Gather ‘round me, people,
There’s a story I would tell.
About my brave old Stearman,
And how I gave her hell.
Back around 1993, I decided I needed an old biplane to fly around Alaska. I’d been flying around Alaska for about 20 years, mostly seaplanes to remote places, and figured an open cockpit would liven things up considerably. Boy! If I only knew!
My first choice was a Fleet, but they weren’t that easy to find and probably wouldn’t be easy to maintain and keep flying up north. So I thought the next best thing would be a Stearman. There were lots of them, all different price ranges (especially my own) and they were tough! So I started searching. First stop was Boeing’s Museum of Flight in Seattle to see my first Stearman in person, even if it was only hanging from the ceiling of the Museum. I joined the Stearman Restorers Association, heard about the National Fly-In, and headed for Galesburg in the fall of ‘93, thinking that would be just the place to find a lot of Stearmans for sale.
Well, it wasn’t. Most of those planes aren’t the ones that are for sale, nut it was the start of a great Stearman education. Passing that big concrete horse, coming around the end of a cornfield and seeing rows and rows of beautiful Stearmans parked on the grass, is a sight I’ll never forget. Even though I left without a Stearman, I learned a lot and made some great friends, including Ben Scott, who gave me my first even Stearman ride in his Speedmail. Talk about getting hooked! That’s the way to do it. Then I spent the next couple of years looking for one of my own.
I shopped on the phone and through the mail for lots of airplanes. But Alaska is kind of far away to be running around looking much, and I’d always try to beat someone down on the price, and the good ones got snapped up before I could make up my mind. Finally, I found one that looked like what I wanted, price was right, and the ad had just come out. When I called to see if it was still available, and it was, I hopped on the next plane, headed for Baker, Oregon, and met Cliff Bond to look at his Stearman. Realizing that buying the plane is the cheapest part of owning it, I didn’t even try to dicker on the price, took a ride with Cliff, and I had myself a Stearman.
60821 was a stock Stearman, 220 hp in average shape, with about a 20 year old rebuild. Cliff was getting older, had a couple of planes and was ready to start slowing down. So his decision to unload his Stearman was my good luck.
Then it was back home to Kodiak to get a couple of chores out of the way and figure out how to get my Stearman home. Went right over to see one of my flying friends and asked, “Hey, Tom, want to help me fly a Stearman from Oregon to Kodiak?” I got an immediate affirmative and headed back to Baker, not yet realizing what we’d just gotten ourselves into.
When we got to Baker, we spent the night working on the Stearman a little, hooking up the radio, and sleeping on the hangar floor. Next morning, Cliff gave both of us a ride once around the patch and that’s the first either of us came to flying a Stearman before we made our first take-off for Alaska. I can still picture looking back at Cliff on the side of the runway as I taxied out for take-off, shaking his head and wondering, ‘Oh man! My poor ol’ Stearman. These guys are never going to survive their first landing.’ But we fooled him, we did. Those first few days flying across Washington were the most consistently windy conditions I’ve yet had to fly my Stearman in, and I’m still kinda proud of Tom and myself for the job we did.
First stop was Walla Walla, Washington. Heck, it’s only ninety miles, it’s hot here on the ground, mid-June, we don’t need no jackets or gloves. Wrong. An hour or so at 6000 feet in an open cockpit had us frozen by the time we landed. From then on, it was insulated Mustang exposure suits every time we took off. Really comfortable flying, but sometimes we’d just about melt down before we could get them off when we hit the ground along the Alaska Highway at 90°.
Next day, it was Hermiston, Oregon, then to Goldendale to visit some friends then Omak. By this time, we both had a couple of landings under our belts, all in very windy conditions, and we were trying to overcome two problems. Bouncing and floating down the runway, Tom had the bright idea that I should jam the stick forward and plant those mains on the ground. So that’s what I did next. Except I’m still not used to being able to see ahead when landing and when I jammed that stick forward I was still ten feet in the air. What an exquisite bounce! I can still feel the gear going “boing!”
