Life Aboard A Stearman
My Stearman flew a lot better once I got the propeller overhauled. And
of course, replacing all those cracked induction tubes solved a lot of my
shake-and-bake problems. But it was still a rough airplane to fly. It still
shook, and backfired, and kicked, and banged, and always flew a little bit
It took me a long time to get used to it. For the first season I flew it,
every day was like going into combat. I was twice as tired at the end of
the day as I would have been if I had been flying some sissy airplane.
One of the big problems was the wind blast. My Stearman had a
windshield only about six inches high. So much wind blast got into the
cockpit with me that it was impossible to keep my shirt tucked in. The
wind would go howling down around my legs and then go blasting out
around my shoulders. I couldn't wear my crash helmet in that airplane. So
much wind got under my neck and around my ears that the helmet would
be sucked right off my head. Unless, of course, I cinched down my
chin-strap. In which case it would strangle me.
I found an old leather helmet left over from World War II in the attic of
Bob's hangar. It fit me like a glove. I also bought a pair of goggles with a
stout elastic belt to hold them on. I liked that get-up. I fancied that it
made me look like a pilot from the era when pilots were known as
"pioneers of flight"
It didn't take me long to get over any romantic notions about being a
"pioneer of flight". Few things can give a man an appreciation of modern
enclosed cockpits like a winter season flying a womper-jawed 450
The goggles were essential equipment because most of the time I was
flying that airplane I was looking out over the windshield. I built up a thick
seat cushion so that I could sit high in the cockpit. That way I could keep a
close eye on all that airplane hanging around underneath me and try to
keep it going straight.
At least that's the way I flew it at first.
My efforts to sit high in the cockpit were particularly stressed on
takeoffs and landings. That airplane had a narrow, stiff landing gear, and
keeping it going straight anytime the wheels were rolling on the ground
was a full-time job. Sometimes it got to be downright scary.
That big Pratt & Whitney was much heavier than the original
Continental engine, and this made her top heavy. Also, the original
forward cockpit had been replaced with the chemical hopper, and with an
additional 1200 pounds in that forward cockpit right behind that
overweight engine, keeping both wheels rolling on the ground was like
balancing a broom handle on the end of your finger.
And on takeoff there was the powerful torque from that big propeller
trying to twist the whole airframe around to the left. This required full
right rudder for correction when you first added power. But an instant
later the nose would be trying to swing in the other direction, and to keep
that airplane going straight, the pilot had to make instant, constant, and
severe rudder corrections.
It was always a relief to get her off the ground without tearing
Once I got her airborne everything was fine. Flying that Stearman was
as easy as pie. She had a real nice solid feel and responded nicely to the
controls. She was a joy to fly.
But then I had to get her back on the ground, and that was always an
adventure. Rudder use was at least as critical on landing as it was on
Compounding all my directional control problems were the brakes on
that airplane. They weren't worth a damn. When I first got the airplane, I
asked Buster about the brakes.
"Buster," I asked. "What's wrong with the brakes on that old Stearman
you sold me?"
"They ain't worth a damn," he explained.
"Yeah, I know that," I said. "I figured that out all by myself. But what I
want to know is, just exactly what's wrong with them. What will it take to
get them fixed?"
"Beats the hell out of me," Buster said.
"Well," I said. "I sure as hell don't like them the way they are. It's all I
can do to keep her herded in the same direction just poking along down
"Well, you gotta learn to stay after her all the time you're on the
ground," he explained.
"Yeah, I know that too," I said. "That's what I'm complaining about."
"Well," explained Buster. "It's best if you don't ever put that airplane on
a paved runway. She's a lot easier to handle on grass and dirt."
"I know that too." I insisted. "Only here at Laredo, I'm operating off a
real airport. There's no way to fly off this airport without getting on the
pavement most of the time."
"Well, you probably ought to get those brakes fixed," Buster suggested
"Well, that's what I've been talking about for the last half hour," I said!
"Only I can't figure out what's wrong with them. What'll it take to fix the
"Hell, I don't know," Buster said. "I worked on them brakes for years.
Never could get them to work right."
"Why not just completely overhaul them?" I wanted to know.
