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October 1, 2000

Mesa, Arizona

Hello:

The next time I write this I believe there'll be a boat story. I promise. Ellen and I are heading to Rhode Island on October 10th for a ten day boat search. There's not a nice looking boat on the market on the entire West Coast. Not in my price range. I'm sure of that. The Pacific coast has the best weather and the beauty but not the best boats.

If you read the last narrative, you'd know my affinity for bears, California black bears, from Sequoia National Park to Yosemite National Park . We're staying at the east side of Mesa, and irony of ironies, there's a black bear in the neighborhood. I haven't seen her yet, and I'm leaving.

The following story, a filler, may be of interest. It's about me, and what I did about eleven years ago.

A Stearman Flying Story

 

Excerpt from Stearman Restorers' News Letter, October, 1989

by Terry Vick

It's a Stearman, a metal-tube, wood and fabric biplane that was used as a United States Army military trainer during World War Two. Sixty years ago eager young military pilots on their way to war learned to fly in the Stearman. A picture of an Air Force Stearman in my office shows it flying low over some grassy California foothills. The fuselage is blue, the wings are yellow, and the rudder is striped red and white. The wings are marked with a large identifying blue circle with a centered white star. Additionally, the center of the star had a red circle. A feature which was removed after 1941. The insignia's red circle was too easily confused with the Japanese red "rising sun meatball" that marked enemy aircraft. A Stearman has two open seats in tandem, front for the instructor and rear for the cadet. Even though it's held together with glue, thread, screws and rivets, it is very strong. Without a doubt, it is tricky to land, it's cold, it's noisy, it's slow and every pilot wants to fly one.

I own a Stearman biplane. I have the venerable old plane parked inside a nearby airport hangar. Sitting behind the hangar's big sliding doors, the Stearman always fascinates me. I think it even smells good with its characteristic musty odor of old paint, old oil, leather, aviation gas, wood and fabric. Some old guys still know what it means when they call this airplane a "taildragger". She, the plane, sits nose up on two front wheels and slender tail end down on a small hard rubber tailwheel. Other aircraft are not designed like that today. Propeller pitched up and wings angled up, it looks like it's ready to take off, right now, sort of haunched and ready to jump. The hangar, also old, is a corrugated steel building that's literally rusting through at its foundation. The heavy metal doors rattle loudly when the wind blows hard, but they keep the wind and rain out. The 12 foot high door must be closed gently so as to not disturb the sparrow's nest perched on the wheel's track at the top, and somewhere around the lower track the mouse still gets inside. I know the mouse lives back in the bench by the hydraulic fluid cans, but he comes out only when I'm gone. Having seen him (I hope it's not a "her") just twice, he is known by his droppings. Inside also are the typical hangar furnishings such as a couple of old, worn out, third-hand secretary's chairs, a bar-b-que, a discarded coffee table, a picture of a WW II B-17, a Hemingway quote about fighter pilots, some old sweaters, some goggles and an oil stained piece of carpet to keep your feet free of the cold concrete floor. When I go to the hangar, I sit down and lean back in the dirty swivel chair, my head resting on the Stearman's lower wing. I always feel good here as I wish for the chance to go flying.

In my office is a side room where I open the day's mail. It has usually been filtered by my receptionist into a residue of what I "should" see. I have an acute eye for the junk mail that sometimes gets through. "Personal" printed on the envelope means "Impersonal". The U.S. Postal "Love" stamp in the upper right corner is pretty but has nothing to do with love inside the letter. Neither does "Free" or "Open Immediately" or "This Is Your Very, Very Last Issue."

One letter inside today's pile does look special, with a return address from the mayor's office. From the Mayor of San Francisco, it says with no other marking on the white envelope besides a postmarked stamp and my address. I don't live in San Francisco. I suspect a sham, but, breaking my rules, I open it anyhow. A printed invitation states that I am being offered an opportunity to participate in the Stearman Fly-By and Dawn Patrol as a part of the 1989 Golden Gate Bridge Fiftieth Birthday Celebration.