Then it was on the Penticton, British Columbia, through the beautiful Okanagon Valley – you can actually smell the apples as you fly over – Canadian customs at just about dark, and a couple more days of beautiful weather across British Columbia, Kamloops, Williams Lake, Prince George, and Mackenzie. Here was our first minor change of plans. I had planned to stick strictly to the roads and highways all the way to Alaska. Old airplane, unknown history, hadn’t gained confidence in the engine, and all that, so why give up a 2500 mile runway? But by the time we reached Mackenzie, B.C., we were feeling pretty good about things and the engine had never missed a beat. So why not cut across country and save a little time, “cross country” being across 2 medium-sized mountain ranges for about 100 miles.
So off we went. I Tom and I had been alternating take-offs and landings, he always from the front and me from the back, and it was his turn to fly. We’re cruisin’ along and I wasn’t bored in the back seat, but there wasn’t much to do but just sit there. Well, I’m a pretty hard-core note-taker and list maker, and with all the receipts and stuff you’re always being handed, my pockets were bulging with papers. So I started going through them to see what was important and what wasn’t. Now, I live in a remote part of Kodiak Island, a pristine, not-quite wilderness but close, and I live off the land and, while I’m a far cry from a tree-hugger, I’m very respectful and conscious of the environment. And I was the garbage man in Kodiak for about 20 years so I have very strong feelings about littering. But heck, I was flying over the middle of nowhere and this stuff is just paper, it will bio-degrade. So everything I didn’t want to keep, I just chucked overboard. A little while later, we landed at Fort St. John, our first stop on the Alaska Highway, and taxi up to a really nice FBO. I think the guy who came out to help us was even wearing a tie. After gassing up, we were walking to the office and he starts picking up scraps of paper off the ramp. I picked up a couple, too, and suddenly realized they’re all the junk I’d been throwing overboard for the last 50 miles. They’d all stuck to the tail of the plane and stayed plastered there ‘til I stopped at the gas pump! Fortunately, I don’t think the gas guy ever caught on to that!
It was getting pretty late but I thought we could make one more leg that night. Only problem was, the next airport was 300 miles away and 3 hours x 85 mph wasn’t going to cut it. But we learned that about 1/2 way between was a place called Ma’s Kitchen, a roadhouse that sold gas too, and had a pretty straight stretch of highway in front. Off we go. We arrived about 11:00 pm, checked out the road from the air and I set up to land. Only two minor complications. This road has got large flat fields on both sides and it’s built up about 8 to 10 feet higher than those fields. And the wind is blowing about 15 knots directly across this road, which is slightly narrower than a Stearman’s wing span. If you can picture this wind sweeping across the field, hitting the roadway and rising up under my right wing, then you can probably also picture me, barreling down the highway on my left wheel and left wing tip, frantically stomping on the right brake which is now 3 feet in the air, trying to get the damn airplane stopped and turned back to the right. Fortunately, through no skill of my own, we came to a stop just before we went over the edge. And you can probably understand then why, when we taxied up to the roadhouse and finished duct-taping the wing tip and aileron, the owner of the roadhouse fired up the oven and cooked us a steak dinner!
Next morning, it was supposed to be Tom’s turn to fly, but since it’s my plane and he doesn’t want anything to do with this road business. I was elected to take off again. We were up and ready to go at 5:00 am, lined up on the highway, no traffic, no wind, so I start rolling. Just about flying speed, Tom starts yelling, “Get up! Get up!” I yank the stick back and hop into the air, just in time to look out the side and see my lower wing slide over the back of a moose calf. Well, Tom had seen the mama moose come out of the trees along the highway and cross in front of us, but it was well clear and wasn’t going to be a problem, so he didn’t say anything. That’s when the calf followed mama out and he yelled, the difference in height between the cow and calf being just the difference between end-of-story and a couple more years of great Stearman flying around Alaska.
Then it was on to Fort Nelson, the grand canyon of the Liard River (a mile-wide river which in some places tunnels through a gorge as couple hundred yards’ wide – awesome and worth seeing, but so far off the beaten track that they’d still be looking for us if anything had gone wrong), Watson Lake, Teslin, and Whitehorse, where we spent the night. Next morning’s preflight found a missing exhaust stud. Air North of Canada still flies a fleet of beautiful DC-3s on schedules all across the Yukon and Northwest Territories, so a walk over to their hanger solved my little problem in a hurry. As the DC-3 pilots would taxi by me on the ramp, they’d lean out of their window and wave. I’ll always regret that I didn’t take one up on his offer of a trip across the Canadian Arctic in a DC-3 in exchange for a Stearman ride. But since we were only about 1 more day from home and anxious to get there, and so far had had perfect weather, I passed up the opportunity.
