I saw my first Stearman biplane at age 10. 1 was sitting on the irrigation ditch bank on a farm in eastern Wyoming, rolling a piece of horehound candy around in my mouth now that the Second World War’s sugar rations had been lifted. I watched a yellow crop-duster glide low over the neighbor’s field, rise above the fence row at the end, circle around and swoop back again. And again. I was mesmerized by that yellow kite playing with the wind.

 Last September, more years hence than I care to say, I strolled the grass field at the 2001 National Stearman Fly-In at Galesburg, Illinois, contemplating the fascination of these machines. What is it about them that grabs the heart and imagination?

 “Why,” I asked Stearman owners, “do you have a Stearman instead of some other type of plane?” Each answer was different and yet strangely the same: the planes, the people, the history. The camaraderie with others who love planes and people and history.

 “Tell me about your plane,” I queried Addison Pemberton whose 4DM Sr. Speedmail was an airmail carrier for American from 1931-1934 (Pemberton, ‘Flying the Mail in 1993,’ FLYING WIRE, Nov. 2000)   ‘Why a Stearman?”

“There is nothing else,” Pemberton answered tersely as if I should know that. “I fell in love with it when I was a kid,” he added.

Larry Tobin, of Colbert, Washington, gives Pemberton credit for bringing “Old Airplane Disease” to the Spokane area. It is highly contagious. More Stearmans continually show up at Felts Field, which is located on land once homesteaded by Tobin’s great-grandparents. For Tobin, the history connection is strong. Perhaps for that reason, he went Out of his way to see to it that some veteran pilots of World War It had opportunity to get in the Stearman training planes again.

 Saturday morning, there was a break in the weather, and 80-year-old former Marine pilot Paul Rhodes from Batesville, Arkansas, was ready for a ride. Tobin assisted “Dusty” Rhodes in getting into the plane, an authentic Navy Stearman Tobin recently restored (Tobin, ‘A New Stearman on the Block,’ FLYING WIRE, August 2000). Tony Blum was pilot for this trip.

 As soon as Rhodes buckled in, Mike Walsh and I headed for his Stearman, for we were to fly alongside Blum and Rhodes. Walsh’s plane had spent a short time at the U.S. Naval Air Station, Ottumwa, Iowa, during the war. Since Rhodes is an NAS Ottumwa veteran, it seemed fitting we fly side by side. 

Once in the air, Blum pulled the plane in close proximity to Walsh’s plane. In a few moments he raised his arms to indicate Rhodes had taken the stick. 

Now, for the most part I trust the skills of Stearman pilots I know. As Tobin says, “If you can fly a Stearman, you can fly anything.” But when Rhodes edged the plane a little closer, I couldn’t erase from my mind the story he had told minutes before.

 It seems the young flight instructors at NAS Ottumwa constantly demonstrated their skills and courage by a number of stunts. Former aviation machinist mates have related how difficult it was to keep wings in repair because of the practice of rubbing them together during formation flights. 

Rhodes had just entertained a group on the ground by telling of the day in 1943 that he and fellow Marine Donald Wegley and Navy flier Ken Parsons went out for a little formation practice. In the course of the flight, Rhodes approached Wegley’s plane and settled his wheels down upon the top wing. “Then,” said Rhodes with the twinkling eye of a good storyteller, “I felt a little bump.” He looked up to see Parsons directly above him. Briefly, the three flew as if glued together.

 Who could not love such sturdy planes, capable of forgiving the 19- and 20-year-olds who initiated them?

 Stearman pilots today recognize the fun. Many say they wanted a Stearman ever since they were little kids. Several grew up around airports, serving as gas or errand boys, sweeping the hangar—anything to be around the planes.

 John Lohmar, of St. Louis, wanted an airplane for fun, not particularly as a means of transportation. “I just wanted an easy-to-operate, easy-to-maintain, fun flying airplane,” he said. Lohmar enjoys formation flying most of all, but then it’s unlikely he’ll try Rhodes’s tricks. Not if he wants an easy-to-maintain machine.

 Soaring in a Stearman is a total experience: the breeze across the face, the sounds, the smells. It is said that when an open-cockpit plane flies over Delaware County, Iowa, the pilot knows immediately the chief occupation of the area—hog farming. Stearmans cruise comfortably at 100 mph at a relatively low altitude, about 1000 ft. That guarantees inhabitants of the cockpits don’t miss much.

 “To me there’s nothing like flying in an open-cockpit airplane,” says Karen Blankenbaker of Ravena, Ohio, who likes the noise of the 450 Stearman she and her husband Dennis own.

 In the air, the Stearman almost flies itself, but it is quite another matter when it’s time to land. The narrow landing gear keeps a pilot alert until the plane has completely stopped. But for many, that is part of the fun.

