Our adventure began in September 1998 when we looked at an airplane project to buy. Stearman N49793 was restored by Harry Halajian in California in the 1970’s and had been in the North Texas for many years. Being new to the world of airplane restoration, little did we know the initial cost compared to restoration cost was minor! After some discussion, we agreed to the challenge of this great retirement project, after all how hard could this “restoration” work be?
The process of moving the project began in September 1998. Because many of the parts were located in the attic of a hangar, we experienced some hot dusty days packing parts, avoiding the swarms of the pesky Yellow Jacket wasps, toting the parts and boxes up and down the stairway and wondering if we had all the necessary parts?
After all the parts, boxes and fuselage were in our hangar, our next challenge was to organize and store items so they could be accessed. Well, you know how that goes. Since a paint booth is a necessity in airplane restoration, we decided to build it in one of our hangars where we normally parked our cars. So, we had to build a separate garage for our cars as our first step. In early 2000 we built the paint booth.
In 2000 our grass airstrip was threatened by a developer who had purchased 1,000 acres off the south end of our strip. We knew our flying time at this present location could be in jeopardy, so we went north to the old Perrin Air Force Base (North Texas Regional Airport) and built an additional hangar and a small apartment. That was a two year project, since we finished out the apartment ourselves, and the “Stearman Project” sat untouched.
In late 2001 we set our sights back to the Stearman project, looking at the many parts and pieces spread all over the hangar. We began working on the cockpit of the plane which included replacing the wiring, the electric circuit panel, cleaning and restoring the original throttle and mixture quadrants, new radio installation, restored instrument panel, restored wooden seats and hardware etc. Just those few items took many months, but eventually we called it done. The landing gear and tailwheel was our next area to work on. Anyone who has completed a Stearman restoration finds out a Stearman is a big plane with lots of parts. Keep in mind, that this was a pay as you go restoration project!
Before anything was rebuilt on the plane, all parts were stripped, cleaned, inspected, repainted or replaced. Every bolt, screw, nut or metal piece was cleaned, restored or replaced. After these initial time consuming and necessary steps, we replace the landing gear seals and installed the redline disc brakes as well as overhauled the tail wheel and tail strut.
Our next focus was the oil tank which was cleaned both inside and out and repainted. Engine mount removed, cleaned and repainted, Fuel tank was tested, cleaned and repainted. Horizontal stabilizer disassembled, cleaned, new trailing edges installed and the part was epoxy primed. Vertical fin rudder cleaned and epoxy primed with new bearings. Wings were inspected, re-varnished, with attach hardware removed, checked, epoxy primed. New electrical wiring for upper wings with original navigation lights restored. Did we mention our estimated timeframe for this restoration project would be about 5 years, so in 2004 it was apparent we needed to add several more years since we had yet to begin the recovering of the wings, tail feathers or fuselage.
As the years flew by, fabric work was completed on the wings, tail feathers and fuselage along with the poly fiber process. There was not shortage of work to be done, whether it was tying knots, ironing fabric, wet sanding, painting, sanding, painting and more sanding it was endless! Much time was spent to perfect the final paint job and to hand detail stripes,stars and meatballs on the wings.
At our house, a big event would be the shifting of the finished parts to a storage area, or moving the fuselage from the storage area to the work area. Every time more metal parts seem to appear to be stripped, never could figure out just where the heck they were coming from!
Early into the project it was evident that the center section would have to rebuilt. The center section is the “trunk” of the tree. A local Stearman restorer built the center section for us.
Around 2008 we could see that this project would fly! We worked up a timeline with a target date of September 2010, listing all the things that needed to be completed, checked, or considered. Our aviation friends would drop by and often could not see our “progress”, but we knew we were headed in the right direction.
Occasionally we needed special parts to be built, so knowing people with fabrication experience and skills proved to be invaluable. Our local upholstery man, Geo, who could sew almost anything on his machine, was a great help. Dusters and Sprayers and Aircraft Spruce were on a first name basis as was the UPS delivery guy.
September 2010 came and went, but we continued to work on the plane and again revised the timeline to September 2011. You just had to have faith in this venture!
In 2011, we began the process of installing finished parts on the airplane. We started at the tail wheel and worked our way forward. There are many parts, panels, screws, nuts, bolts and fittings. Each time we made a successful install of a part, the Stearman began to look a plane. The big challenge was installing the wings. No matter how you do it, and there are several ways to do it. We made a fabric sling to hold the upper wing during the installation. Our airplane friend who has lots of rebuilding experience, helped with the lower and upper wing installation.
The next big hurdle was the 2120 Continental engine sitting on the floor. Although we had replaced several radial engines on other Stearmans, we were cautiously optimistic about this next step. The installation of the engine went smoothly. The new STC roller bearings were installed during the engine overhaul, chrome cylinders, mag and carb was overhauled, new Jasco alternator installed and E80 starter overhauled. Much time was spent on cleaning and repainting fuel drains, oil drains, fuel lines and anything else that could be seen on the firewall forward area, including the firewall.
After all the building, the final step was to organize all the paperwork for the Inspector. Documentation on all the 337 forms and overhauls documents needed to be in order. The plane was inspected and passed with flying colors!
During the hot months of August and September many engine run-ups on the ground took place. We would be in the hangar at 6 a.m., then do run-ups checking the oil pressure and temperature. The test flight on September 21, 2011 was a success and we now have 8 hours on the engine.
In summary, many years ago at the Stearman Fly-In, Steve“Lonesome” Jones would come to Galesburg with his notebook. He was looking at every plane on the line, visiting with the owners, because he was restoring a Stearman. In 1993 Steve Jones was awarded the Blood, Sweat & Tears Award on N57578. We could not understand why it took him 10 years to complete his Stearman… but now we know why! The joy is not in the goal, but in the journey… flying N49793 is a joy, and often we go out to the hangar to just sit and enjoy the fruits of our labor of love.