On to Burwash Landing, Northway, Gulkana and Anchorage, where we arrived on June 21st. The next day saw us headed down the Kenai Peninsula to our last fuel stop in Homer before the last 130 mile leg to Kodiak, about 80 miles of it over water. Kodiak has 2 airports – a big multi 7500 foot runway airport and a 2000 x 40 foot municipal airport right in town. So about 10 miles out, I did what I’d been waiting the last 6 days for. I called the tower and reported that Boeing 60821 was 10 miles north for landing at Municipal.
Tower replied, “Boeing 60821, transition approved, ah, did you say municipal?”
Then, “Boeing 821, are you familiar with the area?”
Finally, since the only Boeings they ever get in Kodiak are 737s, he had to ask what type of Boeing it was that was going to land at the downtown 2000 foot strip? I smiled, said, “A Stearman,” and a few minutes later landed at home after successfully completing one of the most exciting airplane journeys I’ve ever had. Many more exciting and not quite so successful ones were to come.
I spent the next couple of years flying my Stearman around Kodiak, with a few side trips to mainland Alaska. Being an island with only one town and just a few miles of road and 80 miles of water to cross to get to the mainland, Kodiak isn’t exactly the ideal place for flying a Stearman. Once away from town, the only emergency landing places are some beaches at low tide and a few village airstrips scattered around the island. I flew about 100 hours the first year, going around to the villages giving rides to kids. One day, I headed for the village of Old Harbor, about 50 miles away. They have a nice 3000 foot gravel airstrip a couple of miles from town, but that’s a long way to walk when you have a Stearman. There’s an old abandoned strip with about 600 good useable feet and a couple hundred more boulder-strewn and rut-infested feet right in front of the post office in the middle of town. School had just gotten out when I landed and the prop had barely stopped turning when I was surrounded by every kid in town. They all wanted to sit in the Stearman, so while I was putting them in the cockpit two at a time, I looked up to see kids everywhere, climbing and sitting on the wings, even two hanging from the prop! After they all had their chance to sit in the plane, I cleared them out and headed out to the big airstrip to give rides for the rest of the afternoon.
Another favorite pastime was dropping candy to kids in remote fishing camps around the island. When the salmon start to run in the summer, lots of families head out to their fish camps for the whole summer where they commercially fish. And lots of these families have kids. I live in a remote bay on Kodiak about an hour from town via a Super Cub on floats and for quite a few years when I’m flying back and forth, I’d drop candy, hamburgers, and even pizza to any of these camps where I saw kids. They got kind of used to seeing me come by in the Cub, so you can imagine their thrill when they hear a strange rumble and see a Stearman come over the mountain to drop junk food on them. One family of very dear friends with 5 kids lives out at their remote home permanently so I decided to Christmas time, I ought to deliver their presents by Stearman. I got my friend Tom to go along as bombardier.
Now, I’ve never been in a flour bombing contest, but I got pretty good with my Cub where I could practically hand stuff right out the window as I went by. But dropping from a Stearman ain’t nothing like that, especially when you’re either flying right alongside of or straight toward a mountain. And visibility straight ahead isn’t that great even when there’s nothing in your way. I had 5 packages to drop. The first one went okay and the second pass wasn’t too bad, but by now I’m getting a little nervous. It’s cold. I’ve already been flying 45 minutes just to get here, I’m 40 miles from the nearest emergency landing spot so I told Tom to let the rest of the packages go all at once and “let’s get the hell out of here.” Well, the kids were two days finding the last packages but it was a Christmas they’ll never forget. Nor will they forget last years’ Christmas which I repeated, this time in the dark early Christmas morning with the plane blazing with Christmas lights and the packages wrapped with glo-sticks as they fell from a Super Cub and not the Stearman.
Went out on another village excursion one afternoon. It was getting kind of late but I wasn’t going too far. However, the friends I stopped to visit has a freshly baked cake that really needed eating. By the time I headed for home, it was midnight. It was a pitch dark night, no moon and not many stars out and not a single light below. But it was that year when there was a comet traveling by the earth and I’ll never forget the sight of the exhaust flame shooting out of the right side of the plane and the comet trailing along side me on the left.