 Tonya Hodson of Marion, Kansas said, “It’s the challenge of the airplane with that big, round engine and the narrow wheel base … it’s just an awesome, awesome thing.”

 I asked Hodson if she’d had harrowing experiences upon landing.

 “Not that I want to talk about,” she said. But she readily volunteered to chat about her plane which she purchased recently from Dwight and Ruth Hill. Hodson said the plane came out of the factory on July 25, 1944, “the same year my father was born. I gave him a ride on Fathers’ Day.”

 Herb Clark of Weirsdale, Florida, thinks people have accidents upon landing because they work at it too hard. “Just let it land,” he said. “Let the plane do the work. If you don’t do anything, you won’t do anything wrong.”

 Addison Pemberton appreciates Stearmans because of what they teach. The best feature of a Stearman? They build good pilots,” he said. “That’s it in a nutshell.”

 Pemberton’s challenges sometimes come in strange forms. In the late Galesburg afternoon, he prepared to take two more NAS Ottumwa veterans up in his plane. Herman “Bud” Gronewold’s experiences as an Ottumwa instrument instructor and check pilot led him to meet Jean Carden, one of the control tower WAVES. Jean had some flight experience as well since those who worked in the tower were required to have four hours flight time each month. The Gronewolds of Trivoli, Illinois, were eager to fly side-by-side in the front double-seated cockpit of Pemberton’s mail plane.

 After Jean settled into the cockpit, Bud attempted to hoist himself up, only to discover that his 81-year-old joints rebelled. Pemberton, undaunted, dropped to his hands and knees, making himself into a footstool. “Just hop up on my back,” he said to Bud. Before long, the Gronewolds once again experienced the power of the round engine and the countryside falling away beneath them.

 It is that kind of experiences, that kind of people, who draw others into the Stearman Restorers Association net. “It’s the camaraderie,” said Mike Walsh of Lakewood, California, who related that in the 2000 miles he flies to get to Galesburg, at every place he and his companions stop they are treated with kindness and respect.

Dwight Hill of McPherson, Kansas, echoes that sentiment. “You get in a group like this, and it’s the associations that last over the years.”

“What’s the best thing about a Stearman?” I asked Bill Austin of Danville, California.

“It’s a fun airplane to fly,” he said, “a bit of nostalgia to go with it, round engine and all that, but I think the people are the best thing.”

 E.M. Cofer (SRA # 3012) is the author of Carrier on the Prairie, the story of the U.s. Naval Air Station, Ottumwa, Iowa. Available from Hawley Court Press, P0 Box 1191, Ottumwa, IA 52501. hardbound $25.95, soft cover $16.95

 The best feature of a Stearman? They build good pilots,” he said. “That’s it in a nutshell.”

 Pemberton’s challenges sometimes come in strange forms. In the late Galesburg afternoon, he prepared to take two more NAS Ottumwa veterans up in his plane. Herman “Bud” Gronewold’s experiences as an Ottumwa instrument instructor and check pilot led him to meet Jean Carden, one of the control tower WAVES. Jean had some flight experience as well since those who worked in the tower were required to have four hours flight time each month. The Gronewolds of Trivoli, Illinois, were eager to fly side-by-side in the front double-seated cockpit of Pemberton’s mail plane.

 After Jean settled into the cockpit, Bud attempted to hoist himself up, only to discover that his 81-year-old joints rebelled. Pemberton, undaunted, dropped to his hands and knees, making himself into a footstool. “Just hop up on my back,” he said to Bud. Before long, the Gronewolds once again experienced the power of the round engine and the countryside falling away beneath them.

 It is that kind of experiences, that kind of people, who draw others into the Stearman Restorers Association net. “It’s the camaraderie,” said Mike Walsh of Lakewood, California, who related that in the 2000 miles he flies to get to Galesburg, at every place he and his companions stop they are treated with kindness and respect.

Dwight Hill of McPherson, Kansas, echoes that sentiment. “You get in a group like this, and it’s the associations that last over the years.”

“What’s the best thing about a Stearman?” I asked Bill Austin of Danville, California. “It’s a fun airplane to fly,” he said, “a bit of nostalgia to go with it, round engine and all that, but I think the people are the best thing.”

 E.M. Cofer (SRA # 3012) is the author of Carrier on the Prairie, the story of the U.s. Naval Air Station, Ottumwa, Iowa. Available from Hawley Court Press, P0 Box 1191, Ottumwa, IA 52501. hardbound $25.95, soft cover $16.95

 

World War II Marine pilot Paul “Dusty” Rhodes in Larry Tobin’s plane feels at home in the front cockpit, the flight instructor’s position.

 

Tonya Hodson of Marion, Kansas, with her new acquisition

 

It’s the people.” Larry Cofer, George Pascal, and Jim Ratliff share tall tales at the 2001 NSFI