft sided bags of clothing and supplies for the fly-in, along with a helmet bag and back pack in the hopper. As I stood looking at the small hatch and my mound of luggage, Al matter-of-factly suggested “fill the bags while they’re in the hopper.” Pure genius, but upon arrival it required a very undignified process of dumping everything I owned on the ground in order to pull out the empty bags, then repeating the process when I was ready to leave. I streamlined my technique down to about ten minutes.
Getting in the cockpit requires a different approach since the “lilly canopy” precludes you from using the wing hand hold while stepping in the seat. You grab the steel tubing framing the canopy underhand while leaning back, and sliding yourself into the seat one leg at a time. No more difficult than an open cockpit entry, just different. I didn’t think I would like the windshield and canopy arrangement, but It’s actually brilliant. It keeps the sun off your head, and significantly reduces the wind Stearman pilots expect from the rear cockpit.
Once seated you get the first realization that this isn’t what you’re used to seeing in a Stearman. The seat, pedals, stick, and throttle quadrant are in their normal locations, but everything else is different. There is no instrument panel, all that stares at you is the back of a green, 200 gal fiberglass hopper. All the instruments are mounted on the trailing edge of the upper wing center section. You straddle the hopper, which has a molded shelf to accommodate the stick. The stick throw felt as though it had been cut down an inch or so to fit under the hopper, but I can’t confirm that. I’m 6’1, and with the seat adjusted at its maximum height, you also notice the padded hopper extends up to where you’re accustomed to seeing the top of the windshield frame and blue sky. The hopper also bulges out the sides of what was a front cockpit, further reducing the expected visual cues. There is zero forward visibility in the three-point attitude. This is also true in a stock Stearman, but for some reason, the canopy overhead, and the barrel chested fuselage make you feel somewhat claustrophobic. Remember, I said at the beginning, you have to keep reminding yourself that it’s just a Stearman.
The cockpit setup of the Beast will probably be more familiar to an ag pilot who has flown another types, than a Stearman pilot meeting an ag plane. A testament to how well the Stearman was adapted to what we fly now. The left side of the cockpit is busy, it has the tailwheel lock lever, spray handle, fan pump brake, the usual trim adjustment lever, and throttle quadrant. All are mounted wherever there’s room, but it’s compact enough that operating one lever or handle interferes with the movement of another. The right side features a small panel with magneto and alternator toggle switches, start switch, and a volt meter. There’s also a red handle we never figured out, but neither one of us wanted to try it pull it for fear of possibly releasing some ancient, crusty, chemical that had been living in the bottom of the hopper for 50 years. I’m certain if that were the case, my luggage absorbed what was left. No radio was installed, which at this point was just one less detail I had to concern myself with. Most pilots will agree, figuring out the radios in a new aircraft can often be the most complex part of any checkout.
As a test pilot by trade, I was excited to fly the Beast and eager to compare it to the stock and 450 Stearmans I had flown. Fresh off my rookie season as an ag pilot, I wanted to see what qualities it shared with the R-1340 powered Air Tractor I spent the summer in. I won’t keep you in suspense; it flies more like an ag plane than it does a Stearman, but that’s probably no surprise.
The preflight and start up is typical if you’ve flown a 450 Stearman, the monstrous tailwheel taxies well, and the Redline brakes provided responsive steering. The run-up was straight forward AT-6/1340. Once complete, I noticed the trim handle was almost full forward. A well rigged Stearman typically uses about 5 degrees of nose forward trim depending on pilot reference. Without any prior discussion on trim settings, I took this as a hint that the Beast was going to be tail heavy, which is opposite of what I would’ve thought given the extra weight of the engine and hopper. Turns out I really couldn’t detect much difference no matter where I set the trim. Over the following week, I would learn that conclusion held true for many of the Beasts’ handling qualities.