"Orders", as the letter said trying to look like a military directive, were to fly to Hamilton Field, an old Army airfield north of San Francisco, and attend a "briefing". So far as I understood this, it was no fakery. A group of local guys flying Stearman military trainers was being asked to perform a formation fly-by on Sunday morning at sunup for the bridge's birthday celebration. The bridge, closed to autos, was going to have pedestrians only on the deck. Flying around the bridge, the old airplanes were to provide some sort of nostalgic backdrop. Additionally, a 'mass fly-by' was planned for Sunday afternoon to include ALL other airplane participants. There was to be a rag tag, gaggle of old planes common to aviation in 1939 (or thereabouts): Stearmans, T-6's, TBM's, Stagger Wing Beech, Mustangs, L-4's, all contemporary with the bridge's initial opening in 1939.

Pilots and crews were to receive three nights lodging, free fuel, free oil, a bar-b-que, a boat ride to view the bridge fireworks, a penthouse cocktail party in San Francisco (It didn't happen.) and use of the old Army Air Force Base at Hamilton Field. What a chance I thought - I had already decided to go! - to fly in a Stearman formation around San Francisco Bay in the morning, and God only knows what else in the afternoon.

On Friday, after a short flight from my home field, my elderly Stearman rests on the ramp at Hamilton AFB tethered to an iron ring in the concrete. I had washed it, and it was shining better than usual. The engine had been shut down, and standing alone next to the hot engine exhaust stack, I felt the residual heat of the engine's cooling fins on my back. I scanned the field and thought about the flying cadets that came through these military airports by the hundreds during the "war years" ... and how many returned. Now in 1989 only the wind moves the tufts of grass that have grown up in the concrete's cracks.

Toward the low coastal hills to the north, I couldn't miss hearing the peculiar, harmonious thumping of another Stearman's engine. A flying chum, perhaps? Sure enough, there was a Stearman; its engine with its hundreds of moving steel parts all trying to come apart. The 225 horsepower Continental engine with its side exhaust must be the most efficient way to turn aviation fuel into noise.

Making a base leg turn and now flying 90 degrees to the runway, the venerable biplane approaches, leveling its wings for a few moments. The prop seemingly coasts as the biplane sinks slowly and turns 90 degrees again to align with the centerline. The afternoon sun shows blazing from behind as the airplane's two parallel wings, crossed flying wires, struts and a couple of tiny windscreens centered on the 8000 foot Hamilton Field runway. I was glad to see this; now there'll be at least two of us in this foolish stunt. The landing occurs in the first few hundred feet of concrete.

The gathering had begun, and I was not alone for sure. Biplanes, old planes and fighter planes approach and land all day long. Some are slightly bent and dented, some creak and groan when they taxi by, some shine, some have torn fabric. Most flew here on wings made of wood spars and multiple wood ribs covered by a soft cloth that had been stitched in place and shrunk tightly with aircraft paint. Hard metal tubes welded together made the shape of the fuselage. Linseed oil had been poured through the tubes to resist rusting. Aluminum panels covered the fuselage front end and doped cloth covered the cockpit area back to the tail. And, after 50 years they fly.

How does one fly a Stearman? There are subtle clues, and I'd suggest you pay attention to them all. For instance, in level flight push forward on the stick, and you go faster. Flying wires secure the top wing to the bottom wing and those two wings to the fuselage. More flying wires secure the "tailfeathers" to the fuselage. These wires drag through the air and make characteristic singing sounds. Descend at 165 mph and you hear a crescendo. Go faster than that and you'll scare yourself some more with buffeting and stiffened control pressures. It now takes a firm push to the side to roll the plane and a hefty pull to stop the descent.

When you do pull back on the stick and start climbing, the exhaust noise becomes louder. There's less buffeting and the control stick begins to lose effect. Level off, pull the power back, let the airplane glide, and the whole thing gets amazingly quiet. The controls soften and lose their feel. "Like killing snakes" they say as you move the stick in a wide stirring motion trying to keep the wings level. Landing is the most difficult of maneuvers. Old, but not bold, pilots warn on landings, "When landing, pay close attention to the wind's direction, the plane's direction and the rudder." I know that one. I once failed to correct for a very gentle, 90 degree cross wind. A soft almost unnoticeable puff blew at right angles to the runway and my approach line. I was landing at the Eagle Field Reunion Airshow in front of some old WWII cronies. Just as the wheels touched down to the hot asphalt, my Stearman instantly swung tail to the left, nose to the right. She, the Stearman, then took off for a freshly plowed field of vegetables, dust flying and bouncing over the furrows. I recovered safely, and that was the easy part. The hard part? I had to buy drinks for the guys back at the hangar and explain how that farm junket could have happened. I know a Stearman pilot who messed up a landing in front of a crowd, and rather than taxi over to the jeers, he cobbed the power,took off and flew home.

