By W. M. TARRANT
Despite the widespread effects of tropical storm Gordon, 64 Stearman biplanes made the trek to Galesburg, Illinois, for the 47th National Stearman Fly-In. The annual gathering of the World War II primary trainers was held Sept. 3-8, 2018, at the Galesburg Municipal Airport (KGBG).
The first fly-in, held in September 1972, attracted 27 Stearmans and was intended as a one-time event, an experiment, to see how many Stearman fliers would show up.
The “experiment” was organized by Tom Lowe and the late Jim Leahy. Leahy had a hangar at the Galesburg Municipal Airport where he kept his Stearman, so Galesburg became home to the fly-in.
The event has grown over the years to become the country’s largest gathering of the iconic World War II training planes.
In 1929 Stearman Aircraft joined the United Aircraft and Transportation Corporation, which was owned by William Boeing. Lloyd Stearman remained president of the Stearman division until 1930, then resigned in 1931. In 1934, due to the government breakup of UATC to separate aircraft manufacturing and air transport, Stearman became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Boeing.
The Boeing Model 75, or Stearman as it is commonly called, was the most prolific primary training aircraft of World War II, with 8,585 built. The plane was in production from 1936 through 1945. It bears Stearman’s name because it is based on one of his designs.
The plane also is often referred to as the PT-17, the Army Air Corps designation. In addition to the PT-17, depending upon the engine or particular modifications, it was also the PT-13 and PT-18, as well as the PT-27 for Canadian use. Naval versions were NS-1, -2, -3, -4 and -5.
The planes used Continental, Lycoming, and Jacobs radial engines, the choice depending on what was on hand at the factory.
Many of the planes survive today due to their post-war civilian use.
After the war the big biplane became an airshow performer, painted in bright colors thrilling crowds with aerobatics and smoke and noise.
Next came crop duster careers. Though agricultural work was brutal and claimed many casualties, it kept plenty of the planes active until flying World War II warbirds became popular.
Beneath the fabric covering is a tough, durable, welded steel frame, factory treated inside with linseed oil to prevent rust. This frame helped the plane survive the rigors of air cadet flight training, as well as the rough and tumble world of crop dusting.
It’s estimated there are about 1,500 currently on the FAA registry.
Over the course of the years, the attitude toward restoration has changed. Initially, customizing the planes with bold paint schemes and custom interiors was the order of the day. As the planes aged, their historical significance became more recognized and the trend shifted to making them represent their original purpose. Some restorers refurbish the planes down to the tiniest of details to maintain historical integrity.
At the 2018 fly-in the planes ran the gamut from custom paint jobs and 450-hp engines to planes detailed to historical accuracy to those planes that fall somewhere in between the two extremes.
The fly-in featured daily flying events for pilots, though some activities were cancelled due to weather.
Seminars were held, some for all pilots, some geared specifically toward Stearman owners.
Special events were held Saturday for children, including a chance to “fly” a World War II-era Link trainer provided by the Heritage in Flight Museum in Lincoln, Illinois.
Lisa Woldow, who guided the kids through their Link experience, believes in exposing children to aviation possibilities.
“You never know who you might touch, who might catch that spark,” she says. “I believe kids’ activities are important to bring families to the airport.”
Also for the kids, as well as adults, Stearman pilot Hans Nordsiek of Bergeijk, The Netherlands, known as The Storyteller, wove inspiring and fanciful tales of flight.
The purpose of the fly-in is for Stearman pilots to gather and fly and have fun. And they have succeeded. The fly-in has become a yearly homecoming or family reunion for many.
“We came for the planes,” says Ric Woldow who, with wife Lisa, owns and flies a former Red Baron Pizza Stearman. “But we come back for the people.”
They first attended the fly-in in 1984 and bought their first Stearman in 1991.
K. C. Hill, who has been involved with the fly-in for many years, summed it all up succinctly: “Camaraderie.”
“I take vacation for Oshkosh and for this fly-in,” he adds.
Howard and Julie Thomas are fly-in regulars, flying in from Hernando, Mississippi, in their 450-hp Stearman, “The Queen of Memphis.”
“We have come to the Stearman Fly-In since 2004,” Julie explains. “We carried our boys around the first year — they were ages 3 and 5. Now both boys have learned to fly and all four of us fly the Stearman.”
The fly-in provides a great venue for airplane watchers, photographers, and enthusiasts where they can witness classic 75-year-old airplanes in action. In fact, if one uses his or her imagination, the sights and sounds stir images of a long-ago era of radial engines and cadet pilot training as young men took their first steps toward becoming the combat airmen of the “greatest generation.”
There is no cost to watch the planes, though a narrated tram ride is available for $1 that takes visitors up close to the planes. The seminars are free and open to all. For people wanting to experience open cockpit flying, rides are available for a fee.
The success of the fly-in is due to the support it receives from the City of Galesburg, the citizens, and the support from the FBO Jet Air, as well as from the enthusiasm of the participants.
The fly-in officially begins on Labor Day each year. The dates for next year’s event are Sept. 2-7.