Once the run-up was complete I sat there idling and had the brief thought “what have I gotten myself into?” For the third time I was talking to myself, “Its just a Stearman, fly it like it’s a Stearman… with a bigger engine, and you can’t see anything, and its heavy…really heavy, Al’s watching.” I have a decent amount of T-6 experience coupled with 600HP ag planes, but still…
Lined up on the centerline I locked the tailwheel, heels on the floor, and slowly increased the throttle to 35” MAP. Lateral control didn’t require any more right rudder than an Air Tractor, T-6, or any other Stearman in normal conditions. Given the extra power, I expected the plane to leap off the ground, but to my surprise I was rolling well through 70 MPH before the tail got light. It took smooth, but deliberate forward stick to get it off the ground. My assessment; along with the extra weight, the large tailwheel reduces the available angle of attack when in the three point attitude. The heft also necessitates more time to get all that mass rolling fast enough for the tail to start flying. Once you apply back pressure and it breaks ground, you’re back into the realm of the expected, sort of. I was briefed ahead of time the Beast “takes off at 80 MPH, flies at 85, and lands at 80.” That pretty well sums it up, I tried experimenting, but I highly suggest sticking with those three numbers! One last note on the take -off roll, once you get the engine started, you are constantly reminding yourself to stop looking at the back of the hopper for information, look up at the wing. I repeated that to myself several times throughout the taxi and run-up. Yet, as soon as I started the takeoff, I found myself helplessly, but intuitively glancing at empty fiberglass wondering where my instruments were.
Once in the air, two things are immediately apparent; the Beast has an uncharacteristically heavy roll rate, and you are looking almost 90 degrees left and right for references, very little visibility exists to the 10 and 2 o’clock or forward. Add to that, the windshield splattered with oil from the run-up. Al gave me several pointers in advance, but I neglected to remember most of them until I mumbled to myself “Hmmm, he was right.” The cockpit sides are cut lower than standard Stearman “armpit cowlings”, so you have better visibility to the sides than you’re accustomed to. The lower cockpit sides also have the added benefit of allowing the pilot to comfortably position his arms like a locomotive engineer. Trimmed to level flight, it starts to fly more like a Stearman. There was no turn and slip coordinator installed, so I’m only assuming I flew it coordinated the entire week. Actually, the larger Emair rudder protrudes well above the vertical from a stock rudder, which gives you easily detectable feedback in the pedals if you’re flying the least bit out of trim. Initially, you feel a pronounced, high frequency flutter, It takes a few minutes to realize what the rudder is telling you, and that it isn’t going to depart the tail.
Once in a cruise climb, I reduced the power to 30” MAP and 2,000 RPM and it climbed nicely at 80MPH. Level cruise ended up being about 25”MAP and between 1,800-2,000 RPM. This particular engine and propeller combination seemed to prefer 2,000 RPMs which produced the smoothest operation. For the spray passes I experimented with, I used 26-28”MAP which would’ve sufficed loaded. Regardless of the power setting, my earplugs and helmet, did little to make me forget the huge exhaust stack less than 6’ in front of me as it pounded noise and heat into the right side of the open cockpit. Rumor has it one notable pilot took the Beast airborne with nothing on his head, and instantly regretted it.
A constant topic of discussion throughout the week was the speculation on the Beast’s fuel burn. Cruising, I averaged about 33 GPH, which only went up from there; I could reliably count on 35 GPH, T-6 fuel burn with half the speed. One pilot at the fly-in affectionately referred to it as a “Beautifully Sexy Fuel Toilet”. I put the Beast through everything the fly-in had to offer, short take-off, spot landing contest, and 4-ship formation flying. It was a perfect example of more isn’t always better, at least if you’re not spraying fields. While I had no problem with power during formation flights, the extra weight required more frequent power adjustments than I normally expect. I had to act earlier if I was falling back because it took longer to get all that mass moving forward, then retard it earlier to keep from over running my wingman. Throughout the week I contemplated several times on how the Beast would perform a simple roll. After my experience up to 90 degrees angle of bank, I didn’t have complete confidence that if I got it upside down, I’d be able to get it the rest of the way around. Test pilot caution won out, and I never put my theory to application. The Beast no longer has anything to prove to anyone.