I’d had a while now to get experienced flying the Stearman and get the confidence in how the engine ran, so I decided it was time to take off and tour Alaska with it. I left Kodiak in July and headed for the mainland. First stop was an abandoned logging strip right on the tip of the Kenai Peninsula after the long water hop for a pit stop. Then on to Homer for gas, Beluga on the west side of Cook Inlet, Anchorage, then Talkeetno. Then up the valley following the highway and Alaska Railroad, past Mt. McKinley, towards Fairbanks. Incidentally, the route from Anchorage to Fairbanks was the same one followed by Noel Wien when he made the first airplane flight between those two cities in, I believe, 1924, in a Stearman, which is now restored and on display in the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum in Anchorage. And that was before there was a road or railroad to follow. The year after my trip, his two sons recreated their father’s flight in a PT-17 Stearman even to the extent of taking off from the same field their dad used over 70 years earlier, which is now a park in Downtown Anchorage!
Anyway, now for me it was off the highways to remote Alaska in my Stearman. Left Fairbanks and headed west down the Tanana River to its junction with t he Yukon at the village of Tanana. Then down the Yukon, past Ruby to Galena, where I turned around and headed back upstream to follow the Yukon River until it reached the Canadian border. Back to Tanana to visit friends and give rides under the midnight sun (in the pouring rain) then to Manley Hot Springs and an encounter with the worst mosquitoes I’ve ever seen. Over the hill to Rampart, bummed gas from a local pilot, more Yukon River to Stevens Village, Beaver and then Fort Yukon above the Arctic Circle. On to Circle Hot Springs for a stay at the lodge and swim in the hot springs-fed pool, then on to the old Klondike gold rush town of Eagle, past abandoned gold dredges, ghost towns, winding, muddy 700 miles of Yukon river, stopping in villages to give kids their first airplane rides ever in a Stearman. What a way to get introduced to flying! Anyway, now it’s on to Eagle, just a few miles from the Canadian border.
Here’s where things start to liven up considerably. Eagle has a nice 3000 foot gravel airstrip a few mile out of town but they also have a grass field right at the edge of town. It’s about 1000 feet long and is an old marching field from the Army post that was there in the gold rush days around 1900. It’s been used by lots of local pilots and I’ve been landing there for years. That’s where I landed the Stearman and was camping. It was about 9 o’clock at night and I was walking down the field when I met Carol Knight. Carol says, “Hey, what a neat airplane. Can I have a ride?” and I say, sure, let’s go.” Carol was a young girl growing up in Eagle in the 1930’s and now she comes back every summer to spend a couple of weeks in a cabin she has on what’s left of the old family homestead on the bank of the Yukon. So we pile into the Stearman and fly over town for a while. She waves to all her old cronies, and I come in to land. Well, I touched down but I bounced – no big deal – just a bounce. But I holler to Carol, “I’ll show you a good landing,” and I firewalled it to go around. Instantly I knew I had made a mistake but I was committed now and had to make the best of it. I’d learned a couple of things about flying a Stearman by now. One was that it will take off with just about anything you can fit in it. Two was it will take off in a reasonably short distance with that load. Three was that a 220 hp Stearman won’t climb worth a hoot.
Well, it was about 85° that night, the airfield goes uphill, and there are trees at the end of the field. I got up the hill, I got over the trees, I even got turned around and was heading back downhill to the airstrip. But my poor ol’ Stearman was just hanging on the prop at about 50 mph, way behind the power curve. Now below me is a canopy of birch trees which I’m still flying above, but out the side every now and then I can see a spruce tree that’s about ten feet taller than the rest. Even though I couldn’t see them, I knew there had to be some of those devils straight ahead, too. Sure enough, for the next 1/2 mile, I took the top off every spruce tree that had the misfortune of being in my way. But, I thought, there might still be hope. Remembering those words of wisdom from an old pilot-mechanic friend, “Never crash with the throttle closed,” I plowed on. The airfield is just off to my left a couple hundred feet now and there’s just a few trees separating us, and I’m just coming over the little dirt road that goes into Eagle. The first living room windows of Eagle are just ahead, and even though a Stearman is 31 feet wide and the road is just 24 feet wide, I figure if I can get the nose down between the trees, I can pick up a couple miles an hour to pull my aft out of the fire. Thinking back, I realize that that 1/2 mile of spruce tree logging had bled off a considerable portion of my original 50 mph (thinking back I realize a lot of things now), that’s when my tail wheel hooked the power lines crossing the road, leaving Eagle without electricity and my Stearman without a tail! About a hundred feet further on I flew, full throttle, straight into the ground, the plane perfectly vertical and the prop augered in so deep we had to dig it out.
