Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Delivering the EAA Sweepstakes Stearman

There it is in Oshkosh - No bugs and only 20.3 hours.
It’s finally home.  I can’t believe it.  Six months of clearing up details and waiting out weather have finally paid off.  Ralph Lloyd has his plane and I am happy to say I delivered it.  Here’s how it happened.
Late October 2013:
Ralph on phone to me, “Rich, I need my Stearman brought home and someone up at Oshkosh recommended you; are you up for it”?
Me, “Yeah sounds like fun”.
Ralph, “I still have some paperwork to complete.  Will you be able to get it out of there with the cold weather”?
Me, “Yeah, it shouldn’t be a problem; there’s always at least a few 40 degree days here and there to make a run for it”.
Middle of April 2014:
Me to Ralph, “It looks like the micro-ice-age that settled over North America is starting to fade.  The weather man says the glaciers may even retreat north of Key West within the next few weeks; be looking for me”.
And that’s the highly abbreviated version of how one month turned into six.  But like I said, we finally got the job done.
This year's sweepstakes plane.
When I was first contacted by Ralph, we planned a big trip that would take a round-a-bout path from Oshkosh to Kissimmee.  That’s a little unusual for me.  I typically ferry alone.  Owners always seem to want training along the way, they usually have a ton of questions, their agendas are different, and overall they introduce obstacles to getting the job done.  If we lived in the same town and were doing local flying that would be fine.  But these are not things you want when the primary goal is to move a slow vintage plane from one point to another.

