Fate seems drawn to tail draggers where opportunities abound. When a new guy plops down into a seat in a long-legged beast of a Stearman, fate begins to salivate.
A former F6F driver and “old” friend was about to pop for one. I knew I would be volunteering for combat air patrols and anti-submarine reconnaissance missions. Who cares that the war had ended a half century ago: didn’t the threat still remain? Remember Pearl Harbor? Ha. We would be ready for them this time.
Having soloed in 1955, I put in lots of tail dragger time, albeit it was a long time ago and never in a Stearman. If I wanted to be more than a live auto-pilot, I needed to develop skills in the behemoth.
Northeast of Columbus, Ohio, hidden behind tall trees and known to only a few, nestles a scant 1700 feet of grass runway reminiscent of a Viet Nam drop zone. If the hangar were painted in camo the site could be leased to The History Channel for war documentaries. Adding to its mystique is a cleverly designed from the west approach to this east-west landing strip. Towering pines abut the runway end. (A few had been cut down when the owner’s son dragged his wheels through the tree tops while taking off to the west. They say there is 100 feet plus for an opening).
In the hangar is a 450-P&W-powered Stearman Bill Bohannan (SRA #158) has rebuilt from a crop duster. A jet black fuselage and yellow wings trail behind the monster engine and all is set atop BT-13 wheels. It is as imposing a site as an airline captain at his retirement party.
I started hanging around a lot. (Required due diligence.) When Bill was in a receptive mood (after lunch and a long trip to the head) I sniveled my way into the question of some dual. Bill has a way of listening, looking, walking away, looking over his shoulder, and not saying anything. A couple weeks later he opined that it might be okay but not with him. A mutual friend had been a CPT Stearman PT instructor for four and one half years during World War II, was a current CFI and knew how to fly a Stearman better than anyone we knew. Hayden MacLean had the qualifications – and a dirty laugh.
On a warm, soft Ohio summer day we pushed out the Stearman. I hauled my carcass into the front hole and Hayden settled in the back. Bohannan stood watching, insurance papers and lawyer’s phone number clutched in his sweaty palms. We fired up the Pratt & Whitney, all the while grinning like Cheshire cats. Smoke belched and oil splattered windshields and goggles.
It pays to be wrapped a little loose. After run up, Hayden hollered at me, wagged the stick, and I took hold. Up easy on the throttle, lots of right rudder, throttle all the way forward and the tail up now. Ease the rudder when she is on her two front feet, then rotate. I stuck my head down just for a moment to establish climb speed. When I looked up we were going straight up. The face in mirror was one of hilarity.
We headed out to a BIG grass strip with GOOD approaches and commenced circuits and bumps. Circuit, circuit, circuit. Bump, bump, bump. Then a “whoosh.” More circuits and bumps. No more whooshes. Rats.
After about an hour of this, the face in the mirror said “enough.” We headed back home, doing some stalls and such. I was having a great time until I began thinking of a wind out of the east, 1700 feet of runway and pine trees with a slot.
We did a few impressive fly-bys to “examine” wind direction, check for living obstructions grazing on the runway and announce to Bill that, so far, all the pieces of his airplane were still connected.
“Swooping and plummeting” as the Kiwi newspapers like to call it, we did a carrier approach through the slot and touched down in good order. I thought. We were well into our rollout, when control surfaces start to lose their effectiveness. I caught sight of a phenomena out of the corner of my starboard eye.
A dust devil was about to intercept our path. It did! A bit of profanity followed, accompanied by kicking of feet and thrashing about of large wooden sticks. Gentle taps on the brakes were deemed appropriate. Our course to glory was altered a bit. Dust and noise spoiled a scene that could have graced an SRA calendar.
Being old and, therefore, clever, Hayden and I did what has gotten us by for a lot of years: taxied in with rather bored looks on our faces, shut her down, and dismounted with hardly a backward glance at the dust—covered airplane.
During our “inspection survey” of the aerodrome, Bill Bohannan had made the mistake of leaving the hangar to watch the return of his beloved craft. We had to walk by him, and did so, grinning and executing a lot of “wow, was that fun” and a couple of “gee, thanks.” Bill was, as always, impassive.
Just as we reached the hanger door Bill asked, “What the hell were you doing in the beans?”