Miraculously, neither Carol nor I was hurt, not even scratched. We dropped from our shoulder harnesses, climbed down from the plane and stepped about 6 feet to the road. The first thing Carol said was, “Wow, that was great! What do we do next?”
A total stranger a few minutes earlier, I couldn’t have picked a better person to crack up with. We were instantly surrounded by half the population of Eagle, who had watched what was happening, and heard questions of what happened? Who did this? Was anybody hurt? Was anybody killed? Who’s the pilot? And we just melted into the crowd and asked the same questions and walked away down to Carol’s cabin where we sat on her front porch watching the river flowing by, enjoying a well-earned beer.
Later that evening, I went back to survey my wreckage and the Stearman was totally demolished. All four wings were smashed, the tail was ripped off, fuselage bent badly, the landing gear sponsons bent 90°, engine augered in and I was broke, 600 miles from home without enough money even to salvage the plane, let alone rebuild it. So I did the only thing I figured I could at the time. I gave the Stearman away and went home. Funny, I’d been afraid to fly and teach myself aerobatics for fear I’d do something dumb and rip the wings off. Well, one thing I didn’t do in the wreck was rip the wings off. They were smashed but still firmly attached.
Anyway, just that day before the crackup in the last stop downstream from Eagle, in the town of Central, I met a fellow who, along with his dad, had a bunch of airplanes including a Stearman, and were antique airplane nuts and had restored old airplanes before, so I called him and asked him if he wanted my Stearman. He flew right over to look at it, said it was pretty bad and didn’t really want an old wreck, but he likes anything to do with airplanes, so, what the heck, he’d take it. He figured he’d never rebuild it but said if he did, I could have it back. In the meantime, I could fly his anytime I wanted. I knew then that I’d done the right thing. A couple of days later, he and his dad drove 500 miles to retrieve the Stearman, loaded the pieces on a trailer and hauled it home. Later that fall, when they came to Kodiak on a hunting trip, they brought me 20 ounces of gold they’d mined that summer.
Over the next couple of years, I’d dreamed of getting another Stearman, even went and looked at a couple, but figured I’d had my chance and my Stearman days were over. One day I got a call from Ed Gelvin in Central, who along with his son, Stan, had hauled my Stearman out of the trees in Eagle. He told me he had decided to rebuild it. I had heard of Ed through a story of his retrieving an old Curtis Robin that had crashed 40 years earlier somewhere north of the Yukon River. He had hauled it out in pieces strapped to the outside of his ski plane and had just finished restoring it the year before I met him. I saw it and it was beautiful, so I knew the quality of work he did and we kept in touch over the next two years. I visited him to watch his progress on the Stearman rebuild, so I knew the quality of restoration it was getting. One day I was nearby so I called him and he told me they had just hung the engine and were getting ready to test fly it, so I flew over to watch. Stan flew it. It flew perfectly and as soon as he landed, Ed offered it back to me. It was an unbelievable deal. he said I could have it for just what he had in rebuilding it, not counting the 2 years of labor he had put into it. That was just for fun, he told me. A great a deal as it was, it was still way out of my price range, but just didn’t have the heart to say no, so I said I’d let him know. I’d decided I couldn’t buy it when the next time I went to visit, I found out that he had just died. He had gotten to fly the Stearman himself just once. As soon as I found that out, my whole thought changed. By this time, I’d become friends with him and his family and his wife really wanted me to have it back, so I decided to buy it back, to sort of keep it in the family and flying here in Alaska. So I cashed in my old age nest egg and went out to the back yard and dug up the coffee can I’d buried there and bought my old Stearman back.