At the start and end of it all.
Throw in weather windows, employment windows, jumpseat windows, and rapidly escalating expenses to the mix and very soon the savings and efficiency the owner was hoping to accomplish have vanished.  Even worse, when all is said and done they're disappointed.  How to tell them that is the difficult part.  But in Ralph’s case that wouldn't matter.  He just won a freaking Stearman!!  So our goal was to enjoy the trip.
Unfortunately, that grand idea soon fell by the wayside.  With winter delays adding up we both seemed to realize the best thing to do was to focus on getting it home.  That’s what I did.  And at the first solid block of days with good weather I jumped on a plane to Appleton, a short drive north of Wittman Field.
When I arrived at the EAA maintenance hangar, the folks there took good care of me.  In fact, they even picked me up in Appleton.  Yeah I suppose they were ready to free up some hangar space, but I must say that through the years, even when the reasons for my presence weren't the best, they've always been helpful.   And as with almost every other similar occasion (planes to or from the operation), John and I discussed the aircraft in question, then looked it over.  This one was sitting outside in the sun; a beautiful, super glossy, Jake powered Stearman.
That's how fast a Stearman goes with a bigger engine.  Odd, that's what stock owners claim.
Even from a distance it was obviously very nice and I could only wonder what it must be like to get that call, “You just won the Stearman”.  My next thought was a simple one, “Wow, sheeez purdeee”.  You almost hated to touch the thing it was so clean.  Thinking about that for a second, I took a quick photo and sent it to Ralph.  Here’s what I said, “I thought you’d like to see what it looked like without any bugs on it”. 
Back in the hangar I took a little time to see what the guys were working on, reminisce about planes I wish I’d never seen, and to experience the operation at work.  Next I made some notes from the manuals, Jessica Voruda made sure I was able to get a butter burger, some photos were taken, and then I made a run for it.
Home in the air.
For me, climbing into any Stearman is like going home.  I love them all.  Some of the more vintage models may look different, but each of them have that very special something.  Back in the day, if you wanted the General Motors of aviation, you just asked any pilot for their input.  But if you wanted something better, you went to those who really knew their stuff.  In turn, you often ended up with a Stearman.  Fly a few of them and you’ll understand.
When Boeing acquired the company prior to WWII they had no idea how lucky they were. Found among drawings that came with the deal were improvements to the Cloudboy*.  These would serve as the foundation for the best known basic trainer of WWII.  The Kaydet PT Stearman, built by Boeing, was born to be special, and so it is all these decades later.
Digging my heals in and pushing the power forward the vintage machine leapt from Wisconsin soil.  Just like a favorite saddle horse, the old girl knew where to go.  Banking left, the Stearman and I were headed for someplace special.
Found at Poplar Grove; a story all its own.
Any time I am in the area, the first or last stop is always Poplar Grove.  It has become such a tradition that I joke it's the northern hub of the Lee Bottom Vintage Airways system.  In the same way you have to go through Atlanta to get anywhere on Delta, when something is moved on LBVA, you can almost guarantee a layover there. There’s plenty to see, hugs and handshakes abound, and fun is just waiting to be had. Furthermore, when it comes time to leave you’re not ready.  You don’t get that at Hartsfield.
Next I would land in Lafayette Indiana for gas, answer a lot of questions, and regrettably turn down several ride requests from students.  I know I know, I could have save the world; changed a Purdubee's life; I chose to head for Lee Bottom instead; sure to burn in hell.  But just like everything else guaranteed to send you to purgatory, that leg was incredibly fun.
Twenty minutes out of Lee Bottom.
During the hour and a half it took me to fly home, the GPS marked the passing of sunset with the changing of bright vibrant colors to blacks and purples.  In a biplane that’s equivalent to passing through the sound barrier.  It’s a wall most will never pass, and some fear, but once on the other side the magic behind mundane is revealed.  It’s rarefied air for open cockpits and every minute offers something to be savored if you’re willing to taste it.  Reality and dreams seem to merge.  And then, the tires are skimming the grass and you’re home.  The tick of the engine plays your favorite song, the exhaust smells like vanilla, and the plane puts itself away.
Brother John looking back to see if I appear to know what I am doing.
With sunrise all was real again.  There was work to be done at Lee Bottom.  Half a day later though, I was on my way to Bowman (Field) to pick up my brother.  Like I said earlier, I rarely take anyone with me on ferry flights.  But, exceptions to the rule do exist.  For me there are two or three people I know who actually help things go more smoothly.  Ginger’s the best for this.  She’s a classic self-starter and gets things done but she never forgets to stop and look around.  Unfortunately, she couldn’t go so I called my brother.
John and I hadn't been on a long trip together since he taught me how to fly Stearmans as we brought Old Bess home from California.  So, if he was able to go along I thought it could be fun.  Admittedly, he would also be useful.  His level of experience meant he would know what to do, and when, and that in turn would make the flight less like work; the perfect combination.  
The Cumberland Plateau.
After Bowman we would make a stop in Tennessee and then shoot for Griffin Georgia.  I had wanted to stop at Peach State but that wasn’t going to work out.  And although Jim Ratliff had been kind enough to offer us hangar space (thanks Jim), I was sure Griffin would work out better for everyone.  Airport facilities, food, and lodging are critical to the vintage ferry experience.  So, on whim I climbed out on the wing, stood on one leg, held my phone high, while John flew of course, and sent a text to Clay Hammond.
The setting sunlight reflects off of downtown Atlanta.
There are some people in the world you can count on for any given job and I knew Clay would know what we needed without having to spell it out.  When he messaged back, also from a wing (of a Waco), standing on one leg, and holding his phone high, he confirmed it.   “Land at Griffin, I’ll pick you up, get you in a hangar, we’ll get some food, and I'll take you to a hotel, and then take you back in the morning”.   That’s very close to what was conveyed.  Of course Clay is also known for moving planes around the country so I guess that was cheating wasn't it?
And then, just like that, the GPS switched to night mode.   There it was again; that rarely experienced window of life.  The air gets cooler, the plane’s inner fire is revealed, and everything becomes so calm you’d swear your heartbeats are conveyed to the controls.  Then you are on the ground, it’s dark, and you’re standing on the nose pumping gas into the tank.  Where did those last twenty minutes go?
Post sunset in Georgia, just after climbing out.   The exposure hides the level of darkness.
The next morning the doors slid open and the sun poured in.  Above the Stearman New Standard parts and early Wright powerplants were revealed.  Clay thinks of everything.  It had been the perfect overnight, like a perfectly finished desert, except in this case it was topped with a vintage fuselage instead of a cherry.  The plane had been in good company.  And although we wanted to talk old airplanes, there was no time to waste so off we went.
Old and new.
The final day of flying benefited from an A.M. start.  Unlike the day before, we’d be able to take our time.  An extra stop was made, some great old photos were found on FBO walls, and new people were met.   We spotted legendary landmarks such as the Suwannee River, obscure airports that always seem to pop up in conversation, such as Little River, and by chance we ended up directly over a private strip where I said goodbye to an old life and old friends, one of which I would never see again.   Then, as the world’s most egocentric aircraft collection slipped under our left wing, we dialed up the frequency for Winter Havens and could hear Ralph with Tim Preston in the pattern.
On the ground at Winter Havens
Turning downwind, base, and final behind another PT was an interesting way to end the day. Entering the ramp and shutting down beside the Preston’s well known trainer, the twin blue and yellow Stearman looked like a scene lost in time.  Viewing it from a distance it was easy to imagine student aviators having landed at an outlying field to wait out weather.  A casual bystander might even imagine the pilots discussing what they had learned from the experience.  The reality was actually pretty close.  I had rediscovered how much I love these planes, and Ralph had learned it wasn’t a dream.  He really had won a Stearman.  It was right there in front of him.
There's he is in his new plane.  Congratulations Ralph!

* To date, the Cloudboy, among all the planes I've flown, is easily my favorite.


Tony Fletcher said...

Great story, thank you. I'm curious to learn more about these stories: "even when the reasons for my presence weren't the best, they've always been helpful."

Dan said...

That was fun...thanks!

Unknown said...

Thanks Rich for safely delivering my Stearman. Thanks also for your insights into this iconic airplane and introducing me to the wonderful community of Stearman owners, pilots and enthusiasts. We are all fortunate that you have chosen to apply your considerable aviation knowledge and writing skills to our shared passion.


Unknown said...

This was a very enjoyable read! Thanks for the effort you put into the newsletter. There are those out here who appreciate that it takes time...and who has enough of that? Thanks again,