Stearman

I have been attending the annual Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for years. Many have been attending it since its start in 1954, and have never missed a year. In 1994 I was fortunate to fly to Oshkosh with my friend Royce Clifford, and in her 1941 Stearman. The trip took four days from Gillespie Field in San Diego, California. Royce quipped “It’s a Disneyland for pilots!” a day after arriving (it was her first time too). It has so much going on and the convention is highly recommended to anyone involved in aviation

The first leg, Saturday, was to Yuma, AZ. Temperature upon landing was 110 degrees, which caused the 1939 Dodge brakes to lock after landing when applying brakes during a turn off the runway. This is typical of these types of brakes. There we were, stuck on the runway. Luckily there is more than one runway at Yuma and we didn’t tie up any air traffic.

Stearman on ramp

Fly a biplane from California to Wisconsin? Of course!

Royce acted quickly, as she knew the routine. She jumped out and made an adjustment with a screwdriver she kept onboard, thus freeing the locked brakes. We refueled, flew one more leg to Tuscan, Arizona, and called it a day. Thunderstorms and turbulence were along our proposed route.

Rising at 5:30 on Sunday, we were in the air by dawn. We landed at Deming and Los Cruces, New Mexico, for fuel. We then plotted our next leg that was around and between two restricted areas that lay above the White Sands National Park. This was in order to cross the Southern Rocky Mountains at one of the lowest points possible, Alamogordo at 8,500 ft. A good friend, one who has rebuilt and flown many antique airplanes including two Stearmans, wisely advised we take the southern route. The density altitude we would encounter in Northern Arizona that time of year most likely would become an issue (Royce’s Stearman has the 220 HP engine).

After our takeoff from Los Cruces, Royce left the navigation to me. As we were scooting north up the corridor between the two restricted areas, I noticed on the chart that we had to descend to 500 AGL to go under a sector of the restricted area. We were at 4000 ft MSL.

A quick descent was initiated and we switched off our transponder. Upon reaching Alamogordo, New Mexico, we turned east towards the mountains. The 220 horsepower radial engine lumbered the Stearman up over the pine tree-covered mountainside.

Royce trusted me as I continued to lead her along an alpine road (Highway 82) from the front seat, since it was easier for me to see. Winds were calm and we seemed to float over Cloudcroft, a mountain village at 9000 ft. Then we flew over by an observatory. Twenty minutes later we were flying over the high desert of New Mexico.

We landed at Roswell, New Mexico, for lunch and fuel, and then flew the last leg of the day to Amarillo, Texas. Royce arranged to hangar the Stearman because severe thunderstorms with hail were expected that evening.

Rain

Weather is a personal experience in an open cockpit airplane.

We took off from Amarillo Monday at 7:15 and climbed to 5500 ft. It was pretty weather all the way to Wichita, Kansas. We did encounter a broken cumulus layer at 4500 ft. We chose to fly over it since our destination, Wichita, was clear.

As we flew VFR over the top, Royce realized that we would not have enough fuel to last us to Wichita. I had made a mistake when she trusted me to calculate the distance and fuel. Whoops—first time for everything I suppose. Royce saw a large break in the overcast and slowly we circled down. Under the overcast at 1500 ft AGL, we had to divert to the closest airport just to be safe. But which one and where? At that altitude it would not be easy to spot it. Thank goodness for the handheld GPS.

Royce located the nearest airport, West Woodward, Oklahoma. GPS indicated directions to steer magnetic heading 220 degrees for 33 minutes. As we tracked along the course, it was clear that the batteries in the GPS were becoming exhausted and the display screen was fading. Royce’s mechanic (we thought) had hooked up a separate electrical source from the airplane’s electrical system, but it was obvious that it wasn’t working for some reason. Royce turned the GPS off to preserve what energy was left.

We continued on heading. Ten minutes later, she turned it back on, and with a temporary surge of power, the GPS let us know West Woodward was dead ahead, 18 minutes away. About 15 minutes passed when we flew over the town and then over the airport and landed. I never asked Royce exactly how much fuel was left onboard but I’m hoping there was more than 30 minutes.

The first thing we did when we entered the FBO was to buy many AA batteries. Royce checked the oil and determined the Stearman needed two quarts. She let the line boy know. Not long after, he came back to let us know that the funnel he was using to pour the oil slipped out of his hand and down into the oil tank. He had used a funnel that was smaller than the opening. He said he might have to drain all the oil to get it out, and then added he would try to fish it out with some pinchers on the end of a long wire within a long cable.

