The Beginning “I’m going to own that Stearman someday.” And that’s how hundreds of Stearman dreams begin. I made that definitive statement when I was 12 years old, but the story starts before then.
I was born and raised in Galesburg, IL my father; Russell Massingill was a WWII Navy veteran and well known brick mason in the area. When I was five I remember him taking me to the airport to “see an airplane he used to own”. As we passed the drive-in theater I started to see the colors of dozens of planes lined up abreast on the grass. When we pulled into the airport, there stood a majestic, yellow Stearman, and J-3 parked alongside it. We were immediately greeted by Jim Leahy. While Jim and my dad talked I walked straight for the massive landing gear and drug my hands across the tire treads and progressed to the smooth steel propeller, an action that would earn a stern reprimand if I caught either of my sons doing that today. Jim chased me down and introduced himself while walking with me, pointing out details on “404” that I can specifically remember to this day. After about five minutes he asked “are you ready to go flying?” I must’ve said yes, because the next thing I knew we were taxiing out to the grass. I was on my dad’s lap in the front cockpit, no headset, and his hands wrapped around my waist as a substitute seatbelt, which was apparently considered an adequate restraint system in 1976.
After a brief run-up, we started to roll forward. For reasons unbeknownst to me now, as soon as the wheels broke ground my chubby, little, hands grabbed the side tubing in a death grip, and what came out of my mouth could’ve only been described as a piercing scream of pure fear. Before we had finished the turn to cross wind, my dad gave Jim a hand signal to return to land. An auspicious beginning for a career professional pilot and a life-long Stearman love affair, but the hook was firmly set. At the age of five I got my first airplane ride in 404 from the grass at Galesburg during the 1976 fly-in that would impact the rest of my life.
After that flight, I started to learn more details about my dad’s relationship with the airplane. He and Jim worked closely in the construction industry, and often times on the same projects which is how they became associated. In 1966 they decided to form a partnership in a Stearman, and spent the next year searching for the “one”. They finally found their plane in West Bend, WI. A well known crop dusting operator, Clifford Ducharme owned Aerial Blight Control and had a large fleet of Stearmans. Mr. Ducharme decided he could make a profit returning some of his dusters to stock configuration, and so it was for N9914H. Actually, the plane had been Mrs. Ducharme’s personal ship for a few years before they decided to sell it. So Jim and dad brought the plane back to Galesburg, and from there the story really begins.
I was too young to understand at the time, but from reviewing dad’s logbooks after his passing, it turns out he was a fairly low time pilot and the Stearman may have been a little daunting for him. In addition, from 1967 to 1969, Jim began attending more fly-ins and performing in airshows. All of which probably further strained the partnership for a guy who simply wanted to fly an open cockpit biplane over the Illinois corn fields. So in late 1969, my dad sold his half of the Stearman to Jim. I still have the original bill of sale with my dad’s signature on it.
After that fateful first airplane ride in 1976, my dad never really spoke of his Stearman ownership again unless I specifically asked. He did continue to fly, but it consisted of him taking me out in his Cherokee 140 and chasing boats on the Mississippi River. Still a pretty neat father-son activity, but my nightly dreams consisted of Stearmans and 404 in particular. I drew pictures of it in school, built wood models of it at home, and when other boys my age spent all summer playing sports, I was riding my bike to the Galesburg library looking up everything I could find on Stearmans and flying in general. During a subsequent fly-in when my parents couldn’t afford the gate fee, I rode my bike out to the airport intent on watching the fly-in through the fence. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it all the way to the highway before they tracked me down and forced me to return home.
In the years that followed, dad continued to pull back from aviation until he finally sold the Cherokee, and his flying activities consisted of a monthly magazine that came in the mail. Although the fly-in was still a major annual event for Galesburg, we never drove the 4 miles to the airport to see the Stearmans again. Undeterred, every time I heard a radial engine overhead I would burst out the door and follow it on my bike until it flew out of sight. During that time, Jim would still come by the house periodically, and I would bombard him with all of my stored up Stearman enthusiasm. I’m not sure how he even finished a sentence with my parents in between my rapid fire questions on aerobatics, his opinion on Continental versus Lycoming, and showing him my completed model airplanes and drawings.
