Propellers, Motors, and Baseball Bats
I'd always wanted to fly a Stearman. I'd always wanted to own one.
Well, now I owned one, and I could fly it all I wanted to. That is, as long as I could afford to buy gas for it. And it took a lot of gas. That old 450 horsepower Pratt & Whitney liked gas like a drunk likes Jack Daniels. That big old radial would suck 20 gallons per hour even when I wasn't working it all that hard, and if I started leaning on the throttle in the turns, and carrying a little extra manifold pressure across the cotton fields, she would burn up 25 gallons per hour, every hour, all day long.
And could she burn oil! A gallon per hour! Or more! On hot days, when I loaded her heavy and really had to power her through the turns, oil consumption would go up to about a gallon and a half an hour. The lady who ran the flying service at The Old Laredo Airport loved to see me pulling up to her fuel pumps.
That old engine burned so much oil, and smoked so bad, that Bob started making fun of me for flying a "diesel airplane". Of course, all the airport bums, who thought Bob was the greatest pilot since Orville Wright, picked right up on the joke and invented a long series of jokes based on the likelihood of my being arrested by the Texas Highway Patrol for not having a truck driver's license.
In recalling my experiences with that old Stearman, I realize that I remember that airplane as two entirely different machines. There was the airplane itself, and then there was that big engine. Many wild tales have grown up around both of those machines. Both will forever hold a special place in the lore of aviation back from the days when men like me were just getting ourselves hatched.
After World War II, when old airplanes and engines were plentiful on the military surplus market, some enterprising mechanic had bolted the two together, piled on a load of farm chemicals, and blasted off into the sky.
That day an aviation legend was born. The 450 Stearman would become the granddaddy of all crop-dusting aircraft ever to come off an American drawing board.
My knowledge of Stearmans is limited. The one I owned was the only one I ever flew. And I only flew it a couple or three hundred hours. Just enough to get to feeling at home in it. And I have a sneaking suspicion that my Stearman wasn't quiet as smooth a flying an airplane as a lot of other Stearmans.
As a matter of fact, it was the roughest, shakin'est, jerking and jammin'est airplane I ever climbed into. And in spite of all it's shaking, it never shook in the same way for more than a minute. It would start out shaking in a particular way, then it would start shaking in some other way. It was a full time job just keeping all the nuts and bolts and screws in it tight enough to keep the whole airplane from coming apart in flight. I nearly wore out a perfectly good set of Craftsman tools mechanicing on that darn thing.
Every time I managed to get it back on the ground again I would need to make a trip around it with a screwdriver and a couple of wrenches. That was one airplane that should have come with a full-time crew chief.
Not long after I got that airplane, after I had flown it 10 or maybe 20 hours, I started complaining to Bob that I thought it vibrated and shook more than any airplane really ought to.
Bob wasn't impressed with my complaint. "That's just the way a Stearman is," he insisted. "I've flown a million of those darn old things. Crashed two or three of 'em. They all shake like hell. That's just the way a Stearman is. A Stearman's a real airplane. That's just the way real airplanes are. They shake. You've been spoiled. You growed up flying all these sissy airplanes. You think an airplane is supposed to run smooth. Well, a Stearman ain't no sissy airplane. They shake. You'll get used to it."
So I went back to flying my shakin' Stearman. She would start shaking and jerking, and bellowing and coughing, and vibrating and bucking the minute I poured the coals to her on takeoff, and wouldn't stop until I got her chained back down to the ground a couple of hours later.
But I didn't get used to it.
"Look, Bob," I said, "why don't you go take that Stearman up and fly her around a bit. I don't really think any kind of airplane is supposed to shake as much as that airplane shakes."
"Don't worry about a little shaking," he insisted, "you'll get used to it. I don't have time to monkey around flying your wore out old Stearman. You bought the damn thing. You fly her."
"Yeah, well, I've been flying her. I tell you, that airplane shakes. Ain't no airplane ever was that's supposed to shake like that. I'm telling you, that son-of-a-bitch shakes!"