To know the plane's course, look at the railroad track below, the lake ahead or the freeway under the wing. Have enough fuel! Keep your head on a swivel and see the other airplane first. Loosen your shoulder straps so you can look behind and over the rudder, for you'll most likely get hit from the rear. Short of a balloon, every other aircraft is faster than a Stearman.

On Saturday morning, participants meet with Larry Powell, a WWII fighter ace and chief coordinator of the event. He greets us at the "briefing" saying, "There'll be no practice session for the dawn fly-by, 'cuz there's too damn many planes to organize." He adds, "There's going to be eighty or ninety of us in the air at once. Hell, at the beginning of the war we had trouble getting that many B-17's in the air in the Eighth Air Force to bomb Hitler." It'll be take off, form up and go for it!

The "briefing room" had a wall mounted map of the Bay Area with a string pulled around some pins stuck at the proposed turning points. The route planned was to takeoff from Hamilton AFB, form up, fly down the coast, fly over the waters of the "gate" to the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. Make a 270 degree turn around that tower, then east to the Oakland Bay Bridge toll plaza and finally, back to Hamilton AFB. One flight at dawn and one flight in the afternoon. For the Stearmans we were supposed to fly in three groups, one with Army colors, one with Navy colors and one with civilian colors. My group, the Army color group, had four rows of three airplanes each, and we were to fly in echelon. There's a few more words from Larry, and we're supposedly ready to go.

Larry Powell plans to be safe over Angel Island, the center of the Bay in a helicopter a thousand feet above the rest of us. He'll utilize a special radio frequency just for media aircraft, not for us. We have our own discreet frequency, and it's not much help for the 25% of the group that have no radios. And the final luxury, an FAA declared mile square "window" in the airspace around the Golden Gate Bridge declaring that space just for us today, just for our use. Seagulls, pelicans, cormorants and errant helium balloons will still be there.

The FAA had setup spotters with binoculars on the center of the bridge. They wanted to check our altitude. "One thousand feet over the span." the FAA representative advised. "No lower!" We said, "No way. We'll look like flying dots!" There's a compromise. We'll fly over the center span and we'll be seen at 750 feet. There's always some dumb pilot who asks to fly UNDER the bridge instead of over it. No, it's not allowed. It's not that much of a challenge anyhow, for the deck is over 250 feet above the water. OK, I now had a mental image of what I'm not supposed to do.

Sunday morning, and it's still dark outside. This is the day ... if the fog lifts. I feel nervous now as I think about flying close together with other guys that I haven't flown with before. I haven't even met most of them. And, out the window all I can see is damp bay fog. It might sit in a murky clump just over the bridge, and they'll call the whole thing off.

I get dressed. I know this cold morning calls for long underwear, turtle neck, sweater, felt lined jeans and flying coat. In flight the Stearman cockpit is turbulent. Besides being cold and penetrating, the draft loosens anything not firmly in your grip and ships it overside. Once my son, riding in the Stearman's front cockpit, momentarily eased his hold on a soda can. The can was blown upward, and outward and over his head into the slipstream. Today that can is somewhere in Richmond. Bulked out with warm layers of clothing, I'm not embarrassed when I meet the pilot's bus at 4:30 AM, and I'm delivered to the field. It's still very dark as we file out of the bus and into a brightly lit corrugated metal building next to the ramp. With typical military decorum this room has folding metal chairs, row on row, light green painted walls and torn linoleum floor. A few pilots sit down; most stand.

In the room Larry Powell asks if anyone has an empty seat in their plane. "Some camera people need a ride." he said. I have an empty seat, and I raise my hand. Rita Channon, attractive newsperson for a major San Francisco TV station, walks toward me followed by her entourage of camera personnel. We introduce ourselves with smiles and walk outside toward our airplanes. She agrees to go with me, for some reason. Her cameraman helper says, "She's to have no headset, a seat belt is OK, no shoulder straps, and no flying coat." You see, without shoulder straps she can turn - hair flowing and looking nonchalant - toward the camera man flying in the other Stearman a few feet away. We'll see about that, I think. It's cold now, and it's going to be cold in the air. I unroll my turtle neck 'till it covers my neck. I'll also wear my shoulder straps. We walked uneasily outside to the ramp and to the planes.

