When I crank the engine of my Stearman, a puff of white smoke spits out the exhaust stack and pounding pistons find their rhythm in a strangely euphonious throbbing, signs of a periodically dormant artifact reawakening to the splendor of impending flight. This magnificent old biplane, emblazoned in the colors of her exalted years as a trainer for the Navy, lifts ever so gracefully from the grassy field into the alluring sky with just the hint of back pressure on the stick to help her along. She rises methodically, the sun glistening off the taut fabric, an unmistakable yellow silhouette accenting the sea of blue.
This throwback to open cockpits and silk-scarf flying comprises more than her constituent parts. The fat wings, the long wheel struts, the round engine do not reveal much by themselves. But here, in the sky, the common thread in her experience, one can feel where she has been and how she has touched generations with the wonder, the magic, the spirit of flight.
In January 1943, Stearman serial number 07479 sprang into being legitimately at the big Boeing plant in Wichita, bearing the name of her gifted patriarch, the otherwise unheralded aircraft designer Lloyd Stearman. From the humble flatlands of Kansas, she traced the route of ten thousand of her brethren via ferry flight to a training unit in a corner of America. A war was on, and farm boys, emboldened by dreams of dashing through the stratosphere in the hottest new fighters, wanted to learn how to fly.
A week after her rollout, the Stearman was delivered to the Naval Reserve Air Base in Dallas. Her life as a trusty workhorse had begun though the Navy, in its infinite bureaucratic conjuring, almost immediately reassigned the trainer to Naval Air Station Reno, a training facility created in the wake of the Pearl Harbor raid. Thinking attacks on the mainland were imminent, the Navy built a cluster of western air bases far enough inland to provide a buffer against any invaders.
Of course, the invasions did not materialize, but nevertheless the cadets at Reno still had to contend with the ever-present burden of mile-high density altitude. In such an environment, the Stearman, featuring a high center of gravity, a total absence of forward visibility in the three-point position, and closely coupled main landing gear, became even more of a handful when landing. The nagging tendency of the taildragger to want to swap wingtips upon settling onto the ground was accentuated by Reno’s thin air. Perhaps the Navy, in its rush to churn out qualified aviators, felt that the challenging conditions imposed by Nevada’s high desert would help speed up the process of weeding out those lacking aptitude for flight. The boys graduating primary at Reno had to have been really good.
Today, Reno’s most notable aviation connection is its annual air racing extravaganza. Sometimes, during an interlude of a few minutes between competitions, a Stearman, albeit with extra horsepower and a non-regulation paint scheme, roars into the crystal clear dome overhead, trailing a plume of air show smoke. Gyrating through variations of the basic maneuvers learned in adjoining blocks of airspace more than a half-century earlier, a veritable cousin of my plane, conceivably produced next in line, thrills tens of thousands of spectators. Little did the cadets who trained at Reno know that one day people would pay to see this biplane cavort in the sky or that flips and reversals in an aged trainer would provoke cheers.
By the late summer of 1943, the Navy transferred my Stearman closer to the fleet, near picturesque San Francisco. At the Livermore Naval Air Station, she helped to train some of the more than four thousand cadets who passed through the Naval Aviation Primary Training (NAPT) program there. Only a year-and-a-half before, the first training plane landed at the newly constructed air station and its pilot was warmly greeted by the wife of one of the local ranchers who had baked a cake for the occasion.
Until primary flight training ended at Livermore in October 1944, my Stearman labored faithfully in the noble pursuit of teaching would-be aces the art and science of flight. There surely must have been innumerable instances of ill-coordinated turns, abrupt throttle inputs, and hard landings, perhaps even a groundloop or two. Yet, the old girl, her wooden wing ribs firmly fitted to the spar and her steel flying wires tightly wrapped, proved both the durability of the truss construction inherent in the biplane design and the longevity of true craftsmanship.
For the remainder of the war, records show that Stearman 07479 was assigned to the shore establishment of an aircraft carrier resounding in history for its propitious name and wartime exploits. When the U.S.S. Bunker Hill slipped out of the Quincey, Massachusetts dry dock for its maiden voyage exactly one year after the Pearl Harbor raid, its namesake, the hallowed site of the historic Revolutionary War battle, was not far away. The carrier and its air group fought throughout World War II as if imbued with the fighting spirit displayed at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. Attempting to hold the high ground in Charlestown, the American commander, Colonel William Prescott, who, outnumbered and facing a shortage of ammunition, is reported to have given his men the order: “Don’t one of you fire until you see the whites of their eyes.”
The Bunker Hill would have made Prescott proud. The carrier participated in the Rabaul strike, supported the landings on Tarawa and Iwo Jima, and stayed afloat after sustaining internal damage and more than six hundred casualties from two kamikaze attacks at Okinawa. The ship’s defining moment came when sailing as part of a sprawling task force in the evening hours of June 21, 1944. During the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Navy planes, low on fuel and ragged from combat, returned to the fleet in darkness.
Regulations forbade nighttime illumination in enemy waters for fear of submarine strikes, but the task force commander, a wizened naval aviator, would not abandon his fellow airmen. Admiral Marc Mitscher, like Prescott of Bunker Hill, issued an order that would ring for years to come with the force of a great patriot’s character. “Turn on the lights,” the admiral decreed. The Bunker Hill, along with the other carriers strewn across the open sea that night, served as a beacon for the beleaguered planes and recovered them as rapidly as possible. A new chapter in naval aviation history was written as most of the aviators survived.
When in home port, the pilots of the Bunker Hill had Stearman 07479 available to them. That men of such conviction touched her rudder pedals, stroked her throttle, nursed her into the air prompts me to think of them and their squadron mates every time I launch into the sky at the controls of this glorious relic. Their dedication and sacrifice ensured our freedom, and, not inconsequentially, the Stearman, lethargic though she may be, enabled them in their task.
The Livermore air station was decommissioned the year after the war ended, and on June 30, 1946 the Navy struck Stearman 07479 from the government’s inventory and sold her off as so much surplus. The air station was considered as the site for the new Air Force Academy, but in 1952 it was converted instead into a branch of the University of California’s Radiation Laboratory. Meanwhile, for just a few hundred dollars the Stearman, a piece of living history, entered an ignominious period as an agricultural applicator.
She racked up thousands of hours in her hardly glamorous new profession until a restorer rescued her in the mid-1980s. Spruced up in old Navy markings, looking no less immaculate as the first day of her existence, I took delivery of her at the annual National Stearman Fly-In in west central Illinois and flew her home in a formation that included two other restored Stearmans. The traverse at low level across mid-western cornfields and cow pastures in the company of friends on a day marked by a sparkling blue sky was an unforgettable flight, a fitting renewal for a once adorned old training plane.
Every chance I get, I fly her with the war veterans whose first airborne experience was in the type as students. Because of the advanced age of the old flyers, some are no longer able to climb up onto the lower wing and raise their legs over the side of the fuselage to access the cockpit. And so they just stare at the plane they knew, the plane that gave them wings. There is always a sparkle in the eyes, an enduring affection for the aircraft that offered them their first taste of life in the air.
Long before I was born, Stearman 07479 broke the bonds of gravity, fulfilling dreams of flight and exposing a cadre of purposeful young men to the promising and boundless realm of the heavens. The ideals, fears, and aspirations of the prior occupants have not left this sometimes ornery but always honest beauty. Rather, the qualities of her many pilots over the years live on in every flight. Woven into her fabric is the essence of her being, the soul of an airplane.
Philip Handleman, SRA #1547 Handleman Sky Ranch Oxford Township, Michigan