Friday, February 10, 2012

A Story to Tell

Looking back through the first three rows.
"Three type ratings, an airline job, one airport, well over a hundred different airplanes, countless fly-ins, and a marriage have all come into my life since I last stood on these grounds."  My mind raced with disbelief. "Could I have actually lost grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, acquaintances, and my father, in that period?"  A scan of my memory confirmed the details, all of them points on a timeline. Yet somehow, time at Galesburg had stood still.

Earlier in the day, lifting up and away from the sweet smell of grass, my free hand reached for a chart. Lodged firmly between the combing and windscreen, a GPS plotted a future that I ignored. Having never trusted electronics, the chart was my choice and I worked to flip it open. Excited cannot explain how I felt.

Since the last snowflakes of Winter my trip had been planned. Seven months later, it was all coming together. Up front the “mail pit” was filled with bags. At capacity, the aft compartment bulged with degreaser and towels. Down in the cockpit, a pilot was going home.

Home has many definitions but they all have one thing in common; you can never go there again. I’ve found this true is so many places that, after all the planning I almost didn’t take off. Let downs are tough when you’ve been expecting great things. Yet, at the last minute, I knew if I did not go I would regret it. And so, on a September Wednesday, I pulled ten blades and away I went to the National Stearman Fly-In. After all, I had a story to tell.

Stearman C3B with a classic car at Galesburg
Smooth, clear, and fast was the trip. Inside, the airspeed read one hundred. Outside, section lines said otherwise. Cross a border, look at the watch, cross the other side, mark time. Grabbing the GPS to verify my math, I could see I was doing about one-fifty. It would be a beautiful but uncharacteristically short flight and I would have to work hard to not to miss my landmarks.

Regulars to Galesburg can get anywhere by the railroad tracks. For me, the iron compass was critical. Leading into town, a bend in the line would mark the arrival. From there I would set up for the grass and slip quietly to Earth. I’ll never forget my first time.

The year was 1997 and Old Bess’ engine was still pinking from heat when I first saw the vision of beauty. Having just arrived at our first Stearman Fly-In, sensory overload was approaching when all else vanished. There in the grass, seemingly by herself, sat a silver and red square tail. She was amazing. Walking toward her, I drifted by others that paled in comparison. She was even prettier up close; A thing of vintage beauty; A Varga Girl in a Hooters Calendar. My oh my was I in love.

Tom Lowe's C3R
Walking around, crouching down, and going up on the tips of my toes occupied the ten minutes that passed before the owner said hello. He had been there all along but my eyes saw only the plane. Tom Lowe was that man.

Anyone who has ever met Tom likes him, period. Placed firmly on most short-lists of nicest people they’ve ever met, he simply is best described as being “a great guy”. And, that’s exactly how I found him to be. He didn’t laugh at me for drooling on his plane, every stupid question was answered politely without condescension, and he even offered to let me look inside.

Then he excused himself, leaving me there to enjoy.

A peek inside the cockpit of "The R".
Later, I would tell my friends about the encounter with the airplane and the owner. “Oh you met Tom” they said, and from the tone in their voices, I could tell he was one of the fixtures of the event. “Tom was one of the guys that started Galesburg.” Yep, I was right, Tom was certainly a man of significance when it came to Galesburg and now I was embarrassed. “Great, I must have looked like an idiot out there” I said to my friends. “Nah, you look like an idiot all the time”. “Good point” was my response and the conversation moved on.

Rows upon rows of Stearman Aircraft
Back then, my life was vastly different. Owning little but ambition, I hopped rides in my Stearman wherever I could. This Illinois town was one of those places.

The world’s largest gathering of Stearmans is a great market for scenic biplane rides and for several squares on the calendar I flew into the last light of day. Because of this, by the time I was done, the evening’s festivities would be well under way and I would be alone on the flight line. Tying the last rope and securing the covers one evening, I strolled carelessly through the planes like night security at the mall. Only the music from the hangar could be heard among the airframes secured to their wires. Daylight was fading and once again I found myself with the “square tail” Stearman C3R. Alone with the plane, I pondered its history and context, when once again the owner said hello.

There's no shortage of cool Stearman Aircraft at Galesburg

Envy is not something I do. Coveting another man’s airplane? Now that is something all-together different. When Tom walked up, I was therefore extremely embarrassed. One rule of manhood is to never let another see you want something they have. Not only can it cost you dearly in dollars should a deal ever happen, it removes large portions of one’s self-respect. Oh well, I was had. Fortunately, Mr. Lowe was every bit the good guy my friends believed.