Our parked planes are all there lined up in rows like the scenes in the old military photos. I mill around in the dark with my shoulders hunched and my hands deep in my pockets. Someone signals to get ready, so I pull the prop through a few turns, check the oil, check the fuel and inspect all that can be inspected. I'm also not embarrassed to pay homage to the gods of gentle wind, fair weather and safe flight. The others begin to fire up their engines. I seat Ms. Channon in the front cockpit and show her how to hook just the lap belt. While I'm standing on the wing ready to swing my leg into the after cockpit, her cameraman asks that I signal him when I crank my engine so he can photograph the yellow flame and blue smoke blowing from the side exhaust. I signal him, the starter grinds, there's some rumbling, pop, phooey, oil smoke at the exhaust, no fire and ... it dies! I gave a high-five smile, unbuckled, climbed down, reprimed the engine, got back in, buckled up and gave Ms. Channon a reassurance tap on the shoulder. With more fuel this time, it starts.

With fire, smoke, flame, clattering and shaking we pull out of line and move down the taxiway, dust flying. I take a certain pleasure in the excitement ahead. I can smell the smoke and exhaust from the engines, and I can smell the damp grass around the taxiway. What will happen as this mini adventure plays out? The few spectators lean forward and look down the long file as we converge toward the end of the taxiway where we stop. My group is designated the first for takeoff. The Army colored Stearmans, my group, taxi up to the runway marking lines and form up in rows three abreast. With the others I then moved forward onto the runway, into the wind and smoothly pushed the throttle forward looking left and right to check my spacing. The throttle is full forward, the stick is full forward, the tail comes up, and as speed builds, I feel responsiveness come into the controls. It seems a simple fluid motion. Stick forward, tail up, airspeed up, ease the stick back and she's airborne. We all climb, we circle overhead, then we line up in echelon and close up the spaces.

At a thousand feet altitude I can feel the sun begin to warm my shoulders. Condensation from the morning dew streaks to the edge of the windscreen and starts to dry. Even a few hundred feet above the ground, there is less dampness in the air. The few streaks of sun has started to burn away the morning's moisture. We fly south directly toward the bridge, straight and level and no faster than the slowest Stearman in the group. Off my right wing I see that the ocean's fog has rolled back to the sea. We're on.

 

My passenger, Ms. Channon, looks around slowly. She glances at the fog and stares a few seconds at a time at each airplane in the formation. Otherwise she holds very still and appears OK. Her strawberry blond hair rustles in the air, and her raspberry colored scarf flutters ahead of my windscreen blocking my view at times. I lean forward and tap her on the shoulder showing a "thumbs up" to ask, "How are you doing?" She gestures back with her shoulder. She hasn't turned back toward her cameraman in the other Stearman. He's flying to my right side and slightly behind, waiting for action I suppose. I assume she's not impressed ... or frozen solid.

My goggles buffet in the slipstream as I lean to the left of the cowl. The raspberry scarf is gone for now. I can see the bridge ahead. The fog has moved out to sea a half mile or so, and I can see Mile Rock Light and Point Bonita. Just behind the trailing edge of the lower wing, I see the last of the Marin headlands slip past. We're over white capped water flying parallel to the bridge. I see the bridge's red towers 750 feet high between sunlight flashes off the prop blades. Moving up a little then down a little, correcting left then right, all of us try to fly evenly.

At eighty miles per hour we arrive at the south tower. We're supposed to round that one. There's no cars on the bridge, just throngs of people. The bridge has never supported that much weight in its fifty year history.

Our formation looks good, to me. Now that were there, every pilot seems to "tighten up" a bit for a good show. The wind's blowing from our right at about twenty knots as we begin our 270 degree turn about the tower. Flying in this moving mass of air, we are all being carried sideways away from the tower at 20 nautical miles per hour. That's for now. As we round the tower to the other side, the wind is drifting us into the tower at 20 nautical miles per hour. Ordinarily, every pilot compensates for this drift, almost unconsciously. But, thirty five in a group don't do it in perfect harmony. I think we're getting blown closer and closer to the bridge tower. I know we are. I can't shift my position left or right, my buddies are carefully flying there. I can't go up or down. That wouldn't look good to the crowd below. We continue and round the tower, safely.