“That’s eight gallons of oil,” Royce very patiently informed him. We told him we would go find lunch and would be back later. Hopefully by then he would have the problem fixed. We became a little doubtful.

Stearman

The Stearman smile.

We drove a courtesy car to a café named Sourdoughs. It tuned out to be a popular and independently owned restaurant. Everyone was genuinely friendly—one thing I like about Oklahoma. Most of the sandwiches were served on sourdough bread that had been baked each morning by Frank, the owner of Sourdoughs. A local reporter who was having lunch at a table near us overheard us talking about our trip with Irene, Frank’s wife. The reporter introduced herself as Helen Mossman, from The Woodward News. She asked if she could do an article on us for the paper. We happily agreed and invited her back to the airport to see the plane and take pictures.

The line boy was working on fishing the funnel out of the oil tank when we got back to the airport. He showed us how he was doing it: he used a flashlight to see down into the tank, then happened to get very lucky when he snagged the funnel as it floated by. We could just barely see it under the surface of the oil. Very clever tactic overall I thought.

After the interview and some photos, we fueled up, took off and headed for Atchison, Kansas. The following day we made the front page.

When we landed at Amelia Earhart Airport in Atchison, our next stop, we fueled up once more and settled into a motel. Later, after dinner, Royce and I took a walking tour of the town. With brochure in hand, we strolled by many historical houses, most with a totally different architectural style from the next.

Early Tuesday morning brought a quick tour of Amelia Earhart’s birthplace and then a visit to the International Forest of Friendship, one of the highlights of the trip. The “forest” is nestled on a gentle slope overlooking Lake Warnock, on the outskirts of town. It is a park with trees from all 50 states and 35 countries. Due to the challenging climate, some of the trees were faring better than others. Every year the town has a huge event celebrating Amelia’s birthday, and many aviators as well as other contributors to aviation are inducted into the Forest of Friendship each year.

We flew three legs that afternoon to Oshkosh without stopping for a real lunch, just a huge cinnamon roll from Sourdoughs. The last leg of our trip was from Cedar Rapids, where we stopped for fuel. When parking we started having a radio problem… so we thought. I filed our flight plan to Oshkosh. The field closed at 8:30pm, and sunset was 8:45. We were due to take off by 6 if we wanted to make it the airport closed for the evening.

River

Lots of great sightseeing over the Midwest.

After engine start, Royce turned on the radios. I couldn’t hear her but she could hear me. She wasn’t able to transmit to anyone. If we didn’t take off by 6, chances were slim we would make it to Oshkosh before the field closed. After several attempts, Royce shut down the engine and stood up, saying in frustration, “Well, I guess we’re not going!”

To which I replied, “Maybe it’s your headset. Let’s switch.” Sure enough, it was her headset. That was something I had learned and remembered from ground school.

We were well on our way soon after. Royce opened our flight plan, and all the way to Oshkosh we skirted a couple of rain showers, but we were able to fly a pretty straight line otherwise. I communicated back to Royce with written notes and was able to hear her transmitting.

The sun was getting closer to the horizon. As it passed behind the virga clouds in the distance, it projected gold sunbeams, which washed over the farmland and small towns. Photographers call that time of day, the hour before sunset and the hour after sunrise, the magic hour. I know why.

According to the EAA Convention VFR Procedures, we were to report over the town of Ripon, 10 miles southwest of Oshkosh. Arriving at Ripon at 8:22, we made our report. The traffic controllers sitting in the field below with binoculars instructed us to continue on. They informed us if we could not make it to Oshkosh in 8 minutes, we would have to land somewhere else.

Quickly I jotted Royce a note and just for positive inspiration. It read, “Say yes, we can make it.” (I still have all the notes.)

Eight minutes later we were given instructions to contact the tower—it was 8:30. Luckily they accepted us and we landed at 8:35. Wing walkers guided us to Antique/Classic parking. Another EAA volunteer in a golf cart kindly greeted us and gave us a ride to our campsite.

While Royce and I were wiping the dew off the wings the next morning, a man with his female companion were walking by looking at all the planes. He said to us, “Boy some guy must have promised you girls the moon to the polish that airplane.” In disbelief I said “What?!” After the man repeated himself, Royce responded, “There are other possibilities.” In as nice a tone of voice as I could conjure, I added, “This is Royce’s plane and we flew it here from San Diego.” The look of embarrassment then came over his face. His companion gently bopped him on the head with a newspaper she was carrying. We all then laughed.