"Can't get parts," Buster explained. "Them wheels and brakes are off a
Grumman Bear Cat. One got crashed down at Harlingen a bunch of years
back. I helped the guy who picked up the pieces. Traded him those wheels
and brakes for a case of beer. They worked pretty good when I first put
them on. Then they got wore out. They're still wore out. Can't get parts."
"Maybe the master cylinders are all that's bad," I suggested.
"Can't get parts for the master cylinders either," Buster explained.
"Studebaker?", I asked, a little bit amazed.
"Yeah, Studebaker," Buster said. "Can't remember now why I used
Studebaker. Maybe they were already on that airplane when I got it.
Brakes never were much good one way or the other."
My efforts to fix those brakes were as futile as Buster's had been. I
started off by making the obvious change. Anybody that knows anything
knows that a crop-duster has no business with Studebaker master
cylinders. I changed her over to Chevrolet pick-up truck. That didn't help.
Later, I pulled off the wheels and had the brake bands replaced at a
local auto brake shop. I wanted to have the drums turned, but it turned
out that they were made from some kind of steel that was so tough the
brake shop's lathe wouldn't cut it. I finally got it all put back together, but
the brakes still weren't worth a darn.
So I just learned to live with the bad brakes. It just took a lot of extra
attention to keep the airplane corralled on take-off and landing. One
afternoon I almost lost her. I came within the flick of an eyeball from
scattering Stearman parts all over The Old Laredo Airport. Parts of me,
It was a gusty day and for some reason I landed her on the hard
surface runway instead of the grassy area between the taxi-ways. That
was a bad decision. Any tail-dragger is easier to control on smooth grass
or dirt than it is on hard surface.
Because it was so windy that day, I didn't want to stall her out in a
three-point landing. I kept on a head of steam and pasted one main tire
on the concrete. I chopped the power, got the other main tire down, and
started to let the tail drop. About that time she made an immediate left
turn, her tires squalling cross-ways across the concrete, and tried to gouge
a wing tip into the ground. Then she headed for the weeds.
I had every flight control inside the cockpit nailed in the opposite
direction, but that old airplane was ignoring everything I did. I was
blasting power to try to get the rudder to take a-hold and pumping brakes
like a crazy man. Nothing was doing any good, and I knew that in about
two seconds that airplane would be flipped on its back with its upper wing
skidding across the airfield, and its propeller curled up like a dishrag.
I knew that my only chance was to fly her out of it, and I slammed the
throttle to the fire-wall. That airplane was already heading hard into a left
turn, and the added power just set up more torque forces trying to get her
turning still harder to the left. But I knew I had to hold on. I just sat
there, right rudder jammed to the floorboards and my left fist pushing so
hard on the throttle lever that it's a wonder I didn't bend it double.
By this time I was dead cross-ways to the runway, the engine howling
like a demon, and a big heavy-duty runway-marker-light square on the
nose not 30 feet away. Somehow I missed that light, I don't have any idea
how. I was too busy to notice.
I was trying my best to get that airplane rolling straight as it headed
across the dirt and aimed itself at the door of a big hangar about 100
yards away. I was pretty sure I could get her flying again before we
arrived at that hangar, but I wasn't sure I could get her flying before we
had to get over a deep drainage ditch stretching across my nose like the
Palo Duro Canyon.
As we rolled down the grade to that ditch I got the tail up and finally
got her aimed in the direction I wanted her to go. Just before the tires
rolled over the edge, I sucked back on the stick and floated her over that
ditch in a dead power-on stall. An instant later I slammed the main tires
against the other slope of that ditch and caught her with a little back-stick
as she bounced back into the air.
The old airplane was trying, but she still didn't have quite enough
airspeed to fly. But I knew good and well she had plenty of airspeed to
crash in a grand fashion. I rolled the tires a few more times across the
higher levels of the broken ground we were howling over, and finally got
enough wind across the wings to get the tail up a little bit and take a look
out over the nose.
What I saw was the biggest sign I had ever seen in my life. It said
"TEXACO", and it was painted on the side of an airport fuel truck parked
dead in front of me.
