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Stearman History

Just one look and it’s obvious that the Stearman is an aircraft with nostalgic presence.  It became an unexpected success during World War II, yet it is one of the least known airplanes of the war.

Built mostly in the 1940’s by Boeing’s Stearman division in Wichita, Kansas.  The aircraft was named the Kaydet.  Nice try! Hardly anyone called them Kaydet’s, and almost everyone called them Stearman’s, then and now.

8,584 were built for the military.  It goes largely unrecognized for it’s contribution as the primary trainer for more U.S. WWII pilots than all other’s combined.  It probably holds the record for washing out more Cadet’s too.

Navy aviation Cadet’s, whose trainers were a sunny yellow, and alleged to make crosswind landings either thrilling or terrifying, gave it another name.  Given a moments inattention after landing, a Stearman could ground-loop, which is not usually dangerous, except to a  pilot’s pride.  The Navy students called it the “Yellow Peril”.

The Stearman stands nearly 10-feet tall, 25-feet in length, and 32-feet wing-tip-to-wing-tip.  It’s top speed, the specifications claim, is a 125-135 mph.  “Yeh, sure with a strong tail wind”.  Most agree it is actually about 100 mph.

Its simple, rugged construction, fabric-covered wooden wings, single-leg landing gear and an over-built welded-steel fuselage made it ideal as a trainer for novice pilots.  Most were built with 220-hp., 7-cylinder, Continental radial engines, but many had Lycoming and a few got the Jacobs.

The Navy designation was N2S2 through N2S5.  The Army Air Corps used PT-13, PT-17, and PT-18.  Overwhelmingly they were primary trainers, but some were fitted for night flight and instrument training.

The Army ordered the first Stearman’s in 1936, and the Navy had the last ones in service, which were retired in 1948.  Stearman’s never received much public attention during the war – after all, nobody bragged about a mere trainer.   Cadets had to fly them before moving on to fighters and bombers.  The Stearman was the airplane they left behind.

After the war the slow, heavy biplane turned into an agricultural star.  Crop dusters installed hoppers in the forward cockpit, added high-lift wings and replaced the engines with 450-hp Pratt & Whitney’s.  Strong and sturdy enough to save many cadets during their pilot training, Stearman’s protected even more agricultural pilots who flew them mercilessly.   In their low-level, high-risk environment many agricultural pilots crashed their Stearman’s, but these pilots almost always walked away.  Pilots often hurt Stearman’s, but Stearman’s rarely injure pilots or passengers.  In the ‘60s the Stearman was again outdated, this time, by the more modern AG-Cats to do the crop dusting.

And that could have been the end of the Stearman story, but it is not.

Pilots like flying the Stearman.  It offers serenity and peace of mind just from flying it.  Using stick and rudder, you can feel the controls, breath fresh air and fly by the seat of your pants.   Because of these qualities, the Stearman entered into a new phase of flying in this modern world.  Now many pilots and passengers enjoy flying “like it was back then”.  All over the country Stearman’s have been dismantled, repaired, and lovingly restored to their original condition.  Many are proudly displayed at Air Shows and Fly-Ins.   Others are offered to the public for the wonderful experience of flying in the open cockpit.

Today World War II combat pilots and WASP’s (Women Airforce Service Pilots) fondly reminisce of their first flying experience with the Stearman as they trained to become pilots.  The Stearman, along with other military aircraft are the focus of many treasured memories and stories to be heard.

 But what of the future for the Stearman? With an estimated 2,500 still flying, the Stearman biplane is, collectively speaking, in good hands.  Stearman’s were made to fly and we like to think there will always be people who were born to fly them.           

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