It has been said, “the devil is in the details.” This is especially so in aviation. Whether one is flying or fixing an airplane, the details matter. For an aircraft museum it is doubly important. The Western Antique Airplane and Automobile Museum (WAAAM) in Hood River, Oregon prides itself as having the most authentically restored aircraft in its collection. This attention to detail led to discovering and buying a very special airplane, the prototype Stearman Model 70, NX571Y. The Model 70 is currently being restored at WAAAM by the head of restoration, Tom Murphy, for museum founder Terry Brandt.
The 1933 Stearman Model 70, NX571Y, was the prototype for what became the Stearman Model 75 primary trainers of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army Air Corps. The Model 75 in all its guises trained the majority of the pilots who served in World War Two.
In the post-war years the same Stearman Model 75 soldiered on as the backbone of cropduster operations. The stout airframe protected the duster like it had the primary student. ‘Duster lore is replete with stories of Stearmans having sudden impact with immoveable objects and still flying home. The Model 75 has all but retired from the working world of duster flying and enjoys a status as a vintage showpiece, to be lavished over by their owners.
Tom Murphy and Terry Brandt were attending the CT “Red” Jensen auction in the early 1980’s looking for a Stearman Model 75 to restore. There were a variety of vintage airplanes at the auction. The duster outfit had purchased a lot of old airplanes over the years, but they were primarily Model 75 Stearmans.
The organization of the auction was disjointed. For the most part instruments, seats, windscreens, etc. were being stacked and sold in one lot. Wings were stacked and sold together in another. Tail feathers were being stacked and sold in another. Fuselages were being sold in yet another. There was little effort to put wings, tails, engines, and fuselages together in one basic airframe package. Because of this, Tom Murphy purchased a stack of tail feathers that came out of a shed. He’d figured he would use the parts he could and sell the rest later.
Looking over his newly purchased loot, one of the tail feathers in the stack had the classic Stearman shape, but something about it caught Tom’s eye that caused him to pause and think. The placement of the rudder bellcrank was wrong. He did not give it much more thought and got on with the rest of the auction. They were there to buy and could not get bogged down in something that did not look right. He placed his stack of newly purchased rudders aside and went on with the auction.
Later that night, Tom ruminated on the construction details of that single rudder. What nagged him most was the placement of the rudder bellcrank. Instead of being on the bottom of the rudder, it was higher up on the tubular spar, above the plane of the horizontal stabilizer and elevator. Tom began to look at the rest of the rudder in detail. The hinges were also different and very complicated. They were a ball bearing type, press fit into the hinges. The hinges were then installed by sliding on the main spar of the rudder before the ribs were welded on. They were not replaceable once installed. It was not constructed like a typical Stearman rudder. But the rudder did have the typical profile of a Stearman. Cutting away the fabric revealed the rudder had welded sections of tubular ribs that lengthened them.
That modification created the rudder shape that is definitely Stearman. But Tom knew it would not have built like that at the Wichita factory. This small part of an old airplane continued to gnaw at Tom. It seemed like a lot of work to modify one like that. A duster was all about profit and a broken airplane wasn’t earning its keep. No self-respecting cropduster would make such a costly and time consuming repair. A cropduster would just put another rudder on. After all, these airplanes were sold for $500 each after the war. So Tom pulled out his Stearman Guidebook and paged through the pictures until he saw something very interesting. He stopped on the picture of the one and only Stearman Model 70, the 1933 prototype of the famous line of Stearman trainers, NX571Y. There it was, the rudder cable exiting the fuselage above the horizontal stabilizer and connecting at mid-rudder to the exposed bellcrank of the rudder. And it all clicked. The hinges were not meant to be replaced on a one-off prototype, proof of concept, airplane. The splices were there because as the Stearman was flown the company discovered it needed more rudder authority. So in typical fashion, they added more length to the ribs by splicing instead of building it all over again.
Tom called Terry to tell him what he had discovered. He was sure that the rudder and vertical stabilizer were from the Model 70 prototype. After studying the photo in the guidebook, Tom thought the airframe and wings on the page in front of him that had been sold at the auction during the day. There had been a fuselage that just looked different and what looked to be a set of Model 75 wings but they had flat-bottomed ribs, different ailerons, and rounded wingtips.
Terry’s’ response was, “we need to own that”. Tom asked and Terry responded, “Whatever it takes.”
So when Tom returned to the auction the next day, he found the airplane and the new owner. The airframe looked complete. He casually walked up the man who had successfully bid on the airframe and wings of the Model 70. The look of the Model 70 was close enough to the Model 75 for the casual observer to think it was just another old Stearman. The owner didn’t realize what he’d purchased. He thought he purchased an old Stearman Model 75 for $1000, not a piece of aviation history. At first Tom offered him what he paid, $1000, for the ship.