It was still summertime when I decided to buy the Stearman back, but that coffee can was buried pretty deep, so I didn’t get it dug up ‘til about the end of October. Now, October in Alaska gets pretty cold, especially up in Fairbanks where I had to pick her up, but I just couldn’t bear the thought of owning a Stearman but having it frozen in up north all winter. I was gonna get it back to Kodiak where it’s always warm enough to fly. So I grabbed a couple pair of gloves and my sea-otter hat and set off for my first Stearman flight in a couple of years.
It was 10°F when I left Fairbanks but I was dressed nice and warm, so I took off for Talkeetno, about 200 miles away. That’s the first place where there’s any gas or services between Fairbanks and Anchorage, and once in the air I wasn’t stopping ‘til I got there. That’s a pretty long flight for a Stearman with a climb prop and used to burning 14 gallons per hour. But I gave the mixture control a good workout and arrived 2 hours and 20 minutes later on 24 1/2 gallons of gas. Then a few miles down the road to a friend’s private airstrip for the night, on to Anchorage the next day for more gas, then Homer for the night, then the next day the final 135 miles, mostly over water, leg to Kodiak. Home again with my Stearman and ready for more Alaskan adventures, and they weren’t long in coming.
The next summer, my first destination was Chicken, Alaska, one of the oldest gold mining areas in Alaska, long before the Klondike gold rush. There’s still some mining going on there, but my reason for going was to be garbage man, mechanic, water boy, firewood gatherer and sometimes bartender for “Beautiful Downtown Chicken.” I had also planned to give Stearman rides to tourists, but Chicken’s runway is short, gravel, one way in and one way out in a valley surrounded by hills – the same conditions that cost me my Stearman in Eagle the first time, so I gave up on that idea right away.
Then it was on to Long Lake for breakfast. Long Lake is about 20 miles from McCarthy, in the Wrangle Mountains. Some of the most rugged and remote mountains of Alaska and site of the Kennicott Copper Mine, the richest copper mine ever discovered, which operated from about 1920 to 1938. The Collins Family hosts a Memorial Day Fly-In Breakfast for their friends at their homestead on Long Lake. It’s a nice grass airstrip and usually about 35 to 40 planes show up, and this was my second time in the Stearman which, I must admit, is always the neatest plane there. (This year, 2003, I went again but in my 180, not the Stearman. Cliff and Jewel Collins are 92 years old this year and this was their 40th consecutive fly-in breakfast.)
Anyway, Gulkana to McCarthy and back uses just about all the gas a Stearman can hold, and since there’s no gas in McCarthy, landing at Gulkana on the return is a must. It was starting to get windy when I took off from Long Lake in the Stearman and when I got to Gulkana, it was blowing a steady 20 knots, gusting to 35, directly across the runway. I got it down in one piece on the second try gassed up and took off for Tok on my way back to Chicken. Tok is only 114 miles north but after an hour of flying, I realized I was bucking a 50 mile an hour headwind. My groundspeed was down to 35 mph. 3 hours times 35 mph just doesn’t equal 114 miles, so in 15 minutes I was back on the ground in Gulkana where I waited 2 days for the wind to quit.
Finally made it back to Chicken, finished my chores and headed back to Kodiak to meet a B-17 and B-24 which were touring the U.S., Alaska, and were going to be in Kodiak for the 4th of July. I had contacted the owner of the bombers to see if I could meet up with them in the air over Kodiak to get some pictures of the Stearman and the B-17 in the air together, but he didn’t want anything to do with any formation flying with two such different planes, which I completely understood. So I just watched from the air as they came over town and I followed them in to land. While they were on display and giving rides, I also parked my Stearman with them and left it for a couple of days for the bomber pilots to fly. When I came back to pick up my plane, they offered me a ride in the B-17, so I hopped in and sat on the floor between the pilot and co-pilot. We headed through the valley away from Kodiak and I was looking out through the big open hatch on the top of the B-17 and here comes my Stearman behind us. I still don’t know how the B-17 pilot got slow enough for Mike Walsh, who was flying my Stearman, got fast enough for them to form up close enough for me to see the grin on the Stearman pilot’s face through the windshield of the B-17. But it was a sight I’ll never forget!
