When I was a kid I was always looking to the skies. One of my earliest memories is seeing the Goodyear Blimp float past my dining-room window. Absolutely guaranteed to make my youthful heart race was the silhouette of a pair of wings, stacked around a single airframe — a biplane, what my father called, in his transplanted West Virginia drawl, a “double-winger.”
Dad was an airline mechanic. For several years Dad worked a second job working on light airplanes at Ann Arbor Aero, about 20 miles from our Michigan home. A couple of times he took me to Ann Arbor to see the planes; most memorable to me was the hulking, yellow Stearman biplane that dominated the FBO’s hangar. It had to be the “double-winger” I’d seen over our home. But I never got any closer than looking at it across the hangar floor.
FAST-FORWARD A DOZEN YEARS
A dozen years later I was based at Vandenberg AFB, California, learning the gentle art of nuclear deterrence at my local Air Force ICBM school. I’d soloed a Cessna and had about 16 hours in my logbook, but hadn’t flown for about six months when a weekend lull in the training coincided with a fly-in at nearby Lompoc. I zipped out to the airport at first light to see the airplanes come in, and there it was — the once-familiar silhouette of a pair of wings framing a long, round fuselage. Twin wheels thrust down at angles as the round engine pulled the craft slowly past in a sweet rumble that echoed off the low California hills.
A Stearman! The aging trainer, orange with a white lightning-bolt stripe, settled onto the Lompoc runway and taxied to the edge of the ramp. The front cockpit was empty; a lanky gentleman sporting a bushy moustache extracted himself from the rear ‘pit after the rumbling stopped and the propeller spun down. The air was calm and the ramp still clear as the pilot rubbed bugs from his plane’s leading edges. The only sound was the ticking of that big radial engine as it cooled.
I felt 10 years old again, looking at that airplane. And then the magic started. The pilot pulled a fabric banner from the small baggage bin behind the rear cockpit, stringing it along the airport fence. “Biplane Rides $20,” it proclaimed, and in an instant I was at his side. Soon he was strapping me into the four-point harness in front seat. The massive stick looked like it was made from a baseball bat. The rudder pedals seemed incredibly far apart, especially when you consider the average pilot of World War Two was much shorter than the average man today. I couldn’t see anything straight forward, with the massive engine nosed up on the ground, but the visibility in almost every other direction was amazing. A small mirror in a streamlined fairing slung beneath the top wing was the only method of communication between pilot and passenger — if we were both looking at the mirror, we could see each other’s faces.
I remember little from that first, short biplane flight. I’d told the pilot I’d soloed, so he let me take the stick for a bit. It felt impossibly heavy (my only point of reference was an Air Force Cessna 172), and I’m oblivious to the horrors I was probably committing with the rudder. We came back down all too soon, and the line of eager passengers gripping $20 bills in their hands was too long for me to take another hop before my duties called me back to base. I wrote my father that night. I had flown a double-winger!
…AND 20 YEARS MORE
Almost 20 years and 3400 hours in my logbook later I had my next chance to fly a Stearman. Landing at the Staggerwing Foundation “Beech Party” fly-in at Tullahoma, Tennessee (www.staggerwing.com), my rented V-tail Bonanza was marshaled to park next to a pair of yellow N2S biplanes, the Navy variant of this venerable trainer. I soon learned that the nearest Stearman belongs to my old friend Bob Siegfried, a retired airline captain and all-around airplane expert. It didn’t take long for me to take “Old Bob” up on his offer of a ride.
This time I knew a little more about what I was doing. The four-point harness was the same, although this time I was surprised that there were no metal buckles in the shoulder straps — just put the web loops through the lap belt hasp. The rudders were still a mile apart, requiring a wide leg stance to straddle; the baseball-bat control stick didn’t seem quite so imposing. That streamlined mirror was there, supplemented in this “double-winger” with an intercom wired into cloth flying helmets. Bob had flown the no-radio biplane four hours from Chicago at 500 to 1000 feet above ground level — no doubt inspiring at least a few of the next generation of pilots along the way.
Adverse yaw steering… I’d logged a few hundred hours flying and instructing in tailwheel airplanes, so I was confident in my ability to handle the rudders. Bob did all the work on the ground, however. This did permit him to demonstrate the lost art of “adverse yaw steering.” As we all learned in pilot training, deflecting ailerons in order to turn creates an unwanted “adverse yaw” force that makes the airplane want to go in the opposite direction. It’s old-school flying, I’m told, to avoid using brakes and instead use adverse yaw for directional control. Simply apply stick force opposite the direction you want to turn and adverse yaw will swing the nose in the desired direction. It’s counterintuitive to push the stick right to turn left, but it works. I remember it that way the old AAA ads used to tell us to “steer in the direction the rear of the car is sliding.” Bob says it simpler: “steer toward the crash” — if the tail is swinging to the right, push the stick to the right to correct.
Aloft, Bob gave me the controls. Anyone who ever made the move from a yoke to a stick-controlled airplane knows that the transition is effortless — as if sticks were the natural way to fly. Rudder took concentration, but wasn’t too hard to control. Visibility was superb; there was little wind in the front ‘pit as the well-designed windshield deflected the breeze. I had to about swallow the headset microphone to be heard over that wonderful, growling radial engine.
Climb at 80, cruise at 80, descend at 80 — 80 miles per hour seems to make the big biplane happiest. It takes some effort (and a good bit of work on the wide-stance rudder pedals) to turn; pitch control is a little lighter than I’d expected. The good thing is that the wire-and-strut-braced Stearman is so draggy that any deviation from desired attitude takes time to make a big difference, UNLESS you’re very aggressive and MAKE it move. And then, what a blast! Steep turns were easy with little need to change power. And the visibility! A few thousand hours of flying cabin airplanes and it takes some doing to look up (relative to the seat of your pants) during a 60-degree bank, steep turn, but convince yourself to do it and wow, what a view! 3500 feet above the central Tennessee farmlands, in the shiny blue of a late autumn afternoon, it was as if I was suspended in space, circling in those steep turns!
We didn’t have parachutes so the Feds wouldn’t allow aerobatics, but Old Bob did demonstrate a couple of aggressive non-aerobatic wing-overs that had me thinking I was looking straight up and straight down at the ground. Bob let me try a couple of stalls to feel how gentle this old beast really is (an important quality for its role as the single most commonly flown U.S. trainer in World War Two). And then there was the finale. Two thousand feet below us, orbiting the Tullahoma airport, was a Twin Beech escorted in tight formation by a pair of Bonanzas. Bob expertly peeled off and put the Stearman in a dive, timing his approach perfectly to put us off the wing of one of the Bonanzas as we leveled at their altitude. Not bad at all for a retired 747 captain who never saw military flying duty! Of course we couldn’t keep up with the Beech three-ship, which pulled away quickly, but it left us in position for a standard pattern entry and a final kiss of the grass as Bob brushed it on all three wheels at the same time.
My father’s long since passed away, but I remember thinking at the end of my ride, “Dad, I flew a double-winger.”
BOTTOM LINE: Above all, flying should still be FUN. Flying the “double-winger” took me back to some of my very earliest dreams of flight. Maybe it will for you, too!