SHORT FIELD TAKE-OFFS
I think that most Stearman pilots will agree that the take-off and climb performance of a stock Stearman is somewhat less than stellar and certainly will not impress either the pilot or someone watching from the ground. But it is what it is and we love it anyway. The Stearman does not have flaps that could aid in short or soft field take-offs, so the only thing it has going for it in these special type take-offs is the skill of the pilot and the techniques he employs.

The short field take-off differs only slightly from a normal take-off. The tail is raised less than in a normal take-off and the airplane will be flown off the ground at a lower airspeed and with poorer control responses. The procedure for a short field take-off in your Stearman basically is as follows:

  1. Align the airplane with the runway and let it roll forward just enough to center the tailwheel. If your Stearman has the free swivel locking tailwheel, lock it at this time.
  2. Hold the airplane in position with the brakes and with the control stick full aft and gradually apply full power.
  3. Release the brakes and as the speed increases let the elevator control streamline itself in the airflow. Apply rudder control as required to keep it going straight.
  4. If necessary, apply slight forward control stick for down elevator and raise the tail approximately 4 – 6 inches off the ground. This is the point in the take-off roll where torque will show its ugly head, so be ready to apply more right rudder as required.
  5. Allow the Stearman to fly itself off the ground in this tail low attitude.
  6. If there are any obstructions at the departure end of the runway proceed to climb at the Best Angle of Climb Speed (Vx) until the obstructions have been cleared. Then lower the pitch attitude slightly and continue the climb at the Best Rate of Climb Speed (Vy).

Now obtaining these exact speeds for a Stearman can be a problem. In all the manuals, text books and check lists, etc., for the Stearman that I have ever studied, I have yet to find any data stating what the Best Rate of Climb and Best Angle of Climb speeds are. I doubt if back in those days the factory or the military either one ever determined what these speeds were or if they even used these terms at all. I know, for example, in the AT-6 manuals all that is mentioned is a recommended climb airspeed.

The rule of thumb for most airplanes is that the Best Angle of Climb Airspeed (Vx) is approximately 1.3 times the power off stall speed. The published power off stall speed for the Stearman is 55 mph. So 1.3 times 55 is 71.5 mph. Rounded up for easy use, that’s 72 mph.

In our Stearmans I usually recommend a climb speed of 75-80 mph. Thus, in the short field take-off scenario I would suggest initially raising the pitch attitude slightly above the normal climbing attitude and holding an airspeed of approximately 72-75 mph until an altitude has been obtained that will clear any obstacles and then lowering the nose to the normal climb attitude and increase the airspeed slightly. If there are no obstacles for the take-off, just obtain a normal climb attitude and climb out at your normal climb airspeed. During this take-off the pilot must guard against attempting to raise the tail prematurely. The application of forward control stick too early will only contribute more drag with the lowered elevator and make the take-off roll even longer. If you manage to get the tail raised very early in the take-off roll it can easily increase your directional control problems caused by torque as the tail was coming up. Also, if you get the tail up too early and the airspeed is not great enough to keep it there, the tail can come bouncing back down on the ground, possibly creating more directional control difficulties and certainly lengthening the take-off run. Don’t get in a hurry. A short field take-off in a Stearman really won’t be significantly shorter, if any, than a normal take-off.

One of the things that was emphasized to me when I first began flying float planes was that when determining whether a lake, a pond or a section of a river was adequate to land upon it was just as, or more, important to also consider whether or not you could take-off from it after you landed. Lots of places that you can get into are ones that you cannot get out of. That is also true with your Stearman. You might be able to get it in some place, but then not be able to takeoff. So choose the fields or airstrips that you land in with care.

SOFT FIELD TAKE-OFFS
Departing from a soft field, whether it has mud, dirt, sand, loose gravel, snow, tall grass or whatever is a tricky situation, fraught with danger. Also, any fields that have soft conditions many times are also short fields which complicates matters even more. In a soft field it is important that the tail not be raised too early in order to prevent the airplane from nosing over whenever patches of mud or other soft ground are encountered. It also aids in having the angle of attack of the wings increased so that the weight is taken off the wheels as soon as possible.

