Out here on the Front Range prairie of Colorado, the visibility is usually superb. The local joke is you take off with 90 miles and the first thing you know it’s dropped down to 75 and you’re in trouble. We do manage to deal with that, but the real threat is the high winds that sometimes start rather suddenly and stay with us for the next 24 hours.
Recently, I let my guard down and took off only to hear, with wheels still spinning, the tower advising winds gusting from 26 to 16 knots about 40 to 50 degrees off the nose. In 22 years in this Stearman, I had never dealt with anything quite that brisk, especially on hard surface non-skid runways. 1 turned on downwind at once and came around on final in extreme turbulence, blowing the first attempt. An Air National Guard C-130 crew shooting landings on the same runway seemed blissfully unaware of the tempest. Well good for them with their tandem gear, four turbines and that monstrous rudder. I didn’t know whether to be grateful or insulted when, during my second pass, the tower told the C-130 to stop on the ramp well clear of the runway. I was kind of busy by this time and frankly My Dear; I didn’t give a damn The enforced aerobatics on the next final were even more impressive and the immediate future of Stearman niner four four Sierra did not look at all promising. I found 1 could keep it lined up on the glide path with full left aileron, full right rudder and a very high power setting By lined up I mean it seemed to average out there generally and that, under the circumstances, had to be good enough. As luck would have it, and maybe with some generous help from the Almighty, that control setting turned out to be just enough to keep it on the runway after touchdown. I flew it down the runway maybe 2500 feet, reluctant to pull the power back for fear it would weather vane. It was only after I got it back in the hangar that I discovered that the left wing had been so low it had scraped on the runway, but causing only minor damage to the fabric. Several hours later, having a nice stiff drink in the comfort and safety of my own home, the wind continued its cyclical gusting, angered that I had escaped its wrath. Those who enjoy a bit of the grape recognize there are times when a drink tastes better then others. This was one of those times. The experience may have tested the control limits of the Stearman. It certainly tested mine.
In the years 1 have flown, you name it and I’ve done it, and not always something I’d want to discuss with the FAA. A number of years ago, I let a guy taxi the plane, with me in the back. As he turned 90 degrees, he applied full brakes and almost nosed the plane over. Fortunately, he didn’t get the prop, but we then found it would not taxi straight without left brake. Back in the hangar I found the tail wheel trunnion was bent and the tail wheel cocked with about 20 degrees of camber. Most Stearman guys learn, as I have, that the plane can withstand extremely hard landings without damage, but that’s with the tailwheel trailing straight, not turned 90 degrees. But wait there’s more to this story. A fellow pilot helped repair the parts so I took him up for a flight. He had had a lot of tail dragger time though not in this type, and he did some fair aerobatics from the front seat. 1 made a rare exception and let him land. Upon landing, we bounced in the air for what seemed about twenty feet above the runway, and since we were well below stall I instinctively hit the throttle, then apologized and let him have the controls back We went around and he made a 180-degree turn onto the down wind from what seemed like a low altitude but still climbing. Then I noticed that he had the power backed off and we starting to descend back towards my hangar. Well, I was ready to call it a day anyhow but 1 usually prefer to enter the hangar from the ramp rather than directly from the downwind leg. It suddenly dawned on me that nobody had been flying the plane since right after I had applied full power. But the old bird had done a pretty good job of it on its own, continuing the runway heading, then making a left turn under full power and leveling as the throttle vibrated back
One thing about radial engines is that they’ll get you home if you give them half a chance. Modern flat engines tend to fail catastrophically. Back in Ohio, I had flown to a grass field about 20 miles from home for breakfast Climbing out I thought it was running it little rough but decided it was my imagination (automatic rough in Air Force parlance). Soon the engine gave one great miss, as if all nine had skipped a beat (which I think actually happened). I stuck my head out and great drops of black oil hit me in the face and goggles. No question about it now, it was coughing up hairballs. Soon after, a graceful white plume marked our path through the sky. My first inclination was to try to get it back to home base for repairs but thought better of it when I visualized my engine might be tearing itself up. I headed for a grass strip airport halfway. By the time I spotted it we were directly above it at about a thousand feet. I did a 270 and slipped all the way down, smoking all the way. Kicking it around straight with perhaps more luck than skill, we touched down beautifully. The field owner who had watched the whole tableau said it looked like something out of Dawn Patrol. He loaned me some tools and I removed the faulty piston, which naturally had to be in the worst position; number 6 next to the sump. Now here came another lucky break. At a nearby aircraft junkyard they just happened to have a surplus piston in .010 oversize and exact part number I needed, still in cosmoline after 40 years. The cylinder looked bad at first with a wide stripe of aluminum amalgam but it cleaned up with light honing and I was back in business.
On a hot summer day, a friend of mine and I were flying back east from Galesburg and decided to land on a field halfway home. I had landed here on the way out but didn’t like the narrow blacktop strip, as the Stearman tended to want to wander off the high crown. Seeing a nice green strip next to it I decided to use it instead There was a pretty fair wind coming from the south and I noticed the strip seemed rather narrow with some wooden boxes over the adjoining runway lights. We managed to keep the wing tip clear of them however. Over bacon and eggs later, I remarked to my companion that the grass runway seemed kind of narrow. He said, “Yeah I know, you landed on the taxi strip”.
Another thing about radials, over time they will tend to make you slightly deaf. But if you’ve been there when it suddenly quits you know there is no silence quite so deafening
On one flight I wanted to make sure my passenger was well strapped in before I started into a loop. I couldn’t raise him on the intercom, so I put my left foot forward and pushed on his seat belt to see if it was taut. Shortly after, that great silence ensued. I trimmed it up in a glide and looked for a place to set down into the prevailing west wind It’s strange what goes through a guy’s mind when you’re in a situation, but I noticed all the fields were freshly plowed in a north-south direction. It occurred to me then that this was done to prevent wind erosion, an interesting observation but of little use in that precise circumstance. While going through the simple cockpit check, I discovered I had pushed the gas valve off with my leg when I had checked the passenger’s belt. A quick turn of the valve and that wonderful roar of a healthy round engine greeted my ears. A very welcome sound.
I have met a few seasoned pilots who didn’t like the Stearman and thought it too tricky. OK, but with its robust strength, rigidity and docile flight behavior it seems to have an inherent desire to stay in one piece. In other words it will save your buns if do something stupid. It has mine.