A Luscombe without wings – taming the Stearman

Not long after I got my pilot’s license, I met Don, Ed, Randy, John, and Jerry, who lived at a mysterious private strip just northwest of the Clemson airport. I began spending my Saturdays with Ed and Jerry, who were finishing up the restoration of two Aeronca Champs.

“If you’re doing one, you might as well do two,” said Ed, from behind his paper-mounded desk in the back of the hangar, where he held court on most days.

Jerry showed me the basics of aircraft repair technique. Take your time, do it right. Never hurry. Smooth, big-band music played softly on the old stereo. Signed pictures of P-51s and photos of wrecked airplanes with smiling pilots posing next to them fluttered on the old Frigidaire on one side of a cluttered work bench.

Stearman with Dan Schmeidt
A big, beautiful airplane – just not much of a glider.

Once, Jerry and I wandered down to Randy’s to borrow a tool. A giant yellow biplane stood tall, next to other old airplanes. “Wow,” I said. “A Stearman,” said Jerry. “You can’t see much, but it’s pretty easy as long as you stay on the grass.” I could not imagine what he was talking about – I had 78 hours in a Cessna 172.

More than a decade has passed since then. I bought a Luscombe on Ed’s quiet suggestion, and flew it enough to wear out an engine. Jerry went West one day earlier this year, and time marches on.

Randy’s Stearman, however, seems frozen in time. Its patched yellow paint looks the same. It stands tall, with an oily Continental 220 on the front.

“We need to get you checked out in the Stearman,” said Harrison. How about Tuesday? I’ll make it work, I said.

Nothing surprising on the preflight, although it is amazing how light the controls are. Push rods and ball bearings, said Harrison.

Ball sweep, controls free and correct. Mag check, instruments OK. Easy on the throttle, keep it straight. Climb at 80. Cruise at 1700. Clearing turns, slow flight, stalls, steep turns. Head back for some landings.

“Power to idle, turn base now,” said Harrrison, although we were abeam the touchdown point. Maintain at least 80, more is better. Jesus, you have to point the nose down at about a 45 degree angle. Clear the throttle, smoke belches from the sneezing Continental as I move the worn throttle slowly forward.

“Keep lots of energy on it. If you bounce, go around.” I held it off and felt Harrison on the stick making sure it stayed off, and felt the ground gently come to meet us, forward on the stick. Sneeze, cough, roar, we’ll do it again, and again.

It was heavy, and seemed to mainly drag through the air. But the controls were a delight, and it mostly felt like my Luscombe, except for the gliding part. Maybe like a Luscombe without wings. The oily radial made me smile when it sneezed, belched, and roared.

Smoother on the throttle, Randy told me later.

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