This is accomplished by holding the tail down on the ground with up elevator throughout most of the take-off run, then easing the tail up with a small input of down elevator into a definitely tail low position until lift off is completed. But it is important that an excessive amount of up elevator is not used. That could delay the take-off by exerting unnecessary loads on the tailwheel and increasing the drag. It also could cause the airplane to become airborne in an excessively nose high attitude which might result in a stall close to the ground.

The procedure for a soft field take-off in a Stearman is as follows:

  1. Gradually apply full power and maintain directional control with the rudder. This might not be all that easy if one wheel should roll through soft spots or mud while the other wheel is on firmer ground.
  2. Maintain the control stick slightly aft of neutral for a small amount of up elevator in order to keep the tail down during the early portion of the takeoff roll. As the airspeed increases raise the tailwheel slightly off the ground with forward stick (down elevator) into a tail low attitude. Maintain this tail low attitude to counteract any tendency for the Stearman to nose over until lift off is attained. If both wheels become bogged down to some degree it may become necessary to apply full up elevator to keep the tail down. If both wheels get bogged down to the point that it is impossible to move forward – you are stuck!
  3. As the Stearman approaches flying speed relax the back pressure on the stick slightly in preparation for the lift-off.
  4. Once the airplane has become airborne level it off and accelerate to climb airspeed and establish a normal climb.

THREE POINT ATTITUDE TAKE-OFFS
Mr. Henry S. Plourde in his book, “The Compleat Taildragger Pilot” states, “It should be pointed out that a take-off from a three point attitude, while often easier for the beginner because of the retention of tailwheel control right up to the moment of flight, is in reality dangerous and should be avoided as a regular procedure.” I agree with this assessment because the combination of the high angle of attack of the wings and low airspeeds borders on a stall condition upon take-off.

If you wish to use this type of take-off, that decision is entirely up to you. I would suggest that you use the three-point attitude style of take-off only after such time that you have gained experience in the Stearman and are comfortable and proficient in flying it. Even then I think it should be avoided in conditions other than relatively smooth air and light winds. In a three-point attitude take-off in strong or gusty winds the airplane will have a tendency to depart the ground riding upon a gust of air. It will then suddenly return to earth as soon as the gust subsides. The result of this could be a bounce, a swerve and an exciting ride throughout the remainder of the take-off attempt.

Over many years now I have served as the departure control judge on the take-off line for the Short Field Take-Off Contest at the National Stearman Fly-In at Galesburg, Illinois. I have seen all kinds of different take-off techniques used by Stearman pilots trying to get airborne in the shortest possible distance. Quite a number have used the three-point attitude take-off technique. Often they become airborne only to drop back down to the runway where they bounce a few times before finally getting up to stay. I don’t remember that anyone using this method has ever won the contest.

Whenever I do a checkout in a Stearman for a fellow pilot I will demonstrate a three point attitude take-off to them. But I do not recommend that he use it. The choice is yours.

DOWNWIND TAKE-OFFS
My advice concerning the advisability of making downwind take-offs in your Stearman simply is – DON’T.

A downwind take-off incorporates all the elements previously discussed, but adds in the extra hazards of not having a wind component that can aid in the performance and controllability of your airplane. A tailwind will add considerable distance to your take-off roll and the positive effects of all the flight controls will be reduced by not having the additional airflow over them. Directional control will be less effective with zigs and zags likely and the possibility of a nose over will be increased. Also, the climb performance of the Stearman will also be adversely affected after lift-off.

A quartering crosswind tailwind is even more of a detriment than a direct tailwind. It will assist the tail section in its attempt to weathervane and the flight controls to counteract this will be less effective than normal.

