The devil is in the details

A slightly different rudder leads a master restorer to a true aviation find


It has been said, “the devil is in the details.” This is especially so in aviation. Whether you are flying or fixing an airplane, the details matter.

For an aircraft museum it is doubly important. The Western Antique Airplane and Automobile Museum (WAAAM) in Hood River, Ore., prides itself as having the most authentically restored aircraft in its collection. This attention to detail led to discovering and buying a very special airplane, the prototype 1933 Stearman Model 70, NX571Y, which is now being restored at the museum by the head of restoration, Tom Murphy, for museum founder Terry Brandt.

NX571Y was the prototype for what became the Stearman Model 75 primary trainers of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army Air Corps. The Model 75, in all its guises, trained the majority of the pilots who served in World War II.

In the post-war years, the Stearman Model 75 soldiered on as the backbone of cropduster operations. The stout airframe protected the duster like it had the primary student. Duster lore is replete with stories of Stearmans having sudden impact with immoveable objects and still flying home. Today, the Model 75 has all but retired from the working world of duster flying, enjoying a status as a vintage showpiece.

Close to 30 years ago, Tom Murphy and Terry Brandt went to a CT “Red” Jensen Auction looking for a Stearman Model 75 to restore. There were a variety of vintage airplanes at the auction, but most were Model 75 Stearmans.

The two men remember that the auction wasn’t very organized. For the most part instruments, seats, and windscreens were stacked and sold in one lot. Wings were stacked and sold in another, while tail feathers were stacked and sold in yet another. There was little effort to put wings, tails, engines, and fuselages together in one basic airframe package. Because of this, Murphy bought a stack of tail feathers that came out of a shed. He’d figured he’d use the parts he could and sell the rest later.

Looking over his newly purchased loot later, one of the tail feathers caught his eye. While it had the classic Stearman shape, the placement of the rudder bellcrank was wrong. He didn’t give it much more thought and got on with the rest of the auction.

But later that night, he began to ruminate on the construction details of that single rudder. What nagged him most was the placement of the rudder bellcrank. Instead of being on the bottom of the rudder, it was higher up on the tubular spar, above the plane of the horizontal stabilizer and elevator. He began to look at the rest of the rudder in detail. The hinges were also different and very complicated. They were a ball bearing type, press fit into the hinges. The hinges were then installed by sliding on the main spar of the rudder before the ribs were welded on. They were not replaceable once installed.

It was not built like a typical Stearman rudder, but it did have the typical profile of a Stearman. Cutting away the fabric revealed the rudder had welded sections of tubular ribs that lengthened them. That modification created the rudder shape that is definitely Stearman. But Murphy knew it would not have been built like that at the Wichita factory.

This small part of an old airplane continued to gnaw at Murphy. He thought it seemed like a lot of work to modify one like that. No self-respecting cropduster would make such a costly and time-consuming repair, he would just put another rudder on. After all, these airplanes were sold for $500 each after the war.

So Murphy pulled out his Stearman Guidebook and paged through the pictures until he saw something very interesting. He stopped on a picture of the one and only Stearman Model 70, the 1933 prototype of the famous line of Stearman trainers, NX571Y. There it was, the rudder cable exiting the fuselage above the horizontal stabilizer and connecting at mid-rudder to the exposed bellcrank of the rudder — and it all clicked.

The hinges were not meant to be replaced on a one-off prototype, proof-of-concept airplane. The splices were there because, as the Stearman was flown, the company discovered it needed more rudder authority so, in typical fashion, they added more length to the ribs by splicing instead of building it all over again.

Murphy called Brandt to tell him what he had discovered. He was sure that the rudder and vertical stabilizer were from the Model 70 prototype. After studying the photo in the guidebook, Murphy thought the airframe and wings on the page in front of him had been sold at the auction during the day. There had been a fuselage that just looked different and what looked to be a set of Model 75 wings but they had flat-bottomed ribs, different ailerons, and rounded wingtips.

Brandt’s immediate response: “We need to own that.”

When Murphy asked him what he wanted to spend, there was no hesitation: “Whatever it takes.”

When Murphy returned to the auction the next day, he found the airplane and its new owner. To the casual observer, the Model 70 looked enough like the Model 75 that most would think it was just another old Stearman.

Murphy soon discovered the man didn’t realize what he’d purchased. He thought he bought an old Stearman Model 75 for $1,000, not a piece of aviation history. At first Murphy offered him what he paid, $1000, for the ship. “Nah, not for sale,” the man said.