What the Beast does well: it produces the ear splitting Pratt & Whitney sound we all love without being so fast that it only provides a glimpse as it streaks by. The favorite display of the fly-in was 30”MAP accelerating to 100 MPH in ground effect, and pitching for 70 MPH. It produces an almost Pitts climb angle, and just never slows down. I finally gave up at 1,500’ and leveled off. As with any unfamiliar airplane, the takeoff is the easy part, at some point you have to come down.
The most difficult part of the landing as with all things Beast is the anticipation and lack of visibility you’re attuned to when flying a Stearman. Once the nose rises the slightest degree above level, you’re back to only using your peripheral vision almost directly left and right. Al cautioned me, “Make your approach at 80 MPH, and don’t pull the power off until you’re over the runway”, which turned out to be about all you really needed to know when landing the Beast… just don’t forget it. Even if you have the nose pitched down for 80 MPH, and bring the throttle to idle, the Beast’s weight, and massive quantity of flat plate drag feels as if it’s descending vertically. Hold just enough power to maintain a normal rate of descent until you’re over the numbers and it settles nicely, like a shopping cart, there is no float. I tended to land with a tailwheel low wheel landing, but three points were a non-event, although they always caught me off guard since the large tailwheel plopped down before I was ready. The extra weight and higher landing speed makes the roll out longer than any other Stearman I’ve flown, even on grass.
A final note on flying the Beast, any pilot who has experience operating R-985s/1340s, and can fly a Stearman well would have no problems, as long as it’s approached as a new airplane and not just another Stearman. It has it’s own set of quirks and characteristics which after about 10 hours are less noticeable. My first few landings I wanted a 100’ wide runway, by the end of the week I was comfortable on short, narrow strips, and flying it in formation.
I let a few folks know several months in advance that I was going to fly the Schiffer’s 600HP duster to the fly-in, I don’t think anyone really believed me until it showed up at Galesburg. Taxing in I didn’t know if it would be well received, or asked to park it on the back row away from the public. I was immediately marshalled to the front row.
The airplane evokes special things in people who see it. After the five hour cross country, I was in love with the Beast. Throughout the week, it always had a few people gathered around it, many of who would just slowly walk around taking pictures, and noting every modification. Many stared and said “I’ve heard about em’, but never actually seen a real Stearman duster, this is what my Stearman used to look like.” Then the educational value of the Beast became apparent; many pilots finally made the connection that the dusters were a primary reason we were all able to assemble 102 Stearmans that week. I only had one attendee who was dumbfounded as to why I would bring such a “Ratty Stearman” to the fly-in, and asked when I was planning on restoring it?” All I could say was, “It is restored!” At the end of the week, the plane was awarded the Lloyd Stearman Award for preservation of a Stearman of historical significance. I couldn’t agree more.
The highlight of my week was being able to check out Rick Reed in the Beast. Rick is a recently retired ag pilot and operator of thirty seven seasons from central Illinois. He mentored me throughout my first ag season, and became more father than mentor over the last several years. To see him roar off in the Beast completed a circle for both of us.
Landing at the Beast’s home in Michigan, I was a little reluctant to have the trip end as we pushed it back in the hangar where it will sit until next September. I made friends with the Beast, I knew every leak, sound, and quirky flying characteristic. I planned to write a list of all the speeds, fuel burn, power settings, and squawks I found for Al, but reasoned nobody else was going to fly it, so I only needed to remember it for next year. The Beast and I have that kind of relationship now.
What started as an impulsive purchase by the Schiffers, resulted in a chance preservation of significant American aviation history, at least to those cherish these planes. The Beast may indeed be rebuilt at some point, but I’m confident it won’t look much different than it does now. It’s scars speak of a generation of hard pilots who made a living and forged an industry with these planes. As I reflected over the week’s flying, I paused periodically to take several notes and mental snap shots not wanting to forget the experience. I fully realized what a rare opportunity I was afforded to fly a machine tying so many pieces and people together. I’ve held several titles over my life, but for the week of the fly-in, I was most content with simply, “The guy who flies the Beast.” Thanks Al and Mike for trusting those of us who touched the controls, and for making it available for all to see, touch, and hear.