Stearmans introduced ‘Greatest Generation’ to flight

The Stearman introduced more of World War II’s “Greatest Generation” to flight than any other airplane.

The popular name for the Army Air Corps’ version was “The Kaydet.”

For the U.S. Navy, it was the “Yellow Peril.”

And some of the survivors – they are between 60 and 70 years old – make their way to the Galesburg Municipal Airport for their annual reunion every year during the National Stearman Fly-In.

They were Lloyd Stearman’s Model 75, the last biplane he designed before he went on to other achievements after his California-based company was absorbed by Boeing Airplane Co. and moved to Wichita, Kansas.

The Army and Navy held separate trials for a primary trainer as war clouds started gathering in the last half of the 1930s. Amazingly, both selected the Stearman because of its rugged construction and its handling qualities were well-suited to teaching soldiers and sailors to fly.

The Wichita factory built 8,428 of the biplanes, plus enough spare parts to assemble another 2,000, from 1935 until February 1945. The last Stearman came off the assembly line hardly noticed, eclipsed by a celebration in another factory next door where Boeing employees completed the 1,000th B-29 bomber.

It’s not clear just how many Stearmans survive today, aviation historians say. The federal registry lists about 2,000, but many of those are little more than a few unassembled parts or just exist as a piece of paper. Knowledgeable enthusiasts estimate about 1,000 Stearmans around the world are still flying.

After World War II, Stearmans were sold as surplus. A single plane could be bought for $500. Many were converted for use as crop dusters and were working airplanes until newer, more powerful craft began replacing them.

Many survivors have been restored to their original colors – blue fuselage and yellow wings for “The Kaydet,” and mostly all-yellow for Navy planes. Others wear custom paint schemes and sport larger engines, cowls and wheel pants selected by their owners. The price of Stearmans today ranges from $70,000 up, depending on condition, quality of restoration, time accumulated on the airframe and engine, and other factors.

In addition to the military plane, a handful of earlier Stearman designs dating from the late 1920s often can be found at the Fly-In.

The Fly-In attracts 100 or more planes a year from across the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Weather in other parts of the country has an impact on the turnout; Stearmans cruise at about 100 mph and flying at that speed in an open-cockpit plane from the East or West coast can be a grueling trip.

The Fly-In’s schedule of events includes a variety of contests, judging of restored planes, technical seminars on maintaining the Stearman, and time to talk with other enthusiasts and friends. Most events are held here at the airport.