A photograph of an airborne open cockpit biplane hangs on my bedroom wall. It is a 1938 Stearman. I was at my sister’s in Chester County, Pennsylvania, standing at the sink washing dishes in the evening and this biplane kept flying around in front of me. Unable to stand it a second longer, I grabbed my 9-year-old nephew and said, “You want to go to the airport?” Aunt Anne let him do fun stuff that his parents wouldn’t let him do, so he was up for it.
We drove a couple miles to the local grass airport where the biplane was just landing. The owner and pilot was the founder and CEO of a pickling factory, “pickling” being the use of strong acids to clean steel. The CEO knew my uncle, who was the vice president of the steel company that was one of the major local industries.
The CEO had been giving his oldest son a flying lesson. Now he took off with his youngest son, about 11 years old, while the older boy and I talked. The fellow was good natured but discouraged. His dad wanted him to learn to fly; he didn’t want to learn to fly. His dad wanted him to become an airline steward and catch the attention of some chief executive. The son didn’t want to.
He was a school teacher in Philadelphia’s inner city. He wanted to stay a school teacher in the inner city. He wanted to make a difference in kids’ lives and as he taught, week after week, month after month, he saw that he was making a difference. He wanted to make a difference; he didn’t want to fly. His dad didn’t get it.
When the CEO landed, his youngest and my nephew went off to play together, and he and I talked. Then he asked me if I wanted to go flying. Oh joy, joy of my desiring, to go flying in an open cockpit biplane! “Yes,” I said, “I would like to do that.” He handed me a leather helmet and goggles, and helped me into the front seat before he climbed into the back seat, which is where a Stearman is flown from.
“The Stearman (Boeing) Model 75 is a biplane used as a military trainer aircraft, of which at least 8,584 were built in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. Stearman Aircraft became a subsidiary of Boeing in 1934. Widely known as the Stearman, Boeing Stearman or Kaydet, it served as a primary trainer for the USAAF, the USN (as the NS & N2S), and with the RCAF as the Kaydet throughout World War II. After the conflict was over, thousands of surplus aircraft were sold on the civil market. In the immediate post-war years they became popular as crop dusters, sports planes, and for aerobatic and wing walking use in airshows.” Wikipedia
We took off into the sun that was setting over the rolling hills, valleys, streams and abundant farmlands of Chester County. During World War II, my uncle, who was a Navy pilot based at Willow Grove Air Base, flew out to the family farm to give the folks a thrill and proceeded to crash in one of the meadows. He walked away unhurt—Stearman’s take care of their pilots—but nearly gave his mother a heart attack.
There is a mirror mounted in front of me on the fuselage so the pilot can see my face. I close my eyes and he calls out to ask if I am all right. I nod “yes” without explanation. My writing-flying heroes, Gordon Baxter and Richard Bach, have written about flying the Stearman and hearing the wind in the wires. I have closed my eyes to listen for the wind.
Then the CEO rolls the Stearman over on its back.
For years I had wondered if I’d have the courage to fly upside-down. I didn’t know.
I said, “Please don’t do that.”
He yelled into the wind, “What?”
I repeated, softly, “Please don’t do that.”
Again, “Please don’t do that.”
He rolls the plane upright just at the moment that I adjust to flying upside over the green bowl of farmland that has been in my family since 1652, more or less.
Dusk is turning to darkness so we land. I express my thanks and take my nephew home.
Lesson learned circa 1975: If you ever get a chance to roll a Stearman, do it. Anybody can fly right-side up.