Around the Airport

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Last Stearman NOT Last Stearman

A while back I wrote about the USAF Museum at Wright Patterson and their restoration of the last PT Stearman built.  The word on the street was that they were rapidly restoring it and removing some important history that came about due to it being the last one off the assembly line.  More important was the fact that the word on the street actually came from a USAF press release that said just that.
When I first read the release, I began fishing around for more information.  During my search I talked to several different people who did not deny what the press release said.  Additionally, when I suggested and practically begged them to preserve one important piece of it I received a curt, “we’ll think about it but not likely” response.  Soon after that I gave up, but not before noticing an interesting trend.
My initial conversations with the museum indicated this project was one of constant change.  When they were asked about something that didn’t seem quite right, a day later an answer would be produced to let me know that wasn’t going to be the case.  Up to the point of each response though, the point of each question was never denied.  This continued all the way to the end of the story, which I’ll get to in a minute.  It also implied one positive; they did not want bad press and were reacting in a favorable manner.
The final segment of this story now comes full circle.  Not long after my post I was contacted by the museum historian, Jeff Duford.  He wanted me to know the final disposition of the project and to clear up some inconsistencies published about the airplane for many years.  Apparently what he had found would resolve many of the things I had written about without anyone being the bad guy.  The perfect win win for a museum receiving terse questions. And you know what?  What he had to tell me actually did sort out decades of incorrect statements about the plane.  But again there is something telling about what was found and how.
As it turns out, Jeff was pleased to inform me the Stearman they were restoring was not actually the last airframe built.  Although prior to giving it to the museum Boeing had painted it up as the last one, the numbers on the plane in the factory celebration photo do not match the plane Boeing donated.  Therefore there was always a bit of a mystery surrounding it.  So, in the name of preservation and history, the organization began digging for more information.

Years of research later a critical discovery was made.  With the help of Stearman rebuild specialist Mike Porter, they were finally able to determine the plane they had was not in fact the last one built.  That’s great news, kind of.
As it turns out, the last one to roll off the line, serial # 42-17863, was actually wrecked at Randolph Field (Air Force) in 1948 and stricken from the inventory.  It therefore no longer exists.  The one at Wright Patterson, serial #42-17800, is therefore a very late construction but not the last one. This also means the museum's restoration did not desecrate the final example.

With that out of the way, Jeff also asked that I let people know the museum had decided to go completely original with the plane.  By taking it back to the day it rolled off the line; paint, color, props, instruments, everything, they were doing their best to honor its place in history as one of the last to roll out the doors.  That’s great news.
Unfortunately, the Stearman the museum has is not the last one built because that one is no more.  This also means the history they removed was history but not historically correct.  What’s confusing though is that I was told they didn’t think it was the last one built for a very long time and had been searching for documentation of this.  Yet oddly, up to the point I wrote about the status of the restoration, the mystery had never been solved.

Then by chance, as people from the vintage aviation community got a little steamed at them for doing what the USAF itself said it was doing, that changed.  The answer was discovered in short order.  That's very peculiar timing to me.  But what do I know?  So, in an effort to move on and look at this in a positive light, I can only say that when the vintage aviation community had concerns about about the restoration the museum rectified the situation.  I applaud them for that.
Thanks to Jeff Duford for his time and effort spent searching out the correct history on this plane.  And thanks to Mike Porter for assisting. 
Now let’s see if we can keep Swoose as Swoose.  What?  You haven’t heard?  Yes, the Swoose restoration plan has been delayed and when I asked how they were going to restore it there was a little bit of fishing around for an answer.  The official word is that they are going to research its history and make the tough decision as to what time in its history they feel would best serve their goals.  That does not sound very positive to me but I can tell you this; I think it’s an easy decision; keep it as Swoose. If you want to know more, click here and take special note of the last paragraph under "Move to Dayton".   You can also learn more about it by clicking here.  If it weren't for Kurtz, it would not have survived.
Trivia:  The actress Swoosie Kurtz is the daughter of Frank Kurtz and her name was derived from the name of his famous B-17.
I love the name and the caption, "The Swoose / It Flys".  As if those getting on board
needed some reassurance.

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