There was a man standing on top of that fuel truck. He was staring at
me with all his might. Half a second later he vacated his position in a
move that would have done credit to the captain of the U.S. Men's Olympic
I yanked back on the stick with a ferociousness that should have
severed that elevator cable, but didn't. My old shakin' Stearman rose up
over that fuel truck, rolled its wheels over the tail marker lights on the
vertical stabilizers of several corporate jets parked along the ramp, and
missed, by a good five feet, the wind sock flapping merrily from a pole just
above that big hangar door.
I climbed out to about 500 feet and flew in a perfectly straight line
away from the airport. I continued in this straight line for about a mile or
two. Then I flew in a big gentle turn for about five minutes. The purpose of
this maneuver was to try to quell the severe shaking fit I was
experiencing. I knew that I had to get my wits about me before I made
another attempt to land that airplane.
A few days after all this took place I happened to meet up with the man
who had dove off that fuel truck. It was an accidental meeting. You can be
sure that it was accidental on my part at least, since I had been tipped off
by several people that the gas man intended to "get me" for giving him a
When he finally did catch up with me, he had had enough time to cool
off and limited his threats to explaining in vivid detail what he would do to
me if I ever again pulled such a stunt on him.
I tried to explain to him that it had all been an accident. His response to
this was to assure me that if it ever happened again it would be quickly
followed by another "accident."
I knew it was pointless to try to defend my position, so I just apologized
about forty times and promised him that it would never happen again. At
least I hoped not.
Besides, it hurt my pride less to apologize for a buzz-job, than to admit
that I had almost wrecked an airplane.
But of course, I didn't fool Bob for one minute.
"Well, hot-shot," he goaded me. "Almost stacked her up, didn't you?
Almost busted your ass! And right here in front of the whole world, too!
Right? Almost got your picture in the paper, didn't you? Yes sir, almost
made a real mess, didn't you? Right here in the right-smack-middle of the
"Yeah, yeah," I said.
"You need to either learn how to fly that Stearman," he persisted, "or
go back to flying sissy airplanes."
"Yeah, yeah," I said.
Incidentally, that fuel truck driver had more scabs on him than any
man I ever saw who didn't own a motorcycle. He had scabs on his hands,
and on his elbows, and on his knees, and on one shoulder, and on one side
of his head. Most of his scabs were shaped like coins. Nickel-size scabs.
Quarter-size scabs. Silver dollar size cabs. The scab on the side of his
head was more the shape of a dollar bill.
As I said, when I first started flying that Stearman I sat on a thick seat
cushion so that I could see out over that long nose and over the top of
that radial engine. Every time I made a takeoff, I got myself all psyched
up, sat up high in that seat, and craned my neck so that I could see over
the nose. I would direct all my attention to keeping that machine moving
in a straight line, and push the throttle to the fire-wall.
For landings, I did more or less the same thing. This went on for about
the first 20 or 30 hours that I flew that airplane. They were mighty hard
hours, and I went to bed every night with my neck and shoulder muscles
aching like crazy.
After I got more comfortable in that airplane, I assumed an entirely
different posture when I flew her. Instead of sitting up high in the seat
and trying to look out over the nose, I would scrunch down in one corner
of the cockpit, usually the left. I would hide as low as I could behind the
windshield, and peer out the side along one edge of the fuselage. I had
discovered the obvious, namely, that if I managed to aim one side of the
fuselage down the runway and keep it going in a straight line, all the rest
of the airplane would follow right along.
On days that I spent long hours in that shaking, smoking, bellowing
machine, I would be so exhausted on the last flight that I would land her
completely scrunched down behind the instrument panel, and only taking
a peek out the side every now and then with my left eyeball. For some
strange reason, the more tired I got, and the less I dared to stick my head
out the side and contemplate the oncoming runway, the better landings I
That airplane did give me a couple of good scares, though. The engine
was always cantankerous. It would run rough for a while, and then settle
down and run smooth for a while. Then it would start coughing and
backfiring for no apparent reason.
When it ran right, it had all the power in the world. I could stand that
airplane on a wing tip with a heavy load on board, and she would power
through the turns as well as any airplane a man could ever hope to fly.
But when I would least expect it, she would gag, and wheeze, and
choke, and sputter, and that big prop would start spooling down. When
that happened, I would dump the nose, and hope I didn't run out of sky
beneath me before she got over her fit.
