3 April 2011

Stearman 101

Ever thought about taking to the skies in an authentic military biplane? Here’s a primer to get you going.

The Boeing-built Stearman bi-plane may be as endearing to the airplane world as a Ford Model A is to the automotive world.  Developed in the 1930s, the workhorse training aircraft honed the skills of thousands of World War II pilots and went on to post war fame as a crop duster and later an acrobatic and highly sought after collector airplane.

So what does it take to fly one and, better yet, own one?  That’s what we were out to find out from Rod Hightower, the president of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) based in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Readers of Hagerty magazine may remember Rod as one of the participants in a recent story on Stearman formation flying (Hagerty, Spring 2011).

Hightower was first touched by the Stearman when he was 16 years old when he was pumping gas at a local airport. “It was a beautiful yellow Navy Stearman,” says Hightower. “But what made an impression on me wasn’t just the beautiful airplane but the kindness of the guy who flew it. I was only 16 at the time, but this gentleman took the time to explain a little of the history of the airplane.”

That set the hook, and years later in 1988, Hightower came across a “barn find” in Cape May, New Jersey. “It was a total basket case that was five times more expensive and took four times longer to restore than we anticipated.”

But once he got it flying, it was worth it all. “The Stearman is easy to fly, but difficult to fly well,” says Hightower. “The two toughest things are handling it on the ground and landing,” says Hightower. “It has a high center of gravity with a large fuel tank that is nine and half feet above the wheels. It has to be landed tracking straight ahead. It cannot be moving sideways at all when you touch down; otherwise you will ground loop (swap ends).

“It’s an airplane that will take the sloppiness out of you.  And as a person who grew up flying typical Cessnas with nose wheels there’s a whole different set of flying skills to handle a tail dragger. You fly the airplane until the thing is tied down.”

So what does it cost to get into a Stearman? Hightower says they are still attainable. “Prices are incredibly reasonable, especially right now in a down economy,” says Hightower. “You can buy a nice flying Stearman for anywhere from $85K to $100K. It won’t be a show winner, but it will be a good flyable, usable airplane and you can enjoy it for a lot of years in that condition.”

There is a rare space in the Stearman world says Hightower for highly authentic restorations with historical importance – like a George H.W. Bush Stearman. “Planes with this kind of provenance can command a premium price.”

There is no such thing as a flyable unrestored Stearman thanks to cotton/linen skins that won’t survive 70 years. Chemicals have taken their toll on crop dusters as well. But Stearmans are plentiful enough that parts and knowhow are never far away and there is a vibrant Internet community if you need anything.

So if you’re thinking about a Stearman, Hightower suggests that you make sure you like the airplane. “Fly it with an experienced guy. Secondly, get yourself a qualified instructor and get checked out in the airplane.  Make sure you are comfortable flying the airplane.

“Once you buy, get out and fly it and keep it off the pavement and on the grass for the first year,” says Hightower. “Fly it on nice days without cross winds. Even if you are a low-time pilot, you can still really enjoy a plane like this.”

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