Undeterred, Murphy shot the breeze with the man and then offered him twice what he paid for it, $2000.

“Nah,” the man said, explaining he and his partner wanted a Stearman to rebuild as he began loading his purchases on a trailer. He had also purchased a Grumman TBM project. Not one to take no for an answer, Murphy walked away to think. As he walked around, he rescued the cockpit sheet metal with the faded original blue paint and some odds and ends from a dumpster. The auction was wrapping up and folks were throwing away what had not been sold. He carried it over to the man and said, ”You’ll need these things.” The man thanked him and proceeded to look at the rotten fabric covering the elevators and ailerons on his TBM.

Now Murphy is a crackerjack dope and fabric man and he looked at the tail feathers and offered to do the dope and fabric work in exchange for the Stearman. “Nah, nah, I really want the Stearman,” he said.

Murphy continued with the small talk and then said, “Hey I would really like to own this airplane, how about three times your purchase price?”

“Nah, (pause), nah (pause), nah (pause), I really want a Stearman, but man, just look at this rotten fabric on my TBM,” the man said, beginning to waver.

So Murphy offered him three times his purchase price and said he would recover all of the fabric-covered control surfaces.

“You have a deal,” said the man, never knowing what he had just sold.

So, the Stearman Model 70 joined the rest of Terry Brandt’s collection and awaited restoration.

Shortly after the auction, Brandt and Murphy contacted everyone who was there and asked if they had any parts for the Model 70 within the lots of parts that were purchased. They were able to locate the set of cabane struts for the Model 70, as well as other smaller pieces.

Over the next few years, Murphy continued to research information on the airplane before beginning the restoration process. The parent company of Stearman, The Boeing Co., provided a comprehensive photo collection that proved indispensable to the Model 70 restoration effort, according to Murphy.

Fast forward to 1993 when Murphy saw a classified ad for a complete, firewall forward Lycoming 215-hp radial engine for sale in Nevada. The ad said: “R-680 Lycoming engine, perfect engine for antique airplane, complete with accessories, $,1950.” Thinking it was a misprint, he called and asked if it was for a Stinson or Stearman. The seller said it was a 215-hp Lycoming engine complete with magnetos, carburetor, air intake, and oil tank, all for $1,950. The seller said that it was definitely not a Stinson engine mount, but was really similar to a Stearman mount, although different.

Murphy knew a 215-hp Lycoming was installed on the Model 70. He used his collection of photos from the Boeing archive and as he talked to the seller he asked if it looked like this and if it had this detail there. The response was affirmative on everything. He did not even hesitate: “Consider it sold.”

He went to pick it up and saw it was complete with the sheetmetal fairings in exactly the same shade of faded blue as the rest of the unrestored airplane. The engine mount fit perfectly to the Model 70 fuselage firewall fittings. Looking through FAA records, he confirmed by serial number that this engine was on the Model 70.

Also in the archive were photos of the rudder as the shape evolved. Stearman added surface area to it, first using sheet metal to get the right size, then welding in the rib splices to be covered in fabric. Since there are no known drawings, Murphy is fabricating a new horizontal stabilizer and elevators from the pictures. The elevator hinges will be modeled after the rudder hinges.

The Boeing-Stearman photo archive also helped confirm the wings were indeed Model 70 wings. The wings have a longer aileron than the Model 75. Boeing-Stearman used wooden compression members in the Model 70, unlike the Model 75, which uses metal compression members in the wings. The wings also used a set of streamlined drag wires inside one particular bay of the upper wings, not round wires. It was as if the factory used off-the-shelf tail brace wires that fit instead of making them from scratch, he said. The pictures revealed all this detail, which again confirmed the identity of the Model 70 wings.

Murphy is now devoting his full attention to the Stearman Model 70 restoration. He proudly points out a small stamped number on the fuselage. Close examination using a flashlight reveals one clearly stamped number, 70-3502-10. The prefix in that little collection of numbers is the most important, for it denotes the aircraft model number put there by the Boeing Aircraft Company-Stearman Division — the Model 70.

Tom Murphy explains restoration plan to a visitor.

The master craftsman will restore the airplane to like-new condition for WAAAM. No doubt many folks will see her. Some may just see a big old biplane, some may appreciate her for her rarity, yet others may revel in her as the first of many.

Murphy and Brandt appreciate any and all who take the time to come and see the airplanes in the collection. WAAAM is about preserving aviation’s past — and for Murphy and Brandt, it all comes down to paying attention to the details. You never know where they will lead you.

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