World War II-era Stearman biplanes unite generations of Americans

What attracts people to Stearman biplanes?

“The Stearman is rare enough to be a valued American treasure,” explains Stearman pilot and restorer David Burroughs of El Paso, IL, “but common enough that many Americans have relatives who had some connection to them over the years.”

“The ruggedly handsome Stearman airplane played three historically rich and important roles in American history,” says Burroughs, the owner of a yellow Navy N2S-3. “And it’s still going. And it’s still attracting crowds who want to look, touch, and experience the emotion associated with it.”

Dozens of Stearmans, most of them the basic trainers for the men and women of the “Greatest Generation,” are expected Sept. 6-11, 2010, at Galesburg Municipal Airport for the 39th National Stearman Fly-in. Besides their pilots, the airplanes will attract hundreds of airplane enthusiasts from across the country.

Using a drawing by aviation legend Lloyd Stearman, engineers Mac Short, Jack Clark and Harold Zipp in the early 1930s designed what would evolve into the Stearman Model 75. World War II already was on the horizon, and both the Army and Navy selected the Stearman as their basic trainer. At its plant in Wichita, KS, the Stearman Division of Boeing Aircraft Co. built 8,428 of the biplanes – and enough spare parts to assemble another 2,000 — from 1935 to February 1945.

“Flown by young boys right out of school, it (the Stearman) neither dropped a bomb nor fired a shot,” Burroughs says. “Instead, it was simply designed to be difficult enough to fly so that only the best of pilots could graduate and then apply their skills flying America’s fighters and bombers.”

Airplanes played deciding roles in the outcomes in the European and Pacific theaters of World War II, Burroughs says. “The most common thread in those victories … is that the vast majority of the pilots that flew those planes were trained in the Stearman biplane,” he says. “No other airplane trained more pilots. President George H.W. Bush and Astronaut John Glenn were both products of the Stearman.”

While many of America’s warplanes were scrapped after World War II, the Stearman survived because they were relatively inexpensive – many sold for $300 to $500 each — and rugged enough to use as crop dusters and sprayers. “During the 1950s and 1960s, the Stearman biplane was the backbone of our nation’s fleet of aerial applicators,” Burroughs says. “Stearmans applied more fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides to our crops than any other aircraft,” he says. “Our ag production and nation’s breadbasket were stimulated enormously by the hundreds of privately owned and operated Stearmans from border to border and coast to coast.”

During the1960s and ’70s, the Stearman was the “crown jewel” of the air show circuit that inspired young people and attracted their talents to aviation, Burroughs says. “Many became astronauts, space scientists and entrepreneurs who got involved with technologies associated with space programs,” he says. “Those technologies led us to an era of instant communication and medical wonders.

“Today, the Stearman is still flying and bringing joy to both their owners and those fortunate enough to get to fly in them,” Burroughs says.

“The owners today are only caretakers of a piece of truly important American history,” Burroughs says. “Long since the WWII boys flew them in the early 1940s, and long since they were spraying cotton in the Delta, the kids and grandkids of those pilots own them now.

“But they will have many more owners who will watch over them and preserve
their legacies as our history continues to unfold,” Burroughs believes.