"Look, I'll tell you what," Bob said patiently, "let me explain to you the way it is. That airplane is supposed to shake. That's what makes her fly. Tell you what. Next time you fly her take a look back at the flying wires on the tail. Now, them flying wires are supposed to shake. They're supposed to be vibrating. Tell you what. Next time you're up, take a good look at them flying wires. Now, when they're shaking, they're really going around in circles. So you can't really see them flying wires. All you can see is a blur. Now, that blur you see, that blur is supposed to look like a baseball bat. That's what it looks likes, a baseball bat. That's the way it's supposed to look. Like a baseball bat. Skinny on the ends but fat in the middle. Now if your tail wires look like baseball bats, well, that's just about right. That's what they're supposed to look like. That means your airplane is shaking just about right. That's just the way a Stearman is. You'll get used to it."
So I went up and flew around in my Stearman. I looked back at the flying wires on the tail. They didn't look like baseball bats. They looked like bowling pins.
"My flying wires don't look like baseball bats," I told Bob. "They look like bowling pins."
"Ah, for cripes sake", he complained. "Now you can't even see straight! You been flying too many sissy airplanes. You been so bad spoiled you can't even get used to a little shaking. I tell you, damnit, that airplane is supposed to shake! That's just the way a Stearman is. You'll get used to it."
"Well, I ain't used to it," I said. "And I ain't going to get used to it. I tell you, that damn airplane shakes too damn much, and if you weren't so hard-headed you'd pay attention to what I'm telling you. Well, I ain't flying that damn airplane again until you fly it. Since you're so damn smart about Stearmans, you can damn well go fly her around the pattern and see what I'm talking about."
"I already know what you're talking about," insisted Bob. "I already know! I was flying Stearmans before you could say squat. I tell you, they shake. That's just the way they are."
"Yeah, well I'll tell you one thing," I hollered. "Since you're such a damn expert on everything you can just go fly that airplane and see for yourself. I don't care how many million Stearmans you've already flown, or how many sissy airplanes I've flown. And if you won't fly it, well, tell you what. I'll just put a match to that son-of-a-bitch and watch it burn. I know one thing for damn well sure. I ain't flying it again till you fly it."
"Okay, Okay, I'll fly your damn old airplane," agreed Bob. "Just don't get all augered-in. I'll fly the damn thing. Just so I don't have to listen to any more of your belly-aching. I'll fly the damn thing."
The next day Bob flew my Stearman.
He was in a hurry. He was in his normal foul mood. He didn't even bother to do a run up check. He just fired her up, pointed her down the taxi-way, and poured on the throttle. The old airplane belched and kicked, blew out a cloud of black smoke that would have obscured the Goodyear blimp, and lifted off into the morning. She wasn't more than ten feet in the air when I heard Bob reduce the power. Then he cocked her up in a steep bank and made a sharp U-turn. He headed back the way he came, flared out over the grassy strip between the taxi-way and the runway, and let her settle to the ground. As the airplane bounced up onto the apron, Bob shut down the engine and she rolled the final 100 feet up to his hangar.
Bob climbed out of my old Stearman. He had a sour look on his face. I could tell he was mad.
"That's the by-god shakin'est son-of-a-bitch I ever flew," he said! He was looking at me when he said this. Then he turned and looked at my Stearman. He pointed his finger at that skinned-up old airplane and said, “You’re the shakin-est son-of-a-bitch I ever flew!”
Bob was so mad at me, and at my airplane, that he would hardly talk to either one of us. He would stare at me and shake his head. Then he would stare at my airplane and shake his head.
I didn't say anything.
"You been flying this shaken' son-of-a-bitch?" he finally asked, as if he hadn't seen me flying it everyday for the last couple of weeks. "You been flying this shaken' son-of-a-bitch?"
"Yeah, yeah," I said.
"You must be by-god crazy," he said.
He marched into his hangar and I just hung around with my airplane. I figured I’d give him a little time to get over his mad. After a while he returned with a tape measure. He started measuring the length of each blade of my propeller.
In a couple of minutes he reported, "No wonder this damn thing is trying to shake itself to pieces. One of your prop blades is an inch longer than the other one. That's why this thing's been flying so womper-jawed. You oughten have better sense than to be flying around in an airplane that shakes as bad as this one. One of these days your gonna bust your ass pulling stunts like that."
