Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Stearman That Changed Me


A 70-year-old airplane teaches that flying is a gift to be savored


My palms were sweating as I approached the hangar. Behind locked doors sat one of the most storied airplanes in aviation: the Stearman PT-17, and I was going to fly it. I felt like I had been invited backstage to meet Elvis. I had been dreaming about this iconic airplane since I was a kid who spent Saturday afternoons staring up at the type from the weeds of my local airport.
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My palms were sweating as I approached the hangar. Behind locked doors sat one of the most storied airplanes in aviation: the Stearman PT-17, and I was going to fly it. I felt like I had been invited backstage to meet Elvis. I had been dreaming about this iconic airplane since I was a kid who spent Saturday afternoons staring up at the type from the weeds of my local airport. There was something unexplainable about the Stearman; the barking radial engine and formidable structure of the WWII trainer made it seem like a giant that could squash a person in an instant. The airplane fascinated me from then on. Someday, I had promised myself, I would fly one.

Now, decades later, I had the chance. I pushed open the hangar doors to let the morning light pour onto the classic airplane. I was there with Vic Schneider, the CFI with whom I had earned my tailwheel endorsement. As the heavy doors rolled to a stop, I looked into the hangar, and my heart skipped a beat. This Stearman had been meticulously restored; the California sun reflected off its chrome yellow RCAF paint job. “She’s somethin’, huh?” queried Vic, breaking the silence. I ran my hand over her wing fabric the way a dancer follows the contours of his partner’s waist. This was going to be fun.

We climbed into the austere military cockpit, where Vic briefed me on starting procedures. We got to mixture-rich, throttle and “Clear!” and the big 220 hp radial coughed up its morning sleepiness in the most glorious cloud of white smoke I’d ever absorbed. The heady “potaydoh-potaydoh” sound of the engine was warm and comforting, not unlike warm honey on homemade bread. I eased in a fistful of the no-nonsense throttle and began to taxi.

The takeoff roll seemed almost too slow as I raised the tail and put in a good bit of right rudder. The big Lycoming engine didn’t even sound like it was trying hard, and we were airborne in seconds. This machine was powerful and responsive! We practiced some easy aerobatics and I delighted in the beautiful delirium of cranking the stick over and watching the world go around while shadows played on the wings. Aerobatics in this airplane seemed strangely relaxing. My tailwheel training paid off as I did three-point and wheel landings, then brought it in one last time. There wasn’t a lottery winner on the planet more elated.

As I settled into the ride home, I couldn’t stop thinking about the 90 minutes I had spent in that Stearman. I was talking to a pilot friend a few days later, and she said something interesting; she told me I seemed changed. I felt changed. In the days that passed, I tried to distill my aerial epiphany. First, it affirmed the undeniable fact that learning to fly a taildragger makes you a better pilot. Because of their inherent design, airplanes like the PT-17 demand precise and deliberate rudder control on landing, coordination in the air and complete attention on the ground. They teach precision by demanding it.

Second, the Stearman reminded me of what flying is all about. Flying in an open cockpit is absolutely the ultimate freedom. I had never felt as unshackled as I did from that perch. It was as if the wind literally carried away my stresses, just as it does the heat from the cooling fins on the cylinders. Mine was an airborne therapy session.

Flying this grand old gal made me feel grateful that I could experience such freedom and exhilaration, and that I could fulfill the dream I had tucked away all these years. It made me realize that anything is possible. Keeping a dream alive is vital to the soul, and the journey to that dream is just as rewarding as achieving it. I’ve since decided to get checked out in the Stearman, and I fly it whenever I can. The Stearman made me grateful to be a pilot, and I learned that flight is a gift—a most precious one to be savored.

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