Many tried to convince me that the Stearman would be a handful. (And then I wanted one more than ever!) I was encouraged to consider the Waco, Gipsy Moth, Tiger Moth, Cub, Citabria, but the only one of the bunch I would even remotely consider was the Gipsy Moth, and that was only to pretend I was flying with Robert Redford over Africa.
No, the Stearman was still my choice no matter how much of a handful it would be. I learned of one coming up for sale in Culpeper, Virginia, took a look at it and was convinced I had to buy it. Late-model silver finish, meticulously restored, it was beautiful. A handshake deal with owner Steve Berkman, and the Stearman was mine. After 24 years flying corporate jets, ‘real’ flying (tail wheel, open cockpit, feet actually on the rudders) offered a new challenge, and then some!
Built in 1944 for the U.S. Army as Boeing serial number 75-5861, under a 1942 contract (hence military serial 42-17698), it was sold after just three years’ service and mothballed until 1988 when a 13-year restoration began. Its first post-restoration flight was in 2001. Today, it still has fewer than 1,300 hours TT, with less than 300 hours on the Lycoming R-680-17 engine and the rebuilt wings. Restored to its original Army colors, the airplane bears the markings of the 2533rd Army Air Force Base Unit, AAF Training Command at Goodfellow Army Air Field, San Angelo, Texas (hence its civil registration N2533).
Planning the trip to get the Stearman was a big event. Richard and I pushed furniture aside and laid the Sectionals across the floor, with a big red line across them. Next, we cut out 20 nm each side of that line and voila, we had a navigation scroll for the whole journey. Now, to fly the route!
After waiting for the weather to be more conducive to flying cross-country in an open cockpit, and notwithstanding a first attempt thwarted by an alternator problem, I was ready to leave on June 1. My traveling companion was Dave Derby, chosen not only in recognition of his 2,000+ hours in his own Stearman, but also because my insurers wanted me to have a minimum 25 hours and 40 landings in type under the tutelage of a CFI before I could solo. As a final testimony to Steve Berkman’s restoration skills, Richard had an “inspector’s” stamp made for Steve. When he restored the plane Steve had carefully left unpainted 1” squares on the main planes, horizontal stabilizer, control surfaces, etc. which would have been stamped as ‘quality approved’ by Boeing’s inspectors. Today, Steve applied his own stamp before Dave and I settled-in. After our farewells, we were rolling down Culpeper’s runway 22. A forty-degree right turn and we were on the great circle route for Gillespie Field in San Diego, California.
I was marveling at the scenery below. It was great to feel the wind on my face and the sense of freedom that an open cockpit airplane gives you. As I pointed the Stearman Westerly, I suddenly began to realize that I was actually bringing my new airplane home. Maybe it was the anticipation, anxiety and excitement of the trip, maybe even some fear, but all of a sudden I felt a touch, well, maybe a little more than a touch, of airsickness. Maybe too, I started to understand that the rear cockpit of a Stearman is a somewhat more blustery situation than a Citation!
Given that we hadn’t taken off too promptly, and my literal and figurative internal disorder, we made just two legs that first day, but thereafter we put in three legs a day. Our initial route took us over the Appalachians, across West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas. Crossing the Arkansas forest with nothing but trees as far as I could see, I found myself vividly remembering all that I was taught in primary training. What if the engine failed now? Where would I put it? Knowing how the Stearman would glide (or not), knowing how it could likely land on a dime and recognizing that it is top and front heavy, I knew that if I had to land on tree tops, it would have to be a very controlled stall.
Most of the trip was free rein with only two areas of controlled airspace and control towers, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Yuma, Arizona. Approaching Charlottesville, I identified my aircraft and asked permission to transit their airspace. When the controller asked where I was going, I responded with “San Diego.” Long silence, then he asked, “Are you a student?” I replied “No, Sir”, but I guessed, in reality, I was again.
Wanting to get home as soon as we could, but still wanting to enjoy the journey, the theory was that we’d land, freshen-up, feed ourselves, and get right into the next leg. However, that’s not quite what happened. At every landing spot, the Stearman drew attention from FBO personnel, other pilots and casual passers-by. Cold water would always be offered and sometimes cookies. People would start asking Dave (’cos he was the guy!) questions about the plane and he’d respond, “I don’t know, you’d better ask the lady there, she’s the owner”. I must admit, I relished every opportunity to talk about my airplane like a proud mother of a special child. Each day brought something different. While fuelling at Safford, New Mexico, the crew working on re-surfacing the ramp were quick to volunteer to trade places. Sorry, fellas, not a chance!
Leaving Jonesboro, Arkansas, after over-nighting and waiting for the overcast to clear, cu-nims were already beginning to build. Initially I thought we might climb above them, but it seemed they had a better vertical rate than the Stearman could manage. I suggested to Dave that we’d be better off ducking through a hole between them and staying underneath. Dave responded in his typical style, “Whatever you think.”
One thing that became apparent was how, proceeding westerly from Virginia, the distances between airfields increased and the availability of fuel correspondingly decreased. Therefore, some of the legs were either necessarily shorter than optimal, or a little unnervingly long.
It tickles me when I think of flying across Texas, and more Texas, and even more Texas. Honestly, I never thought I was going to get out of Texas. Then “Yippee,” we were in New Mexico followed by a small left turn, and guess what? We were BACK in Texas! Eventually, even Texas fell behind us at ‘Stearman pace’.
After five days, we’d made it to Casa Grande, Arizona, our last overnight stop. Leaving the next morning, we made a fuel stop at Yuma before setting off on our final leg. Forty minutes later I caught sight of the Pacific Ocean. Descending for Gillespie Field, I called the tower. Tower responded with “Stearman 533, cleared to land runway 27L … pause … and welcome home.” That was it. All choked up, I barely managed to fly the arrival. It was good to be home!
After a promised low pass, I put the Stearman down at Gillespie Field after 31.9 hours flying time. Richard was there at my arrival and recorded my landing for the blog (www.wilsher. net/N2533_homecoming.htm) with these words, “a very decent landing in a distinct cross-wind”. And remember the navigation scroll? I put it in the airplane’s map box the day we left Culpeper, and it stayed there, untouched, until we tidied the plane at Gillespie. Of course, I did have an iPad with ForeFlight installed. So much for moving the furniture around! And that “new challenge” I mentioned previously? It’s still there, as I hone my landing skills. The flying point-to-point bit I’ve mastered, I think.