Sometimes that Pratt & Whitney would carry on for what seemed likes
ages, jerking and shaking and threatening to come to a complete stop.
Then, all of a sudden, she would explode in a burst of power, likely to be
followed by another wheezing spell. Or maybe not. She might just get all
cranked up again and go the rest of the day without so much as a sputter.
I guess I spent as much time mechanicing on that airplane as I did
flying it. After a while I resolved myself to the knowledge that that
airplane would always be temperamental and fly a little bit womper-jawed.
It seemed that she always started throwing her worst fits when I was up in
a tight turn. Actually, that was for the good. At least she never threatened
to quit running completely when I was down in a field and only a couple of
feet off the ground.
At least when she started all her coughing and groaning and starting
and stopping when I was up in a turn, I usually had a hundred feet or so
of altitude to get her back to flying. Not that I ever really had anything to
do with getting her running again. I would just sit there scrunched down
behind that windshield, yank out the carb heat, jam the mixture control to
max rich, and pump the throttle like crazy. More than once I dumped the
nose and rode her right down to the tree tops before she howled and
jerked and screamed into life again.
I guess that was some kind of fatalistic period of my life. (I read
somewhere that all men go through a "fatalistic period of their life.") I
guess I just made up my mind that if I was destined to ride that old
bi-plane through a thicket of live oaks, then that was just the way it was
going to have to be.
But I never did.
During the two years that I owned that Stearman I still owned my old
Pawnee. She continued to be my money maker. I had to make money
somewhere. I needed it to buy gas for that Stearman.
I had all kinds of reasoning as to why one pilot needed to own two
airplanes. None of my reasons were any good.
At first, I decided that I would use one airplane strictly for herbicides,
and the other strictly for insecticides. This made good sense when I talked
about it. But it didn't make any sense at all when I tried to operate that
way. The fact was, I was leery about taking that Stearman into any strip
that didn't give me a little extra margin for error. I just wasn't that good
at controlling her. My Pawnee, on the other hand, I would land on any
little scrap of dirt that gave the barest sliver of daylight between the wing
tips and the fence posts.
For a brief period I adopted a plan to keep the Pawnee in Atascosa
County, and the Stearman in Laredo. I would just drive back and forth in a
pickup, I reasoned, and save all kinds of money over flying an airplane
back and forth. That didn't work either. Why drive 200 miles in an old
truck when I could make the same trip in an airplane?
In the end, I had to admit that the only reason I owned a Stearman was
that I wanted to own a Stearman.
Of course, Bob had figured this out from the very first, and never
missed a chance to heckle me about it. "Hey," he'd say. "I hear gas sales
on the airport are double what they were last year. I wonder how come?"
The thing that finally separated me from my Stearman was the
wintertime. The first winter that I owned her, I flew her on vegetables
down around Zapata. I was never so cold in my life. The wind howled
through that big hollow fuselage like a blizzard on the Arctic ice cap.
I didn't own enough clothes to keep me warm. I would bundle up in
thermal underwear, two pairs of pants, multiple layers of socks and flannel
shirts, coats, wool mufflers, sweat shirts, and gloves. I still froze half to
death. I would sit in that old airplane and fly along shaking as bad as she
When the second winter rolled around, I refused to fly her except on
warm sunny days.
The following year I sold her. I flew her to Stinson Field and sold her to
a fellow from Louisiana. I made it a point of honor not to be any more
glowing in the sales pitch I made to him than Buster had been when he
sold her to me.
"She's just a wore out old Stearman," I said. "She shakes like hell. She
burns lots of gas. Lots of oil. She spits and coughs, and sometimes she
cuts out in the turns. I don't know what the hell's wrong with her. Brakes
ain't worth a damn, either. The only reason I agreed to fly her up here to
San Antonio was to prove to you that she really would fly."
That fellow paid me 50 one-hundred-dollar bills for her. He filled her up
with gas, and headed off toward Louisiana. I never heard from him again.
I hope he made it.
I hated to see my old Stearman go. But about that time 62 ZULU was
needing an engine overhaul and I needed the money bad.
Besides, I figured that I had sold her for the same thing I had paid for
her, and I didn't even have to throw in that old hanger down in Rio