Flying - - TAKING WING - By Sam Weigel

I think it’s a pretty safe bet that there’s not a pi­lot alive who doesn’t have a soft spot for the Stearman bi­plane, ex­cept, per­haps, for the select few who have ground-looped one.

My in­fat­u­a­tion with Stear­mans be­gan at 7 years old, when, while piled into the back of our Oldsmo­bile Cut­lass sta­tion wagon on a fam­ily road trip to Florida, I spied a barn­stormer in a bril­liant blue-and-yel­low air­plane ply­ing his trade from a nearby airstrip. I pleaded for my par­ents to let me take a ride, and they ac­tu­ally dis­cussed it, but de­cided the cost was well out­side our tight va­ca­tion bud­get.

Soon tin mod­els of all four Red Baron Pizza team Stear­mans adorned my bed­room, and a poster as well. There’s just some­thing about that air­plane that looks ex­actly like a clas­sic bi­plane should, in ways that other iconic ex­am­ples, such as the Camel, Jenny and Tiger Moth, do not. You start with the tall stance, nose point­ing ex­pec­tantly to the sky; add the beefy, mus­cu­lar air­frame strain­ing against the taut fab­ric that en­velops it; mix in a big old un­cowled ra­dial engine swing­ing a gi­ant pol­ished prop; and tie it all to­gether with a sym­met­ric web of struts, braces and drag wires. It looks like an air­plane built to take you to hell and back, just in case you ever get tired of lolling over golden corn­fields in the sun­set hour. It hap­pens to be my wife’s very fa­vorite air­plane, so Dawn and I in­evitably end up seek­ing out Stear­mans at air­shows and fly-ins.

And yet I had never flown one, at least not un­til re­cently. It’s not like there hadn’t been any op­por­tu­nity to do so; I’ve met a num­ber of Stearman own­ers and op­er­a­tors over the years. I sup­pose I was just too cheap to pay for a ride and not quite brash enough to beg my way into one. I fig­ured it’d hap­pen even­tu­ally. And in­deed, this past Au­gust, as Dawn and I were pre­par­ing to head back to Min­nesota for an over­due visit to our fam­i­lies, Todd An­der­son emailed me, in­quir­ing if I’d be around any­time soon and in­ter­ested in go­ing fly­ing in his PT-17. Talk about great tim­ing! I jumped at the chance, and we set a date for a few weeks hence.

I first met Todd three or four years ago, while I was a mem­ber of the Yel­low Cub Club but be­fore we bought our Pacer. Dawn and I had been ad­mir­ing his beau­ti­ful blue­and-yel­low Stearman from afar; it

seemed to be fly­ing nearly ev­ery time we were out at Air­lake Air­port (KLVN) to fly the Cub. Fi­nally, one night we were re­turn­ing from sun­set pa­trol when I spied his plane parked out­side his open hangar door; we tax­ied over, shut down and in­tro­duced ourselves to the gre­gar­i­ous fam­ily as­sem­bled within. It turned out that Todd is a se­nior cap­tain for my air­line, while his sons Blake and Brett had just started fly­ing for the re­gional air­line at which I used to work. Dawn hit it off with Todd’s out­go­ing wife, Sue, right away; like Dawn, she’s a non­pilot but loves to fly and has a lot of avi­a­tion knowl­edge. The Stearman is a fly­ing-club air­plane of sorts; all four fam­ily mem­bers use it reg­u­larly, which is why we saw it fly­ing so of­ten. Sue also hap­pens to love J-3s, and we quickly worked out a trade: I took Sue fly­ing in the Cub, while Todd treated Dawn to her first flight in her fa­vorite air­plane. At the same time, he of­fered to take me up, but we just never got around to it. We saw the An­der­sons reg­u­larly, but usu­ally at the end of a day of fly­ing, as the sun was go­ing down.

And then Dawn and I sold our house and the Pacer and bought our sail­boat, Wind­bird, and fi­nally gave up our mem­ber­ship in the Yel­low Cub Club when we left Min­nesota to start cruis­ing. We lost touch with the An­der­sons for about a year, un­til Todd emailed me. His of­fer was par­tic­u­larly wel­come not only be­cause of the chance to fly a Stearman, but be­cause I hadn’t flown any GA air­craft since the pre­vi­ous Oc­to­ber and missed it ter­ri­bly. We had ev­ery in­ten­tion of spend­ing hur­ri­cane sea­son vis­it­ing

friends and fly­ing friends’ air­planes, but in re­al­ity, most of the sum­mer was spent work­ing over­time to build up our cruis­ing kitty (don’t cry for me; I was mostly fly­ing to Lon­don, Paris and Am­s­ter­dam), and the rest of the time was taken up get­ting Wind­bird ready for the next cruis­ing sea­son.