On July 3rd, 1983 my dad passed away when I was 12 years old. I don’t remember much of the trauma that followed, but during the fly-in two months later, my mother took me out to the airport where I again met Jim next to his Stearman. Being older now, we seemed to have a different relationship than when I was 5. My mother handed Jim a container with dad’s ashes, to which he opened the lid and wryly mumbled, “Hmm, doesn’t look like Russ.” I once again strapped into 404, with dad on my lap this time. Jim took off during a lull in the fly-in activities and with little discussion we spread the ashes over the grass strip. After departing to the west, we proceeded to roll and loop over the fields and landed just as the sun went below the horizon. When I got out Jim hugged me for a moment and I looked up at him and said “I’m going to own that Stearman someday”. His simple response was, “I’ll bet you will.”
Later that year, we moved away from Galesburg and lost all contact with Jim, and the Stearman. During the teenage years that followed with no real flying influences, I suspended my love of aviation and Stearmans for sports and girls. With little parental guidance, and a failed attempt at college, I enlisted in the Navy in 1990. I spent three years as a helicopter flight engineer, and the following nine years as a Navy SEAL. My new wife Dena and I were stationed in San Diego where my flying spark was once during our first September in Kentucky, I packed up my now again re-ignited. I was a very junior enlisted man, so to say that my loving and understanding new bride sacrificed both finances and precious time with me at home so I could get my pilot’s license would be a gross understatement. During our time in San Diego in between deployments, I volunteered to do what amounted to slave labor for an exploitive and slightly odd gentleman who towed banners with a 450 Stearman.
I can’t remember exactly what I did for him, but only that at the end of the day I was allowed to investigate every inch of his Stearman. One afternoon after wiping it down, I sat in the cockpit, and remembered my previous promise to myself and started to wonder what had become of 404. During the nine year period we lived in San Diego, I progressed to my commercial license, towing gliders with crop dusters, and flew every tail wheel airplane I could rent or borrow for the sole purpose of someday being able to fly a Stearman. I was even offered a unique partnership in a T-34, and eventually started flying a host of antiques and warbirds to include a T-6, and a T-28. Yet, I never got the opportunity to fly a Stearman. I think subconsciously I was protecting the experience as no Stearman other than 404 would have sufficed.
Our first son Joshua was born in November, 2000 which necessitated Dena quitting her profession and staying at home. With that, the disposable income which had previously gone to funding my flying had now come to a screeching halt. The choice was simple; get a flying job capable of supporting the family, or stop flying in lieu of paying the bills. After my return from a stressful overseas deployment following the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, Dena and I were elated to find out I had been accepted for a commission and follow on training as an Army Aviator. The details of how I finagled the application process and inter-service transfer alone could fill another chapter, but within a few months we packed up our infant son and moved from San Diego to Fort Rucker, AL for flight school and an eventual assignment to Ft Campbell, KY.
It was during our time in Kentucky that our life started to enter another chapter. For the first time since I was a kid, I was once again within driving distance of Galesburg. In 2004 during our first September in Kentucky, I packed up my now 4-year old son Joshua after flying until 9pm, and left my newborn son Matthew with Dena while we drove the eight hours through the night to the fly-in. Bringing my own son to the fly-in for the first time was an emotional experience in its own right. After spending the weekend watching the Stearmans again, I was reminded that this was still where my heart was…right where I left it when I was 12. During that fly-in I also introduced myself for the first time to Tom and Nancy Lowe and explained my relationship to the fly-in and Jim Leahy. That meeting would become an encouraging and inspirational force in the years to come.
With two young sons under my wing, I became infatuated with trying to reconnect with some of my own childhood history, and in between combat deployments started researching what became of N9914H.