"Yeah, yeah," I said.
The next morning before daylight I was on my way to San Antonio. My propeller was in the back of my pickup truck and I was headed to a propeller overhaul shop on the south side of town. The old man who owned that propeller shop had been working on propellers for as long as there had been propellers. Over the years, I had taken him quite a few propellers for overhaul.
This propeller was a two-position Hamilton Standard. It had a high pitch position, and a low pitch position. It was kind of like a high and low gear. This prop had been through more than one battle. It had so many notches in the leading edges it looked like the handle on John Wesley Harding's six-gun.
The man's name who ran the propeller shop was Woodchuck. The first time I met him he said, "My name's Woodchuck. You can call me 'Old Man Woodchuck.'"
I called him Mr. Woodchuck.
When Mr. Woodchuck saw that beat up old propeller lying in the bed of my pickup he started frowning. He just stood there and looked at it. Mr. Woodchuck had seen many a propeller in his day, but I could tell that he hadn't seen many like this one.
"Led a hard life, hadden it," he mused?
I could tell that Mr. Woodchuck didn't want to work on my propeller. He really just wanted it to go away.
"What you need," he patiently explained, "is a new propeller."
"Well," I said. "There's no way I can buy a new propeller."
"Yeah, well," Mr. Woodchuck said. "You need one anyway."
We each got on a tip of that big Hamilton Standard and carried it into his work stand. It weighed darn near as much as I did. Mr. Woodchuck measured the prop blades. "Hmmmm," he said, "you got one blade there about an inch short."
He placed the propeller on two parallel balancing bars and slowly began to rotate it. "Prop tip's about a mile out of track," he said.
He brought the prop level and released the tip. One blade quickly dropped as the propeller went into a half turn. "Horizontal balance way off," he said.
He placed the prop straight up and down. Slowly it began to rotate. "Vertical balance out, too," he said.
Mr. Woodchuck took out a big protractor and began to measure the pitch of each blade. He measured the pitch at several different positions from the prop hub. Then he changed the pitch of the prop and measured all the positions again. Each time he took a measurement he wrote it down on a piece of cardboard. Then he studied the cardboard for a long time. He started shaking his head. "Who's been trying to set the pitch on this propeller, anyway?" he asked.
"Not me," I said.
"Hmmmm," said Mr. Woodchuck.
Then he began running his fingers over all the notches and nicks in the blades. Some of them were pretty deep. Most of them had been "dressed out" with a file. He kept running his fingers over all the old wounds and muttering to himself. After a little bit he gave me a suspicious look. "You haven't been flying this prop, have you" he asked?
"Well, yeah, I have," I replied.
"How did it fly?" he asked.
"Shook like hell."
"You must be crazy," he said. That seemed to be a widely held opinion.
"You need a new prop," said Mr. Woodchuck.
"I can't afford a new prop," I said.
"You need one anyway."
"Well, I can't afford one. Why don't you just fix this one", I asked?
"This prop's pretty rough," he said.
"Yeah, I know. But can't you work out most of the problems?"
"I can fix some of them. But I can't bring it back to standards. No way I can tag this thing as a legal prop," he explained.
"Well, I don't care if it's legal or not. I didn't write down in the log book that I took it off that Stearman, and I don't plan to write down anything when I put it back on."
"Hmmmm, " said Mr. Woodchuck. He kept running his fingers over all those nicks and notches.
"Look," I said, "just make it so it doesn't shake so bad. Just fix her up the best you can. Just make her so that she's safe to fly. She doesn't have to be perfect. Hell, nothing else I own is perfect. Why does this propeller need to be perfect?"
"Hmmmm," said Mr. Woodchuck.
After awhile he asked, "When do you need this prop?"
"I need it right now," I said.
"Right now", he asked? “What do you mean, ‘right now’?”
"I mean right now," I insisted. "I'm going to wait here until you fix it. Then I'm going to haul it back to Laredo and bolt it on that Stearman."
"You must be crazy," he said, and gave me a look of annoyed astonishment.
