Growing up in Galesburg I always looked forward to the Labor Day weekend when Stearman biplanes from all over the country would make the pilgrimage to our airport for the annual National Stearman Fly-In. The legendary Stearman planes have two sets of wings with an open cockpit. Every year for a week a hundred or so of them would fly all over town buzzing the “Burg” all day long. It was like a scene out of a WWII black and white movie! My eyes were skyward the entire week with fantasies and adventures: Me, The Flying Leprechaun versus The German Red Baron—The Ace of Aces fighter pilot considered the best of all time...of course I always won!
I always wanted to fly in a Stearman and so this year I headed back to my hometown of Galesburg for a flight to conquer the skies and to take a notch off of my bucket list. It costs $160 for a twenty minute ride in one of these legendary aircrafts (a bargain!), and this hometown babe is Kolissa who set me up with a ride.
Over 100 Stearman's are here this year, and as I wait for my pilot to land let's check out the Stearman aerobatic plane, it has a Rolls Royce 459 horsepower engine for loops, barrel rolls, spins and all sorts of other in-air, flying stunts. The extra wings are the key in providing additional draft for the stunts, they can spin on a dime in the sky. At $360 for 30 minutes of flying upside down In an open cockpit I'll stick to a conventional cruise.
The aerobatic plane has a traditional military pinup logo...hey, it kind of looks like Kolissa!
My ride has arrived, as well as my pilot, Robert Preston, a bloody good chap originally from England with a heavy accent, he now lives in Florida. He travels the country giving rides and demonstrations at fly-ins.
This is the service history of my 1943 Stearman. The "Nas Memphis" means it was used to train WWII pilots in Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee. When the war ended they stopped making Stearman's, only 8,585 were ever made and none produced since 1945.
Pilot Robert tops off our fuel before we kick the tires and as fighter pilots say "light the fire for fame or go down in flames." Notice the big tires, and the landing gear does not fold up, it stays down, part of the frame, they sort of look like cat's paws. Pilots say if you have to crash, this sturdy plane is the one to do it in. Let's hope I don't find out the hard way.
I'm giving the thumbs up and I love the vintage radio headset so I can chat with the pilot. Notice the extremely small windshield, resulting in over 100 mph wind inches away. I was surprised to ride in front and my pilot, Robert was in the back. There are heavy duty seat belts that Kolissa had to strap me into, it had been awhile since a lady tied me up!
This training plane had few instruments. We are taking off into 25 mph winds so the plane will lift-off once the Stearman hits 75 mph. I couldn't take any pics in the air, I was getting whipped by strong and heavy winds that would easily snatch my camera into the sky. I'm also sitting right behind the single huge 250 horse power engine. With the draft advantage of the extra wings these planes take off smooth as silk, and climb quick and almost straight up, more like a helicopter. The views from 2000 feet in the open air with winds trying to rip your shirt off were spectacular. After a half hour it was time to land, very softly, and so smooth once we touched down on the grass runway it only takes a little over 100 feet for a complete stop. After our safe landing Kolissa has to unstrap me and I head to the Stearman parking lot.
Stearman's galore here on the apron of the airport. Between these planes and the ones in the air there are over a 100 of them. I can't walk around freely but have to ride a little tramway to get up close and personal with the legendary biplanes.
This red Stearman has been refurbished, making it more valuable. These planes sell for $50,000 to $70,000 and some go for even more. Originally pilot trainers, they have been used to deliver mail, for aerobatic's, wing walkers, crop dusters and more. Today they are primarily vintage antique planes.
Stearman's as far as eye can see! ready for an all out air invasion. It looks like an outdoor aviation museum.
Well I finally caught up my old imaginary nemesis, The Red Baron, trying to hide from me. There is no pilot in site, what a chicken shit. I win by forfeit! Red Baron Pizza had six of these that did stunts at air shows until a few years ago.
Here’s just a couple of self proclaimed Flying Cowboys: Rick Stratton and Kent Orr. They’re next door neighbors from Wyoming. Although they live 50 miles apart, they hop in their Stearman's to borrow a cup of sugar or a beer. Rick on the left has been coming to the Galesburg fly-In for 17 years. He told me he considers it the best fly-in in the country.
Rick also owns this NA AT6 advanced trainer plane for WWII, it eventually replaced the Stearman as a military training plane.
I had a hard time getting info on this tiny experimental prototype, I was told by a mysterious looking character who refused to have his picture taken that I could end up in Guantonimo Bay if I kept pressing. So I decided to just move along and quit while I was ahead!
On the way out of town I had to stop and take a picture of the new statue of Carl Sandburg (who was born in Galesburg) in the square, made by Lonnie Stewart of Peoria. And it's appropriate to quote one of his famous poetry lines from "The Fog" which was written 100 years ago: "The Fog comes on little cat feet...and then moves on."
Like the cat paws of the Stearman's, and now they scatter into the wild blue yonder.