I knew Jim Leahy had passed away in 1995, but I had never found out who purchased the Stearman. After requesting the FAA records, I learned that 404 resided in the Chicago area and was owned by Jim Burnham and John Olson. I sent a letter to Jim Burnham rather than John simply because his name was listed first on the registry. I briefly introduced myself, and my connection to their airplane. A few weeks later I received a reply from Jim. As if scripted for a book, Jim had started his career as an enlisted Marine Corps infantryman who later went to flight school, and retired as an A-4 Skyhawk pilot followed by a distinguished airline career. Furthermore, his partner John spent a career as an Army helicopter crew chief and owned the small airport where 404 was hangared. The closing line of Jim’s letter to me was simply, “I’ll talk to John, but as far as I’m concerned you have first right of refusal to buy the Stearman if we should ever decide to sell it.” Although a heartwarming gesture, Dena and I still had to juggle the budget if the car needed new tires, much less think about buying an airplane of any sort. Yet Jim’s words would change our lives almost a decade later. In 2006 we were transferred to Fort Lewis in Tacoma, WA, which again made annual trips back to Galesburg and the fly-in impractical. During that time we were blessed beyond description by a very gracious and understanding father-in law who agreed to loan us the money to buy our very first airplane; a J-3 Cub. Although never having met Jim Burnham in person, we corresponded like old friends several times a year. Many of our letters had nothing to do with the Stearman, but a common bond of men who have shared the experience of combat. In one particular letter, Jim let me know that he had changed the registration number on the Stearman from N9914H to N1942. The next day I reserved the number from the FAA and within a month had it assigned to my J-3. I still had no hopes of ever owning a Stearman, and specifically 404, but at least my sons would be able to fly in the same tail number. During the years that followed, I continued to correspond with Tom Lowe who thoughtfully sent many archived pictures of the Stearman and offered recollections as I pieced together my childhood.
The Meeting – Fast forward to 2011, Joshua is now 11, and Matthew 8. Dena and both boys have logged many hours in the Cub along with several unique aircraft I fly for a museum, and we are decidedly a flying family. I have also entered my 22nd year of active duty and completed nine combat deployments as a helicopter pilot. Having never given up on the dream of owning a Stearman, our house, or at least the “designated airplane room” would do any Stearman museum justice. Over the years, I’ve acquired every book and manual ever written on the airplane, Stearman paintings fill the walls, and dozens more Stearman prints rolled up in tubes awaiting an appropriate venue to be displayed. I was even given a restored antique Clark tug by a very loving father figure in hopes that some day it might have something worthy to tow. The nest was built without any reasonable expectation that it would ever get filled.
I hadn’t been able to attend a fly-in for several years, and the years I was able to attend seemed anti climactic since walking amongst the Stearmans and the airport as a spectator did little to satisfy my dream of participating in the fly-in with a Stearman. On a rare summer I wasn’t deployed I made the decision early to attend the 40th Fly-in. In addition, I would fly in to Chicago and meet Jim Burnham in person for the first time before driving to Galesburg. When I stepped out of the car, Jim walked toward me and even at 70 years old, exuded Marine. Tall, confident and postured, he extended a strong hand and recommended we go to dinner. After a few beers, and two hours of swapping flying and Marine Corps stories, Jim changed the topic and very directly said; “John is in ill health and can’t fly anymore, I’m seventy years old, I’ve never wrecked an airplane and I’m not going to start now. I’m done flying and we’re selling the Stearman.” Over the years, Jim and I had the running commentary that I would be the next owner of the Stearman, but I had no idea the opportunity would happen so soon. Furthermore, we were still not in a position to buy another airplane. With the wheels furiously spinning, but no practical solution of how I could make it happen, I continued on to Galesburg. Unbeknownst to me, Phillip Wolford who was the president of the FBO in Galesburg, and an accomplished Stearman pilot, had arranged for 404 to be ferried to the fly-in to participate in the 40 th anniversary celebration. When I walked in the Jet Air hangar and saw 404, my hands got sweaty with anticipation. The last time I had seen the airplane was in 1983 when we had spread my dad’s ashes with it. I spent over an hour slowly walking around it, running my fingers over every surface, taking in the smells of the oil, metal and sweat stained cockpit. Nobody was around; I could’ve sat in the rear cockpit but chose to sit in the front just as I had left it when I was 12. The plane had not been restored since 1975, so in a good way, everything was exactly as I had remembered it. The fabric was old and worn, seat belts were the same, the interior tubes needed to be stripped and re-painted, but I had come back to her. I slowly placed my now 40 year old hands on the same side tubes I held on to in a desperate death grip when I was 5, and smiled as I tried to remember what I had been so afraid of. Rudder pedals I could never hope to reach before now had to be adjusted forward to comfortably fit. It’s difficult to describe the emotions that came over me during that hour, but not only did it reconnect me with my early life, it made me realize that this particular Stearman was much more than just an airplane, it was the one positive symbol I used to escape some very difficult childhood memories.