Wind on our tails and boring ahead to cross the bridge roadway, I heard someone come on the radio saying, "Let's go around the tower again." I thought we were supposed to go home. Strutting across that stage of air, we were. We had an audience! The stream of us goes around again. Those planes without radios are uninformed of the change. They stayed snug in formation and follow like moths to a flame.

The wind blows. The circling slows our airspeed, our bank steepens, and the turn tightens as we round ... again. The outside plane, most distant from the tower, is flying at normal cruise speed. Those closer to the axis of the turn have to go much slower to stay in formation. I am on the inside of the turn going slower and slower, and I'm feeling uneasy again. At this speed the control stick requires magnified movement to steer the airplane. In this trainer the control sticks interconnected so all movements are replicated in the front cockpit. I can feel the front control stick bump into Ms. Channon's legs. She moved back and up in the seat. I call slow flying like that, "killing snakes in the cockpit." I happen to know that at somewhere around 55 mph flying speed, the Stearman stops flying and drops like a rock. Nevertheless, floating gently on the wind, my reliable Stearman rounds the tower and successfully stays in formation. We head eastward toward Oakland.

I glanced over the tail for a last look at a unique sight. Thirty old biplanes were flying straight, level and evenly spaced in pretty good formation. Behind us was the fog, the Bay and the bridge's red towers and cables. Banking the airplane gently to the left the compass card swung toward north, and we headed straight home to Hamilton Field. I now pondered why nobody made a plan for landing all of us. The organizers were so conscientious about planning our takeoff, our formation and our flight around the bridge. The makeshift control tower at Hamilton Field was on frequency, but they realized that everyone was well scattered and, of course, we were all heading toward them. They abandoned us, no kidding. The tower announced that "the returning Stearmans were clear to land". Who was to be first? Who second? Who third or twenty first? One at a time I supposed was best, and we made our own order. I didn't see anyone running down the tower stairs, but I wouldn't have been surprised.

Those airplanes in front of me sort of fell into single file, ...so I did too. I picked an open spot in the developing aircraft stream. We flew down the centerline of the runway single file at pattern height. At midfield it was break right 90 degrees, right again 90 degrees and fly downwind. Now we, the first of the stream, were flying head-on toward the last of the incoming traffic, albeit offset a half mile. The incoming fleet, seeing us, had to circle and stay airborne 'till it was their turn to land. Having finished our circuit of the field, the first of us came gliding down under the incoming latecomers. The head of the stream banked right onto "final" approach.

I also followed in file and turned to align with the runway. I searched for the field a little to the right of the windscreen. I was low, we all were, and far from the field. I couldn't pick out the runway, not easily. So, I followed the string of biplanes in front, surely they knew where they were going. Oops, there 'tis, the runway appeared like an apparition. That runway is so big, how could anyone lose sight of it, I wondered. OK now, power back, nose down, 'clock' reading eighty mph, no drift, no crosswind. Remember, I said to myself, how a landing crosswind drifted you into the farm furrows at Eagle Field. On short final, my Stearman was headed for the numbers on the runway, I felt good. I was about to wrap all this up when, damn, I still had to contend with that fluttering raspberry colored scarf on my passenger's neck. I leaned out and looked along the left side of the fuselage; I sighted the runway again. The perspective looked "right". She, in the front seat, now leaned to the left. I switched and looked out to the other side, to the right. She looked over to the right side! She and the scarf finally picked a side and stayed there. With an eight thousand foot length, this runway was long. It was also wide with a 400 foot width. Methinks, we should consider it a 400 foot runway, eight thousand feet wide and all land at once! No! I pulled back on the stick to slow my descent and tried to fly to the far end of the runway. Without power, the Stearman won't do that, of course, and it continued to settle. Waiting for the wheels' jolt, I looked out both sides of the windscreen at the same time watching the ground. I made a nice landing. My passenger raised her arms, for she felt safe again.

The bridge celebration, flying part anyhow, finished without an accident or even a "near miss". That night we watched fireworks flash out from the bridge towers and along the span, a great sight. We were done. At Hamilton Army Airfield, things were dormant again, the old quarters were empty, and dust settled along the 8000 foot centerline.

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