The next spring, my old friend Andy died. Andy and I had been flying around Alaska together for the last 20 years. Andy had been flying for over 50 years, but he was kind of old (real old, in fact) and set in his ways. When we flew together, it almost always had to be in his Super Cub, no matter who was the pilot. And he absolutely refused to fly in the Stearman. Well, he had pretty specific orders on where I was to spread his ashes when he died, so as soon as I received his box of ashes, I dressed them in a helmet, goggles, and white scarf, fired up the Stearman and headed for the mountains in the interior of Kodiak Island where I sprinkled him into the rays of sunshine shining through holes in the clouds below. Hope you had, and are still having, a nice ride, Andy! (P.S. Andy – a couple of months later, I took Juanita up to join you, but I guess you already knew that.)
I’d had my Stearman around Kodiak for enough years now, I’d covered lots of the Island many times. With the scarcity of good landing places, hangaring in an unheated hangar in Kodiak’s wet rainy winters, already an engine failure and unscheduled boat ride for me and the Stearman back to town, I wanted to find a new home for it on the mainland. And that would also save me the long ride over the ocean every time I wanted to take it off the Island. So I decided to find a partner and sell half the Stearman. I met Paul Mattson, a United 747 captain who lives in and has a nice hangar just outside of Anchorage. His dad and uncle had been Stearman pilots and instructors, I think, during the war, and he was looking for one. He came to Kodiak, flew the Stearman, we are agreeable, so made a deal. Except that I changed my mind about having a partner and selling half the plane. I decided just to take the Stearman up to his hangar and he’d fly it for me in return for hangaring it. He was a great pilot, responsible, and then I’d have my Stearman hangared on the mainland and wouldn’t have to worry about cobwebs building up in it. So off I headed for Girdwood. After dropping off the plane to Paul, we talked a little about maintenance and responsibilities and all that. He insured the plane, if he broke it he’d fix it, but he asked what if something really major broke, like the engine blowing up, which really wouldn’t be the pilot’s fault. I said, no problem, it’s my plane, my responsibility. Heck, it’s a freshly overhauled engine. I’ll eat that, that being the farthest thought from my mind. So I left Paul with a pleasant summer of Stearman flying ahead. It was in good hands, and close to lots of airports, roads, services, and all that kind of stuff, even if something did go wrong. Right?
About the end of the summer, I was just getting ready to take off for home in my Super Cub when my daughter came running down to the lake and said, “Dad, you’d better call Paul right away, big problems with the Stearman engine.” So I called Paul and indeed there were problems. He was taking off in the Stearman, was at about 200 feet, when the engine blew up. The crankshaft snapped! Amazingly, Paul was able to get the plane turned around and back on the ground without a scratch. I’m sure I couldn’t have done it.
Well, the engine’s broke, but Paul and the plane are safe and it’s up in the big city where it’s easy to deal with. WRONG! Paul had flown it to South Naknek, a small village on the Alaskan Peninsula not far from the beginning of the Aleutian Chain. Not King Salmon, which has a regular passenger and freight service, not North Naknek, which you can drive to from King Salmon, but South Naknek, which is accessible only by small plane or boat, about 200 miles west of Kodiak, and as remote as anyplace I could have gotten stuck on the Island.
First thing was to get over there and see what it was going to take to fix the engine and get the plane home. I tried a couple of times but couldn’t make it due to weather, and I was pretty sure the engine wouldn’t be fixable with a busted crank and who knows what other internal damage due to stuff flying around inside the crankcase. And nobody was equipped to work on that kind of engine over there anyway. I had a couple of options or engines to borrow in Alaska, but that would still involve 1500 miles of flying to pick them up, shipping and returning them, lots of work. I didn’t want to leave my plane sitting there all winter while I got the busted engine fixed, if it was even fixable, and I had to do something fast. In just a few days it would be September when the snow would start flying and cold weather begins. So I started shopping for a new engine. I didn’t really want a new engine though, ‘cause I’d just had a new engine blow up and I didn’t want to deal with stuff that comes with installing a new engine, like swapping parts, getting it all rigged up and tinkered with just right for first time flying. Plus, trusting it to fly across 200 miles of the most rugged mountains, volcanoes and glaciers in the world, including 50 miles of Shelikof Straight. I wanted an old engine that had been running for many hours and years and all I had to do was bolt on. I called around, got lots of suggestions, talked to Jack Davis of the SRA and he put an ad on the Internet. I got responses from as far away as New Zealand.