“Nah , not for sale, “ the man said. Undeterred, Tom shot the breeze with the man and then offered him twice what he paid for it, $2000.
“Nah,” the man said, he and his partner wanted a Stearman to rebuild. The man was busy loading his purchases on a trailer. He had also purchased a Grumman TBM project.
Not one to take no for an answer, Tom walked away to think. As Tom walked around, he rescued the cockpit sheet metal with the faded original blue paint and some odds and ends from a dumpster. The auction was wrapping up and folks were throwing away what had not been sold.
He carried it over to the man and said, ”You’ll need these things.” The man thanked Tom and proceeded to look at the rotten fabric covering the elevators and ailerons on his TBM.
Now Tom is a crackerjack dope and fabric man and he looked at the tail feathers and offered to do the dope and fabric work in exchange for the Stearman.
“Nah, nah, I really want the Stearman,” he said. Tom continued with the small talk and then said,” Hey I would really like to own this airplane, how about three times your purchase price?”
“Nah, (pause), nah (pause), nah (pause), I really want a Stearman, but man, just look at this rotten fabric on my TBM. Not to be put off, Tom offered the man three times his purchase price and to recover all of the fabric covered control surfaces.
“You have a deal,” said the man immediately. He never had any idea of what he had just sold. The Stearman Model 70 would join the rest of Terry Brandt’s collection and await restoration.
Shortly after the auction as Terry and Tom contacted all the participants of the auction and asked them if they had any parts for the Model 70 within the lots of parts that were purchased. They were able to locate the set of cabane struts for the Model 70 as well as other smaller pieces.
Tom continued to research information and data on the airplane over the years before beginning the restoration process. The parent company of Stearman, The Boeing Co., provided a comprehensive photo collection that was integral to the Model 70 restoration planning. It was culled from their extensive photo archive. Having the photo collection proved indispensable to the restoration effort. Fast-forward to 1993 when Tom paged through a Trade- A-Plane saw an ad for a complete, firewall forward, Lycoming 215 HP radial engine for sale in Nevada. It was an early version of the engine with open valve springs. The ad said “R-680 Lycoming engine, perfect engine for antique airplane, complete with accessories, $1950.00.” Thinking it was a misprint; Tom called and asked the man if it was for a Stinson or Stearman. The seller said it was a 215 HP Lycoming engine was indeed complete with magnetos, carburetor, air intake, oil tank, all for $1950.00. The seller said that he knew the types and it was definitely not a Stinson engine mount, but was really similar to a Stearman mount, although different. Tom knew a 215 HP Lycoming was installed on the Model 70. Tom used his collection of photos from the Boeing archive and as he talked to the seller he asked if it looked like this and if it had this detail there. The response was affirmative on everything. Tom did not even hesitate, “Consider it sold,” he said. Tom went to pick it up and it was complete with the sheetmetal fairings, exactly the shade of faded blue as the rest of the unrestored airplane. The engine mount fit perfectly to the Model 70 fuselage firewall fittings. Looking through the FAA records on the airplane Tom confirmed by serial number that this engine was on the Model 70. The engine joined the airframe.
In the photo archive were photos of the rudder as the shape evolved. Stearman added surface area to it, first using sheet metal to get the right size, then welding in the rib splices to be covered in fabric. Since there are no known drawings, Tom is fabricating a new horizontal stabilizer and elevators from the pictures. The elevator hinges will be modeled after the rudder hinges.
The Boeing-Stearman photo archive also helped confirm the wings were indeed Model 70 wings. The wings have a longer aileron than the Model 75, just like the pictures of the Model 70. Boeing-Stearman used wooden compression members in the Model 70 (unlike the Model 75 which uses metal compression members in the wings) and the wings had the same construction.
The wings also used a set of streamlined drag wires inside one particular bay of the upper wings, not round wires. It was as if the factory used off-theshelf tail brace wires that fit instead of making them from scratch. The pictures revealed all this detail, which again confirmed the identity of the Model 70 wings.
Tom Murphy is now devoting his full attention to the Stearman Model 70 restoration.
Tom proudly points out a small stamped number on the fuselage. A close examination using a flashlight reveals one clearly stamped number, 70- 3502-10. The prefix in that little collection of numbers is the most important for it denotes the aircraft model number put there by the Boeing Aircraft Company-Stearman Division, the Model 70. There are others on the airplane. Tom, the master craftsman, will restore the airplane to a like-new condition for WAAAM. No doubt many folks will see her. Some may just see a big old biplane, some may appreciate her for her rarity, yet others may revel in her as the first of many. Tom Murphy and Terry Brandt appreciate any and all who take the time to come and see the airplanes in the collection. WAAAM is about preserving aviation’s past. For Tom and Terry, it all comes down to paying attention to the details. You never know where they will lead you.