If life were a movie script, then the ap­pointed day would have dawned bright, clear and still, the birds would be singing and we’d lift off just as the ris­ing sun kissed the freshly cut hay­fields and melted the last curl­ing wisps of ground fog from the me­an­der­ing river bot­toms. Alas, in re­al­ity it was a bleak, leaden day, with a 5,000-foot over­cast that low­ered to a dark smudge on the western hori­zon and fore­told the com­ing of mid­morn­ing rain. Nev­er­the­less, Todd, Sue and Blake were at the hangar at 7 a.m. with cof­fee and dough­nuts. We hung out for a while, catch­ing up on our re­spec­tive lives. Todd re­cently trans­ferred from the soon-to-be-re­tired Boe­ing 747 to the newer 777, while Blake was just hired at our air­line and about to be­gin train­ing on the 757/767. Todd still has a few years left to go, and at the rate we’re hir­ing there’s a de­cent chance he and Blake will get to fly to­gether be­fore re­tire­ment.

Af­ter chat­ting for an hour, it oc­curred to us that we’d bet­ter go fly if we wanted to beat the weather. Todd and I donned our para­chutes, and I care­fully climbed up the lower left wing and sunk my­self into the cav­ernous cock­pit. The two sets of seat belts left me mo­men­tar­ily con­fused un­til I re­mem­bered this is an open-cock­pit air­plane and stay­ing at­tached to it is a pretty crit­i­cal as­pect of any zero- or neg­a­tive-G ma­neu­vers! One belt is an­chored to the seat, the other to the air­frame. The gog­gles and cloth hel­met in­te­grated with head­set was an­other new one to me. Af­ter I was set up and set­tled in, Todd climbed into the back cock­pit, fired up and S-tax­ied out to Run­way 30. Once the oil warmed up, we took the run­way and the rum­bling ra­dial roared to life. Af­ter take­off, Todd turned the con­trols over to me. It turns out that a 220 Stearman han­dles sur­pris­ingly like a Cub! The con­trol forces are slightly higher, but the re­sponse rate is very sim­i­lar, the climb rate with two aboard is about the same, the amount of ad­verse yaw and rud­der re­quired in a turn is quite anal­o­gous, and the speeds used (in knots) are iden­ti­cal to those of the J-3C (in miles per hour). Yes, this is a 220 hp air­plane — but it’s also nearly 3,000 pounds max­i­mum take­off weight, and with a whole lot of drag to boot.

South­west of the Twin Cities, I climbed to 5,500 feet and turned the con­trols back over to Todd so he could go through his rou­tine for an up­com­ing air­show. Noth­ing ter­ri­bly fancy here: aileron roll, loop, Im­mel­man, Cuban 8, square loop, hes­i­ta­tion roll. Still, I don’t do acro very of­ten, and the forces in­volved al­ways catch me a bit off guard, es­pe­cially on neg­a­tive-G ma­neu­vers. For starters, I’m re­minded of the supreme im­por­tance of tightly cinch­ing down one’s lap belt be­fore go­ing up­side down! By the time I rec­ti­fied the mat­ter, Todd was done with his rou­tine and he handed the con­trols

I en­joy air­line fly­ing, I re­ally do, and when I haven’t flown GA in a while I de­lude my­self into think­ing that my job does a good enough job of scratch­ing my fly­ing itch.

back to me to have a go at it. I made a mess of the first few ma­neu­vers, but Todd was pa­tient in cor­rect­ing the er­ror of my ways. I cer­tainly don’t claim to be a “nat­u­ral stick,” but I’m a rea­son­ably train­able mon­key: It only takes me a few screw-ups to mud­dle my way through to a sem­blance of com­pe­tence.

Af­ter an hour of flight, the ceil­ing had def­i­nitely low­ered, and fat splats of rain­drops on the wind­screens chased us back to Air­lake. We “dusted the strip off” on our first pass, and then Todd took the con­trols to land. He quite wisely was not about to trust his pride and joy to an air­line guy who hadn’t landed a tail­drag­ger in 10 months. Pro­fi­cient as he is, Todd caught a “tweener” — not quite a three-point, not quite a wheel land­ing — and in a jagged swerve and some quick pedal work, I sensed how de­mand­ing this tall, nar­row-geared air­plane can be. For many young men train­ing to go off to war 75 years ago, this was of­ten only the sec­ond air­plane they’d ever flown (or flown in).

Todd “flew it till the last piece stopped mov­ing,” which was out­side his hangar, and thus ended my first Stearman flight. I re­ally en­joyed it, though to be hon­est I would have got­ten nearly as much sat­is­fac­tion get­ting back in the air in any GA air­plane. I en­joy air­line fly­ing, I re­ally do, and when I haven’t flown GA in a while I de­lude my­self into think­ing that my job does a good enough job of scratch­ing my fly­ing itch. It doesn’t, though, be­cause it lacks the thing I en­joy most about gen­eral avi­a­tion, the wide-open sense of free­dom. In air­line fly­ing there’s al­ways a mis­sion to be ac­com­plished, with the at­ten­dant chal­lenges and sat­is­fac­tion — but there’s none of the free­dom of a full tank of av­gas and a cou­ple of hours to kill, mess­ing around in old air­planes with your fly­ing bud­dies. It’s flights like this one that re­mind me what I love about GA, and keep me com­ing back for more.

My in­fat­u­a­tion with Stear­mans be­gan at 7 years old, and it hasn't dulled since.

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