"Look," I pleaded. "I'm 400 acres behind on cotton. I ought to be flying right now. I gotta be flying in the morning."
Mr. Woodchuck kept running his fingers over the propeller blades.
"This one blade, it's junk," he said. "No way I'm gonna build-up a propeller with a blade like that. Tell you what, I might have an old blade around here somewhere I can fit into your prop hub. I think I can make this other blade pass. It's gonna take some work."
"How much is this gonna cost?" I asked.
"Probably more than you got," he guessed.
"All I can come up with is about a hundred bucks," I said. "Maybe a little more."
"That won't be enough," he said. "Tell you what, pay me fifty bucks now, and you can pick up the rest down the road."
"O.K.," I said.
Mr. Woodchuck went to work. He split my prop hub and removed both blades. He carried one of my blades out behind his shop and threw it on a pile of scrap propellers. Actually, my scrap propeller blade looked better than most of the other blades in that pile. Most of them were curled up like potato peelings, obviously as the result of coming into contact with the ground.
Mr. Woodchuck went into a storage shed built onto his shop. It was stuffed with every kind of propeller I could imagine. Most were modern aluminum props for small airplanes. Against one wall was a stack of wooden propellers the size of an automobile. They were left-overs from an earlier age of aviation, but Mr. Woodchuck kept them there simply because he didn't know what else to do with them.
One whole wall was reserved for big Hamilton Standards. Mr. Woodchuck put his hand on one of them, moved his fingers softly over the prop dome and out along one of the flawless blades.
"This is the prop you need," He said. "Fresh overhaul. Good as new. Smooth as silk."
"Yeah, I know," I said.
In one corner of the shed he had prop blades stacked up like firewood. He started pulling out prop blades and examining them. Finally he picked one out and carried it back into his workshop.
He measured the length of that blade, then started measuring the blade angles. He compared the blade angles of that blade with the blade angles of my other blade. "Hmmmm," he said. Then he carried that blade back into his storage shed and put it back on the pile. He pulled out another blade and went through the whole thing again.
"Hmmmm," he said. Then he carried that blade back and put it on the pile. He checked out two or three more blades. All he ever said was "Hmmmm."
Finally he found a blade that suited him.
"Hmmmm," he said, "I think this one will do."
I sat on a stool for the next four hours and watched him work. He cleaned up all my old parts. He flushed out the propeller dome and polished the cylinder lining with steel wool. He cleaned up the old actuating piston and fitted it with new "O" rings. He disassembled all the prop-adjusting mechanism and cleaned up the little adjusting shims. He balanced each blade and worked over my old blade with a file and grinder. He put it all back together and tightened the prop bolts using a big torque wrench.
Then he put the prop back on his parallel bars and starting balancing it. He never did get it to balance just exactly right, but it came pretty close. He checked the prop tips for tract. They weren't just exactly right either, but they were close.
"Hmmmm," said Mr. Woodchuck. Then he checked each blade with his protractor. He set the stops for the high R.P.M. position and measured the prop angles at every station again. Then he set the low R.P.M. position and went through the whole thing again. When he had finished he ran his fingers over all the notches he had filed out and shook his head. Instead of notches in the leading edges, my propeller now had little valleys and waves where the notches had all been worked out. It looked just fine to me.
"Well," said Mr. Woodchuck, "it's not the smoothest prop I ever put together. It's still gonna have an odd beat to it. But at least it's not gonna shake like it used to. It's not perfect. It's not legal. But it probably won't kill you."
"It looks great to me," I said.
"Yeah, well, you're the same guy who thought it looked pretty good when you brought it in here," Mr. Woodchuck said.
"Well, it looks just fine to me," I said. "It looks perfect!"
I paid Mr. Woodchuck fifty bucks and promised to pay the balance as soon as I could, which I did.
"Thanks," I said.
I had that prop bolted on my Stearman by midnight, and was spraying cotton shortly after daylight. That old Stearman still vibrated, and shook, and flew a little bit funny. But it was a big improvement over the way it had been flying.
And when I looked back at my tail, the tail flying wires looked just like baseball bats. I figured that was just about right.