If you were a kid on a farm located underneath the airmail route between Atlanta and Chicago in the early 1930s, you could look up into the sky at night and see the navigation lights of an airplane flying overhead. You would hear the droning sound of a radial engine in the distance. And if it wasn’t so dark, you could see the eagle symbol of American Airlines on the fuselage.
If you lived in the high desert between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City in 1931, you might squint against the sun and try to guess what kind of biplane it was that you saw winging its way West. A pair of binoculars would reveal the Indian Chief logo of Western Air Express painted on the side.
If you landed at The Aviation Country Club on Long Island in 1932 (by invitation only, of course) you would observe a large, beautiful black and yellow airplane surrounded by well dressed people with names like Dupont and Lindbergh.
All these airplanes were manufactured by The Stearman Aircraft Company of Wichita, Kansas. They were designed by Lloyd Stearman himself and, as he was heard to say many times, were his favorite creations.
These large biplanes were the Stearman Model 4 “Jr. Speedmail”. They came with three different engine options:
- The Model 4E with the Pratt & Whitney Wasp SC-1, 450 h.p.,
- The Model 4D with the P & W Wasp Jr., 300 h.p.,
- The Model 4C with the Wright J6- 9, 300 h.p.
They were intended primarily for carrying the mail and, in most cases, that’s how they were used. In a few cases, these big planes were sold to wealthy “sportsmen pilots”, as they were known in those days. Anyone who wanted to own a Model 4 had better be well off because these machines cost about $18,000 with all the options. That was a huge amount of money then, especially with the Depression in full swing. The options included a full instrument panel complete with Sperry Artificial Horizon and D.G. These two instruments had only recently been invented and were highly prized.
Our Model 4D was purchased by one of New York’s aviation elite. Her (yes, her) name was Pat Brooks. She was married to Peter Brooks, a well known Member of The Long Island Aviation Country Club and a, some time, race pilot. Pat bought the biplane when she was only 21 years old. She traveled to Wichita with one of her flight instructors, Jimmy Collins, to pick it up. Collins was a famous test pilot in the 1930s and would occasionally do some wing walking on the Stearman. We know this because we have a copy of Pat’s Logbook which we found in The National Air & Space Museum. While Pat owned the airplane, several prominent pilots of the time flew it. One was Russ Thaw who flew the Gee Bee R-1 and Jackie Cochran’s Northrop Gamma. Later, when Pat sold the Model 4, it was owned by an English Baron who used it to keep track of his cattle in Wyoming. Later still, it was used as a weather observation plane in Montana. During this period, the big Stearman actually carried the U.S. airmail on a couple of occasions.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to talk to the pilot who flew it in those days (1935) and he had many great stories to tell. One of the things he said was, “Boy, that baby would carry a load of ice!” Somehow, flying a biplane around in weather with a load of ice isn’t one of my priorities.
But the “Jr. Speedmail” IS a nice flying ship. Like all Stearmans, it has light controls, something most 1930 era biplanes don’t have. It also has large control throws, and this is very typical of airplanes from the period. It’s fast for a biplane, cruising at 135 mph. Because it was designed as a mail carrier, the Model 4 has a lot of range. Its fuel capacity is 106 gallons, which is contained in two tanks: one in the wing center section and one in the fuselage behind the engine. This is a very stable airplane (and therefore not very good for aerobatics) and will fly hands off forever on a calm day.
Unlike the Stearman PT-17 trainers of World War II, the Model 4 doesn’t have quite the tendency to ground-loop. However, it is extremely blind while landing and every landing has to be made from a slip. Narrow runways are especially difficult. As one guy said: When you turn final in a PT-17, the runway disappears; when you turn final in a Model 4, the whole airport disappears!
One nice feature is the short bottom wing. This makes crosswind landings much easier. I’ve landed in 20 knot crosswinds and have never had to worry about dragging a wing tip. Also, in comparison with the PT-17, the main gear is wider and the wheelbase longer. Of course, in any Stearman…or for that matter, in any taildragger…one can’t relax too much while touching down or an embarrassing lesson may be in store.
We’ve owned the big airplane for over 17 years now and have taken many long trips in it. It’s been back and forth to the North East many times, and to all the big fly-ins in the Midwest. Its last adventure was flying to Lambert International in St. Louis to be the centerpiece for TWA’s 75th anniversary. Western Air Express, the pioneer airline.