Smoke On Go

A Clash of Cultures Pt 2

The Boeing PT-13 Stearman is beautiful from any angle

“The De Havilland Tiger Moth vs Boeing Stearman”

(PART TWO) Elton Bondi – We continue Elton’s review of the Boeing Stearman.

A Clash of Cultures (Pt. 1)

Given its imposing size it is amazing that so many ab-initio pilots did their first solo in the Stearman.   Whilst easy enough to fly, this is no simple flying club Cessna.  But then again, they did break a lot of airplanes in training back then, way more than any modern flight school or insurance company would tolerate today.   I can fully understand how the Stearman was an excellent steppingstone to a Harvard and then onto a P-51 Mustang.

Aerobatics in the 450hp Stearman are dreamlike with all that power, if flown properly; the aircraft never seems to run out of energy.   You feel that you can loop and roll until you run out of fuel.  This is poetic ‘gentleman aerobatics’ at its best; smoothly arcing upward blending curves and lines to paint a massive dynamic picture in the sky, accompanied by the synchronised orchestra of a growling radial engine.

Kinetic energy is effortlessly exchanged for potential energy and back again, in a never-ending pendulum like dance.  This pure open cockpit poetry in motion, and there is nothing quite like it.

The rudder is a must use item in the Stearman, especially during takeoff and landing to keep her straight.

Landing the Stearman is also not as difficult as one might think.  It responds well to rudder input even at low speed; but it is not as ‘skittish’ or ‘squirrely’ as shorter coupled taildraggers tend to be.  Just remember to be very proactive with ailerons in countering a cross wind when landing; there is a lot of wing area, and a lot of weight too, and so you don’t want to even begin swinging and swaying.  Stay well ahead of the airplane by concentrating on keeping the nose pointed straight down the runway, and the upwind mainwheel wheel firmly on the ground after touchdown, and you will be fine.  And if it bounces, don’t overreact, it will easily settle.  

Once you get used to looking down the side of the fuselage, (because there is no way you will see over the cowl or engine), the Stearman is just like any taildragger.   Because I never owned a Stearman, and got to fly a generous friend’s aircraft, I elected to fly the airplane only in relatively light winds, and so I can’t speak for how it handles in a strong crosswind.

Could an average modern-day PPL quickly master a Stearman?  – Yes I truly believe so.  Initially it is not easy a taildragger as say a Decathlon or Super Cub, and contra to popular belief, it does not require superhuman skills.

                                ‘Gentleman aerobatics’ in a Stearman is dreamlike and purely poetic.

About 20 or so years ago, a few friends and I flew some vintage aircraft from South Africa to Victoria Falls and then around Southern Zimbabwe.  Our gaggle included a Chipmunk and a Stearman, amongst other aircraft.

One of our fuel stops (because you need lots of those with a slow cruising, fuel guzzling 450hp Stearman) was at the old Induna airfield near Bulawayo. This airfield was once a World War Two RAF training base.  

It was also at that time home to the sadly now discontinued Matabeleland Flying Club (or was it called the Induna flying club? – I can’t recall).  

The hour was late, and we were to be based at a friend’s airstrip at Gwanda for the night, which was about 40Nm to the South of Induna (about 30mins flying).  So, we had fuel up fast, and get going quickly in order to make Gwanda by nightfall.

As we all taxied in and shut down by the flying club house, an elderly man approached our aircraft.   I am fairly certain that he had tears in his eyes, as he described to us how he learnt to fly in a Stearman as an RAF cadet officer 60 or so years earlier during the World War Two at a training field in North America, or was it Canada?  Anyway he went on to tell us how after the war he became an air force instructor flying Chipmunks from an airfield called Heany, near Bulawayo.  

I was as polite as I could be given the time pressures that we were facing.  I spoke with that veteran pilot for as long as I could before we had to scramble to get airborne. Unfortunately I never got his name. I have thought about him many times over the last 20 years. 

Imagine the scene: an old pilot sitting outside on the veranda of the local flying club, enjoying a sunset beer, when suddenly from the west comes the once familiar rumbling sound of an old radial engine, and then totally unannounced a ‘ghost’ aircraft from his youth suddenly appears, lands, taxies and then stops within metres of himself.

I am not fully certain that he had tears in his eyes when he told me his story with the Stearman, but I know that I was certainly touched by the significance of that moment.

Nostalgia at its best…




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