I’ve wanted to try and fly a Strearman for well over 40 years. It’s been a childhood dream. Finally I got the opportunity. It sure humbled me, and for the life of me, I will never figure out how my father soloed in one after a lousy 15 hours of dual time. As I write this, I had a thought; Dad was probably crammed into a Link Trainer for about a month or six. Still, I’m in awe.
The IP outright laughed when he saw me in my barnstormer outfit, and it reminded me of my father telling me that the first time he showed up on the flight line somewhat similarly clad that his IP had done the same thing. Dad wasn’t alone. Most student cloud hoppers did the same thing, and the IPs got a hoot out of it. The next day, humbled, they showed up in coveralls like everyone else.
I pointed it out to the IP that this was probably going to be a once in a lifetime shot, so I had decided to do it right. He grew somewhat serious and told me he saw my point.
I think I impressed him when I stuffed my scarf into my jacket and started buttoning things down. My camera went into a buttoned pocket, as did my bridgework, and everything else. I could easily afford to replace a smashed camera, but lives and museum quality airplanes are harder to replace. Inside the airplane are control cables and things of that nature and an unsecured camera or whatever could jam them if it wedged in somewhere.
Also, the thought of being strangled with my scarf by a pissed-off IP wasn’t too savory a thought, either.
The Cubs and Champs I’ve flown have nice, cozy cockpits with a comfortable layout. The cockpit of the Stearman is cavernous; it fools you until you climb in. When you climb in, you feel like a carrot being dropped into a washtub.
I’m fairly small, about 5’6”, and unlike the Cubs, where you basically strap on a lap belt, you pull on a full harness. When I did, I found that my feet barely reached the rudder pedals. It was uncomfortable. I also had to lean way forward to reach the stick. My guess for this crappy-for-me layout is that the average Aviation Cadet was wearing a whole bunch of crap, parachutes, survival gear and God knows what else. The gear would push you both up and forward.
On the Cubs, I always was able to nestle in cozily with both feet firmly on the pedals, and the stick between my knees where I could rest my forearm on my thigh to both rest and steady it. I was to soon find out how important that is.
The next thing you notice is that you can’t see a damned thing ahead of you. I wasn’t too surprised about this on the ground. Looking at the ship itself in the 3 point position you sort of figure that. It sort of made me wish I could perch the Seeing Eye Cat up on my shoulder, or do something.
The plane is taxied by weaving side to side so you can see where you’re going, and takeoffs are interesting, too. On takeoff, you pick out a reference line along the side of the runway to stay on the strip. This is pretty disconcerting, especially to a guy that is used to high winged monoplanes where you have a clear view of everything.
When the tail of the bird came up on takeoff, I still could not see out straight ahead. This is the first vehicle of any kind I can remember that has a blind spot from about ten-thirty to one-thirty. Scary!
Couple all of this with the fact that the front landing gear, the wheels are a little too close together and you now have an airplane that is one ground-looping son of a bitch to control on the ground. My IP later told me that there were two kinds of Stearman pilots: Those that had ground-looped and those that eventually would.
Unless we were in a nose down attitude, it was like this for the entire flight.
My IP had a more limited view than I did from the back seat.
For a professional seaman like myself, seeing a horizon is an important thing for keeping a sense of balance, and I managed to keep mine by looking off to one side or another. Of course, I did this by looking out at, say one-thirty, but I tried something. I looked straight ahead. It wasn’t too bad for me, but my imagination let me know that a newbie trainee could probably put himself into a nice case of vertigo if he wasn’t careful, and you have to remember that the Aviation Cadets of the time were often guys that came straight from the farm.
We got upstairs all right and climbed at a halfway decent rate, all things considered. The IP ran the length of the runway low, to build up airspeed and we converted it to climb. Stall speed on this ship is about 53 knots, we climbed at about 60. Cruising speed is well under 100. It’s a slow bird. The controls are a bit mushy, which is probably a good thing in a primary trainer. Newbies tend to over steer.
When we reached altitude, I tried my hand at figure 8s and was appalled. I felt I had forgotten everything, when in fact, I had simply forgotten only a lot. It was damned difficult keeping the ship coordinated. I knew right off the bat what the problem was. Not only was I trying to work the rudder pedals with my tippie-toes, I was operating the stick while leaning forward with no support from either a knee or a thigh to steady myself. I was all over the sky.
To you non-flyers, I’ll explain it. The stick serves to control two attitudes, pitch and roll. Side-to-side controls roll, fore and aft controls pitch. The problem I had was that while reaching out I was so uncomfortable and unsteady that I was pushing or pulling the stick a little diagonally. This meant that my turns were either climbing somewhat or diving. Keeping it level was a gold-plated bastard. Coupled with no horizon in front of me, it was difficult at best. I didn’t do as well as I had expected, to say the least.
The stall characteristics were interesting. We chopped power and she just hung there and dropped like a stone in attitude. All we had to do to resume flying was add power and everything resumed as normal. Of course, we could have simply pushed the nose down a little, but you get the general idea. All in all, aloft she was a pretty forgiving airplane.
Landing was interesting to say the least. As soon as we flared, we were pretty much blind again. At speed, it’s somewhat scary until you slow down to taxi speed. Then it’s back to weaving back and forth to see where you’re going all the way down the taxiway.
I asked why the Army and Navy used these easy to tear up airplanes as primary trainers, and was told that it was the available technology at the time. My knowledge of history says otherwise. Piper Aircraft was making the J-3 just before the war and I think that would have made a somewhat better trainer. They were available; it would have been a simple case of upping production. J-3s were used all throughout the war as observation and spotting planes.
I could see just what happened. The Stearman was a prewar item in the supply system and it was simply a case of increasing production. I also thing that amount higher-ups, there was a certain amount of ‘in my day’ thinking. IMO, the Stearman was obsolete at the time.
In addition to that, it was very labor intensive to maintain, repair and keep up, also the radial engine was pretty costly to fly at about 15 GPH of avgas. Incidentally, the engine is/was rated for 73 octane, unavailable today. Until a few years ago, they used to use 80/87, and even now that’s no longer made.
Truth is, the Aviation Cadets kept tearing these airplanes up left and right on landings and taxiing, and keeping them flying was a full-time job. The wings are wood, the fuselage is metal, a jigged up steel frame with aluminum stringers. Considering that the wings were probably the most often torn up part of the airplane because of ground loops, it probably took an army of carpenters to keep up with repairs. A J-3 wouldn’t have had these problems, and would have been a lot cheaper and easier to repair and operate.
I’m glad I got the romance of the open cockpit era out of my system, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. However, if I decide that I want to go upstairs again and seriously fly something, I think it would be a Cub, a Champ or something along these lines, or even a Cessna. I am still tempted to go up in the Stearman again, but under different terms. I’d want a parachute to sit on to lift me up some, and I’d have to find some way of pushing the seat forward, and/or wear platform shoes. Tippie-toes don’t cut it. Nor does having an unsteady stick hand sticking out.
FWIW, the IP had over 20,000 hours in the air when he got into the Stearman game and he told me that he took over ten hours dual and another ten or more hours before he was remotely comfortable with the airplane. I’ll go to my grave astonished that my father soloed in 15 hours dual instruction.
I call this practice in case an oversized gorilla climbs the Empire State Building.