“Are you going to be out here early tomorrow?” he said. “Yes sir”, I replied. To which he responded, “Then I think you need a ride in this thing.” He was right.

The next morning I rode with Tom out over the corn fields to a point where he let me take the controls. I’ll never forget that flight as he led me through maneuvers to show me the plane, how airspeed would bleed off in turns, how it behaved in level and slow flight, and what if felt like to fly such history, I sat grinning ear to ear. It had just experienced my first true antique and I would never be the same.

Upon landing, I thanked Tom profusely and, to insure I wasn’t a nuisance, I walked away. Fourteen years later, I returned.

I was taxiing into a parking spot when I first saw her. There, a few rows back, was the silver and red beauty from all those years ago. My ride tied down and the area in order, I set out to see her.

My friends would have to wait, or so I thought.

Walking toward the C3R, a group of guys huddled nearby. Laughing and conversing, it was my friends and Tom Lowe. In an effort to not interrupt, I signaled hello to a buddy.  As usual though, he insisted on pulling me in and, to those I did not know, I was promptly introduced. When things settled down and proper greetings were all in order, I took the opportunity to share the story I had come to tell.

Notice a lot of people are out flying their Stearmans.
“Tom, I know you don’t remember me but fourteen years ago I met you by this plane. I was here to hop rides but when I saw your plane just I had to come look it over. When you saw me drooling on it, you were very kind and offered me a ride. I know you don’t remember it, but I will never forget it. We flew out over the cornfields and once we were in the air you let me fly.  You explained to me her aerodynamics, how she loses speed in a turn and how she feels when slow. The day of that flight was the last time I was at Galesburg. Now, fourteen years later, I want to thank you for that flight and tell you first hand the best part.  When I finally made it back, I brought one myself,” and I turned to show him the C3B on the front line.

Tom knew the plane I was flying and was genuinely pleased with my story. He was, after all, largely responsible for me coming back and doing so in a “square tail”. Later that day I ran into him again and we talked about friends and other Stearmans we had flown. He too had been at the controls of the Stearman Cloud Boy owned by Ron Alexander (also owner of the C3B I was flying) and the mutual extremely rare experience left us both wishing there were more antiques left to fly. Unfortunately, I had nothing new for Tom to fly.  But, being the guy he is, Tom had something for me. “Would you like to fly the R?” he said.

That's me taxiing the C3R back in after flying it around the Galesburg corn-fields.
The next day, fourteen years after my flight with Tom, on the same field, at the same event, I took to the air in “The R”, only this time I was alone. Roaring over the cornfields, I worked hard to take it all in. The most exciting years of my life were now defined, book-ended by this machine. The first true antique in which I ever flew was now the most recent model on a long list of those I had flown, and I wondered, “Where do I go from here”?
That's Tom on the right posing with me for a photo by "The R".


If you ever have a chance to go to the National Stearman Fly-In at Galesburg, you should do it.  It is a great gathering of wonderful aircraft and people.  Everything about the event is warm and inviting and the planes are always flying.  To give you an idea what it's like, below I am including a few of my favorite photos from the event.

They say the key to being a good photographer is never letting people see anything but your best photos.  Well, quite frankly, I don't have time right now to run these through photo shop and pick only photos I would submit for revue.  Therefore, you will just have to suffer through this fragment of the photos I took.  I hope you enjoy them.

Marilyn and Pat; daughter and grandson of Lloyd Stearman.  She was three when this plane was built.


NSEG said...


Bob Cottom

John Uhl said...

Great story Rich. Thanks for sharing.

Ronald Wright said...

For several years we had a Monnett Moni Motorglider fly-in at Canton IL. A bunch of Stearmans would fly down for breakfast provided by the locals. Afterwards, the Stearmans would fly over the parade route in town before heading back north to Galesburg!! What a site to see and be involved in..

Eventually some idiot complained about the "noise" the Stearmans made while flying over the parade route and they had to stop doing it. What a shame!!

Ron Wright
Monnett Moni Motorgliders, Ercoupe, Luscombe, Rand Robinson KR2s and a Lil Breezy.. Based at KSET north of St. Charles MO at Turner Field 54KY near Dexter KY..