Walter Varney had pioneered an airmail route in the Northwest in the late 1920s that many said was unflyable, but he had made it profitable. In fact, his sturdy and reliable Stearman C-3 aircraft were soon struggling to keep up with the volume. Varney thought a solution to this problem might be found in Wichita. This excerpt from the Wright company newsletter describes the excitement surrounding the rollout of a new airplane:
“Soon rumors leaked out that the Stearman factory was building a new plane, a ‘mystery ship,’ radical in size and power. Just before dusk on January 16, 1929, after almost every spectator had left Wichita Airport, the doors of the Stearman plant were opened and a monster of a plane wheeled out. Silver-winged, and trimmed in Varney Blue. It was twice the size of any Stearman built previously. It had a massive, newly designed, Wright cyclone motor in its nose. Someone with abundant imagination said this of its test flight: ‘It went through the air like a bellowing ghost, tearing the twilight to shreds.”
Thus was born the legend of the Bull Stearman. The M-2, known officially as the Stearman Speedmail, was powered by a Wright R-1750 525hp “Cyclone” engine. It was designed specifically for increased air mail loads and could carry 1,000 lbs. of mail. Deed Levy, chief test pilot for Stearman Aircraft, put the new craft through a series of flight tests. During one test flight the plane was loaded with bags of lead shot to simulate the 1,000 lbs. of mail it would carry in the northwest. Deed Levy noted in his logbook: “TEST-SPEED & LOAD – 142 (mph)-1000 lbs.”
Seven of these large aircraft were manufactured. Of these, six went to Varney Air Lines and the seventh was purchased by Cliff Durant. Durant’s aircraft had a front cockpit in place of the mail pit and was delivered with a Pratt & Whitney R-1690 525hp “Hornet” engine. Cliff Durant was the son of Billy Durant, one of the founders of General Motors. Cliff designed and raced cars at Indianapolis and was fascinated with aviation. Over the years he probably owned a couple dozen airplanes – Fleets, Wacos, etc. Durant had earlier bought a Stearman C-3B from the factory in 1928.
The M-2 was designed with a center section fuel tank in the upper wing which had a capacity of 136 gals. Durant had an additional fuel tank installed in the fuselage with a capacity of 127 gals. Why? We don’t know for sure, but probably not for long cross-country flights.
Varney was excited about putting these large airplanes with their increased cargo capacity to work and Stearman believed that success in the northwest would lead to orders from other carriers. As the new Speedmails were put into service they made quite an impression on the Varney pilots, not always favorable. Walter “Doc” Eefsen, a Varney pilot, had more than one forced landing. Engine problems continued to plague the big biplane. No orders came in to Stearman for the M-2 from other operators and Varney soon began to get rid of those remaining in his fleet. Most were destroyed in crashes in the late 1920s and early 1930s. One of the former Varney Speedmails, NC9055, was on its way to Alaska in 1939 when it crashed near Teslin, Yukon Territory. The wreckage of this aircraft was found by Bob Cameron of Whitehorse, Yukon, in 1989. Bob wrote an excellent article, “Stearman M-2 – NC9055 A Yukon Adventure” in the Stearman Restorers Association ‘OUTFIT’ April, 1991, in which he said he hoped to interest somebody in restoring the only remaining Stearman M-2.
Several people were offered the opportunity to restore this historic aircraft. All were rational and sane enough to politely decline. Finally, I decided that somebody had to do it. I asked Mike Posey if he would take on the project. The Stearman M-2 was restored at Posey Bros. in Robbinsville, NJ, over a period of about ten years. The first flight occurred in July, 2011.
Cliff had built a pretentious home in Roscommon, Michigan, known locally as “The Castle”. This was the era of Prohibition and Durant was known for giving some of the best parties anywhere. Durant’s home had two airstrips and was only a short flight from Canada in the big biplane. The extra fuselage tank in his Stearman M-2 held 127 gallons – or 635 fifths.