The Stearman

I found my Stearman in a South Georgia barn. The upper wings had been used as a chicken roost for years and there were several holes in the fabric surfaces. It required some serious washing. The Stearman had been a Navy trainer and had the Lycoming 225 hp radial engine. The engine turned over smoothly and had good compression. After a good cleaning, air in the tires, gas in the tank and seven rolls of duct tape on the wings, the old biplane was ready to fly. The engine started right up. It's always encouraging when an airplane seems to want to fly.

A section of rusted exhaust pipe fell off on the first flight. I replaced it with some flexible exhaust from the Western Auto store. The right brake locked on the second landing. I pulled the wheels and cleaned out the rust. By late afternoon, I had made it to the Stone Mountain airport, just east of Atlanta. The next morning found me following the interstate up to Chattanooga and on to Knoxville. Several hours and several stops later put me in Johnson City, Tennessee just before dark. The Stearman was in Carson Baker's hangar for a year. We stripped it to the frame and built it back up like a new airplane. It looked and flew like a dream. I took everyone I knew for rides, whether they wanted to go or not.

Carson and I were proud of our work. It was his skill with wood and fabric that made it such an outstanding airplane. It had been more of a learning experience for me. Carson knew everything there was to know about fabric, but he didn't know much about Stearmans. We put the four huge wings back on the fuselage and discovered that each one needed to be adjusted. This proved to be more difficult that we had foreseen when we had taken it apart. We should have marked all of the bolts and flying wires more carefully.

After several adjustments, and with the deadline of the Oshkosh Fly-in drawing near, I resorted to the TLAR (That Looks About Right) method of wing adjustment. I put the tail up on a stand, eyeballed the wing angles and made the final adjustments. It flew, but for weeks afterwards, I carried wrenches in my pocket, so I could adjust the wings a little each time I landed. With each wing adjustment, the airplane flew differently. It always flew, but sometimes it developed strange habits.

My brother, Ted, was a teenager. I had been giving him flying lessons in a Cessna 150. Ted was almost ready to take the check ride for the private pilots certificate, so I figured some experience in the Stearman would be good for him. I put him in the back seat, where the operator normally sits. I took off and headed for our home town of Chuckey, about four miles away. I could see his big smile in the mirror mounted on the top wing. It was a beautiful fall day. Dressed in light jackets, we were comfortable in the open cockpits. The roar of the radial engine and the sound of the wind in the flying wires was like music.

Chuckey is a really small town. It had one gas station and two Churches. Just south of the Presbyterian Church is the hill used by Edward Huffaker to test his glider designs in 1892. On top of Huffaker's hill, there is a water tank, surrounded by oak trees. This tank stores water for the Chuckey area.

Ted I crossed over Chuckey at about 1500 feet, headed toward the family farm. I yelled above the roar of the engine, "O.K. It's all yours". I waved both of my hands in the air to emphasize the change of command, then settled down to see what Ted could do.

He continued on for about a mile, then dropped the left wing and turned back toward Chuckey. He circled Huffaker's hill once, then dived toward the water tank. When I felt he was getting uncomfortably low, I took back the controls and climbed back to 1500 feet. I turned back toward our farm and yelled to him again. "Don't get so low! Try some turns!"

I could see in the mirror that he was laughing. When I let him have the controls again, Ted flew level for about a mile, then he gradually lowered the nose and started another turn to the left. He went back around Huffaker's hill, then aimed the nose at the water tank again. I looked in the mirror and saw an evil looking smile on his face. I knew that he was just trying to scare me. I decided to let him buzz the hill if he wanted to. It seemed like a dumb thing to do, but I remembered that Ted was a student pilot and a teenager. I held onto the sides of my seat and watched the trees get closer and closer. At the last moment I grabbed the stick and pulled back.

The big steel propeller took a bite out of the top of an oak tree. Pieces of golden leaves swirled around us. Twigs landed in my lap. He had managed to scare me. I was angry flying back to the airport.

As the propeller swung to a stop, I was already up and yelling at Ted. "What the Hell were you trying to do? Kill us?"

Ted looked just as upset. "What do you mean, 'me'!" He said, "I haven't touched the controls. If you were trying to scare me out there, you did a good job of it."

"You mean to tell me that you didn't take over the controls when I told you to?"

"Oh," he said, "is that what you were saying? I couldn't hear you over the roar of the engine."