However, there may be times when a downwind take-off is unavoidable due to field conditions. Many mountain airstrips are “one way” with landings in one direction and the following take-off in the opposite direction. Some more tame private airstrips also might have obstructions at one end of the runway which dictates “one way” operations.

If runway and/or wind conditions dictate a particular runway for departure, but it would require a long taxi to get to the departure end, resist the temptation to take off downwind just to reduce taxi time. Give good consideration to all the factors affecting a take-off and climb out and make your decision accordingly.

Avoid downwind take-offs if at all possible.

COMMON ERRORS MAKING TAKE-OFFS

  1. Sitting too low in the cockpit.
  2. Forgetting to lock the tailwheel if your Stearman has the free swivel locking tailwheel.
  3. Abrupt application of the throttle.
  4. Applying forward pressure (down elevator) on the control stick too early in the take- off roll causing the tail to rise too soon thus losing the positive steering effect of the tailwheel.
  5. Raising the tail too early or too rapidly on the take-off roll enhancing the left turning tendency due to torque.
  6. Poor directional control with the rudder. Over controlling which causes swings left or right or under controlling causing loss of directional control.
  7. Feet placed too high on the rudder pedals applying the brakes whenever a rudder input is made – aggravating the swerving problem which also delays acceleration and lengthens the take-off roll.
  8. Holding the airplane on the ground too long – lengthening the take-off roll.
  9. Pulling the airplane off the ground before sufficient airspeed is obtained.
  10. Too much or too little aileron into the crosswind causing the upwind wings to be forced down or lifted by the wind.
  11. Failure to gradually reduce the upwind aileron input in a crosswind as the airspeed increases on the take-off roll causing the airplane to roll into the wind upon lift off.
  12. Too steep a climb attitude immediately after take-off.
  13. Prolonged climb with full throttle.

To reiterate one vital point once again – short fields and soft fields do not mix. Be sure to be prudent in the choice of fields that you might fly into in your Stearman. You might be able to get into a field, but then you may not be able to get out of it.

I would like to emphasize that the opinions and preferences presented in this article are entirely those of the author and in no way reflect any official position of the SRA or any other aviation organization. What I have described reflects the way in which I was taught to fly tailwheel airplanes and my observations gathered in over 50 years of flying and instructing in tailwheel airplanes and in the Stearman in particular. This is how I fly my Stearman and how I teach my students.

Fly safely and have fun!

Tom Lowe is a 34 year veteran of United Airlines and retired in 2001 as a Boeing 747-400 Captain based at O’Hare Field in Chicago, Illinois. He has amassed over 28,000 hours of flight time, including approximately 3,750 in Stearmans. He served as the President of the SRA for over 20 years and is the co-founder of the National Stearman Fly-In at Galesburg, Illinois. He is a “Gold Seal” Certified Flight Instructor rated for Airplanes – Single and Multi-Engine Land, Single-Engine Sea; Instrument and Glider. He also holds both the Advanced and Instrument Ground Instructor Ratings. He specializes in Stearman and AT-6 checkouts as well as general tailwheel instruction in other classic antique airplanes. He was inducted into the Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame in 2009 and in 2014 he received the FAA Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.

Tom Lowe is a 34 year veteran of United Airlines and retired in 2001 as a Boeing 747-400 Captain based at O’Hare Field in Chicago, Illinois. He has amassed over 28,000 hours of flight time, including approximately 3,750 in Stearmans. He served as the President of the SRA for over 20 years and is the co-founder of the National Stearman Fly-In at Galesburg, Illinois. He is a “Gold Seal” Certified Flight Instructor rated for Airplanes – Single and Multi-Engine Land, Single-Engine Sea; Instrument and Glider. He also holds both the Advanced and Instrument Ground Instructor Ratings. He specializes in Stearman and AT-6 checkouts as well as general tailwheel instruction in other classic antique airplanes. He was inducted into the Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame in 2009 and in 2014 he received the FAA Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.