Then I called Don Sanders of Sanders Airmotive in Oklahoma. If anybody ever wants a recommendation for help with their Stearman engine, just ask me. Don saved the day for me. He had a 670 with about 800 hours on it, overhauled 25 years ago, sitting in his shop. It had been taken off a show Stearman that was being built because it was leaking oil. I explained to him that I needed a dependable engine that was going to have to keep running for at least 2 hours, preferably 3, ‘cause I had some pretty rough country to fly over. And believe me, Don understands about getting Stearmans out of remote places with blown-up engines, but that’s a long story you’ll have to get from him.
Anyway, he dragged the engine out, ran it on the test stand for a couple of hours, made sure it was all tuned up and ready to bolt on, and it leaked between a cup and a cup-and-a-half of oil in that time. I said, heck, my new engine leaked that much, it holds 4 1/2 gallons, send it up! So within 2 days of talking to him, it was crated and delivered to Fed. Ex. for 2nd Day Air to Anchorage. Then I went to South Naknek to check on the Stearman and get it ready for an engine swap. When the engine arrived in Anchorage, Paul put it on Northern Air cargo for shipment to King Salmon. But the major obstacle was still ahead – getting the 700 pound engine across the river to South Naknek. I bummed a ride across the river in a skiff with a local fellow, he waited while I bummed another ride in a pick-up truck to bring the engine down from King Salmon, then we lowered it from an old cannery dock down to the boat, drove it across the river, picked it up at another cannery on that side, bummed another truck and hauled it out to the Stearman. It arrived in King Salmon at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and, with the help of another local guy with a front end loader, was bolted on the Stearman and ready to start by 11 o’clock that same night. It had been a long day, so I decided to wait until the next morning to start it. First thing the next morning, I cranked it up and it fired right off. So I was ready to go. except for one thing. paperwork. Since everybody in the country knew about this broken-down biplane now, I was pretty visible and the last thing I needed was any problems with the FAA. And anyway, this was my first engine change and I wanted another mechanic to look it over to see if I missed anything. So I went across the river in my 180 and found a mechanic who would come back and look it over for me. He checked everything out, said it looked fine, he’d sign it off, let’s hear it run. Now that engine had just fired up on the second crank after I’d bolted it on, but with half the town and the mechanic looking on, do you think it would start? No way, not even a pop. We fiddled and fooled around with it – nothing. So out came the plugs for the second time, flew them across the river to the shop and cleaned them, put them back in and she took right off. Such a simple problem.
It was getting late now, another long day, so I decided just to fly to King Salmon, gas up and clean up and rest for the night after a couple of days of camping out and not much to eat. So I took off for King Salmon. That’s when I got my first surprise. That supposedly “run-out” engine, on take-off ran circles around my new engine. I’d never had another 670 to compare my engine to so I’d thought everything was fine. But that old engine turned up faster, ran smoother, cruised with way less throttle than the new blown-up one ever did. I’d been having minor problems, and some major problems with the new engine ever since I’d had it, and when I partly disassembled it and took it off for the engine swap, found all kinds of little things that were wrong from overhaul.
Anyway, I took off for King Salmon, fueled up and even though I was tired and dirty, and only had a little daylight left, it was clear weather, even a little tailwind, so I decided to take off for Kodiak right away. It was a beautiful flight and about 2 hours later, my Stearman was home safe and sound in her own hangar. Another bit of good luck since that evening was the last day for about 3 months that I could have made that trip in the Stearman over that country because of weather and storms.
I flew the Stearman regularly around Kodiak all last winter and that old engine runs just great, so I plan on leaving it on for another year or so before doing anything to it.
It’s now May, 2003, and I just got back from South Naknek to ship my busted engine home. I’ll start tearing it apart next week to see exactly what went wrong and, if it’s repairable, it’s off to Sander’s Airmotive for what I’m sure will be a first class fix.
I’m looking forward to another good summer of Stearman flying in Alaska. It’s really hard to describe in words, and even pictures, how spectacular it is to fly in Alaska, especially in a Stearman. If anybody ever has a chance to do it in their Stearman, go for it. The trip up the Alaska Highway is easy and great, and flying around Alaska is an experience you’ll never forget.