As I grew up into an adult it continued to be the place I mentally ran to when things got tough, which might explain why no other airplane or Stearman could fill that void. Throughout the week I would periodically escape back to the hangar to look at 404. Much like the child I thought I had left behind, I became noticeably jealous and possessive when I saw other people carefully looking over “my Stearman”, as it had recently been announced that it was for sale.
The trip back to Washington was consumed by my scribbling during the entire five hour flight trying to work scenarios where the numbers would make sense. No matter how I arranged them, my calculations were not going to justify a Stearman purchase to my practical accountant wife. Nor could I adequately articulate to her that this was a once in a lifetime chance to own this Stearman, and worthy of yet more sacrifices. After several discussions, and not truly understanding my infatuation with the plane, Dena offered her blind trust as she has for every other crazy dream I have pursued over the course of our 21 year relationship. “I’m just riding in the caboose of the train you’re driving”, she told me. We agreed on a price we could offer Jim for the Stearman, and he and John Olson’s wife Jane accepted. Almost a month had passed since the fly-in and Jim held true to his word and allowed me a gracious period to come up with the agreed upon amount. Once I found out my offer had been accepted, the next call was to Tom Lowe, who had been so encouraging and patient with all my questions from a kid who very well may have turned out to be nothing more than another Stearman enthusiast. When the check was finally sent and the bill of sale signed, I didn’t immediately believe that almost 30 years after I announced that I would “own this Stearman”, I was now the proud owner of 404.
After word got out that the sale was complete, the calls and email of congratulations ranged from Jim Burnham himself, to several Stearman pilots I’ve met over the years, and even my 4th grade teacher and fellow Stearman fanatic Jean Ruebner and her husband Dale who had become like family. Being what my wife calls an “aviation soul surfer”, I had to agree that 404 couldn’t have found a more historically significant or fitting home.
The entire transaction had taken place without much consideration for the logistics involved. The most significant being that the Stearman was out of annual, and in Galesburg 2,400 miles from my home in Washington, where there wasn’t a hangar available yet anyway. To further complicate the situation, I was deploying Afghanistan again in three weeks with no hope of ferrying it home before either I deployed, or the winter weather closed in. Several Stearman friends selflessly offered to help. Most notably was Phillip Wolford, who inadvertently became the broker for the sale, and over the course of the next month patiently answered several dozen texts and emails, in addition to making all the arrangements for the subsequent ferry permit. With two weeks left before I deployed, panic set in as I still hadn’t found a suitable hangar to store the Stearman until the next summer when I could come back and fly it home. Jane Olson came to my rescue and offered to keep 404 in the same hangar in which it had spent the past 16 years. Phillip took another day out of his schedule to ferry the plane back up to Chicago.
Finally, the plane was safe and I could deploy with all my immediate concerns soothed.
So here I sit preparing to spend Christmas in Afghanistan, but this trip is different. When I come home in the spring I’ll start the process of preparing for 404’s arrival. The entire experience is still surreal and I don’t expect it to fully hit me until I take off with each of my own son’s little blond heads sticking up from the front cockpit. Then, when their hands cautiously grab the side tubes during the takeoff roll, they might finally understand their Dad’s obsession with this Stearman all these years.
We won’t make it to the 2012 fly-in as I’ll be preparing for yet another deployment, but we’re already planning on 2013. We’ll be easy to recognize, our Stearman will most likely be a front runner for the “Most in Need of Restoration” award, there will be an angelic woman reading her book in a hammock rigged between the landing gear, and two little boys will be busy wiping the plane down in between rides. During my life I have been called nothing if not persistent, with circumstances that could only have been arranged by God, wounds have been healed, and sometimes dreams do come true. Thanks to all who took part in the journey.