Our arrival was followed by a week of fun and a couple of fly-outs. Oh and a new headset for Royce.

Patty Haley
Latest posts by Patty Haley (see all)
17 replies
  1. Dale Hill
    Dale Hill says:

    Patty, thanks for taking us along on your flight to Oshkosh! When you visited Amelia Earhart’s home did you see her Distinguished Flying Cross framed and displayed on the wall? Did you know she was the first woman to be awarded that medal for duplicating the feat for which Charles Lindbergh was also awarded one?

    Reply
    • Patty Haley
      Patty Haley says:

      You are welcome Dale. Glad you enjoyed it. I do not recall seeing the distinguished flying cross darn it, wish I had now. I did not know she was the first woman to be awarded that. If I get there again, I’ll be sure to look for it. Thank you.

      Patty

      Reply
  2. Dale Hill
    Dale Hill says:

    Patty, the West Woodward airport brought back memories from when I was a T-38 IP at Vance AFB in Enid, OK. Had a student going straight down on an aerobatic maneuver (probably a cloverleaf or the back side of a loop) and he went supersonic right over West Woodward when we were below 15,000 AGL. The bottom of our area was 10,000 MSL and we were only supposed to go ‘super’ when we were in one of our high blocks (i.e., over 30,000 MSL). I imagine somebody at the airport thought they had heard thunder on a clear day when we ‘boomed’ them. As required, I reported the incident, but nobody made any claims for broken glass or dead chickens!

    Reply
    • Patty Haley
      Patty Haley says:

      Good story Dale. I can just imagine. Have you submitted any of those stories to Air Facts? Have to look now. ;-) One test pilot once told me, low level supersonic fly by’s were enthusiastically welcomed by the public, for while anyway. Guessing this was in the late 50’s or 60’s.

      Reply
      • Dale Hill
        Dale Hill says:

        Nope, I was at Vance in the mid 70’s. I have had a couple of articles and Friday photos published in Air Facts and really enjoy reading those submitted by others. My first was about my late father-in-law who was a B-17 top turret gunner in WWII and was shot down on his 2nd mission. It’s called “The Story of A Winged Boot and the Men Who Wore It”.

        Reply
      • Dale Hill
        Dale Hill says:

        Patty, I have also flown in that restricted airspace around Alamogordo, NM in both AT-38s and the F-16s. Several of those flights were directly over the Trinity Site where the first nuclear bomb was exploded. I wouldn’t want to walk those grounds!

        Reply
    • Byron Yeatman
      Byron Yeatman says:

      Dale
      I grew up in Enid watching the T-38’s all day. Probably saw you flying over. I am now 64 and got my PPL at 62. Watching all the trainers always made me want to fly but it took me till 62 to do it.

      Reply
      • Dale Hill
        Dale Hill says:

        Byron, I’m glad you followed your dream and can now “…slip the surly bonds of earth and dance the sky on laughter-silvered wings” with the rest of us aviation nuts.

        Reply
  3. DP
    DP says:

    Last paragraph was a tear jerker for me when I realized my own bias. I had read the article just assuming the author was a man – as I dove into the article without catching the author’s name. “There are other possibilities”! Excellent read – thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  4. Rick
    Rick says:

    Great story! Thanks.

    When I decided to taking flying lessons back in the mid-70s, I sought out a female instructor, because I didn’t want some young testosterone driven hot-rod pilot building hours to show off while teaching me. One name kept popping up–Mary Hallman. She was incredible. One of the first things she said to me was “Anybody can teach you to fly, I’m going to teach you when to stay on the ground.” That one sentence, no doubt, saved me a lot of grief over the decades. Mary is retired now after a long career that wound up with her being an FAA Examiner. She gave check-rides to airline jet pilots.

    I loved your experience, Patty, thanks for sharing it with us.

    Reply
    • Patty
      Patty says:

      Sure was a wonderful experience. Looking back later I realized I’m not even sure if Royce was initially that crazy about the trip. It was her husbands enthusiastic idea for us to fly to Oshkosh. ;-)

      Reply
  5. Peter N. Steinmetz
    Peter N. Steinmetz says:

    Wonderful story and a great adventure – thanks for sharing it.

    (Minor question – was that Tucson AZ? I live in Phoenix and can’t find a Tuscan)

    Reply

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