Warbird Alley Special Feature
"One Particular Stearman"
By John "Skipper" Hyle, Associate Editor

Associate Editor Skipper Hyle relates a special story about
a very special Boeing PT-17 (N2S) Stearman.

Father and son prepare to launch.


One Particular Stearman
By John “Skipper” Hyle
Associate Editor, WarbirdAlley.com

Growing up, I wanted to be around airplanes. My first job was with Barnstormer’s Airshow in Hanover County, VA. This operation had two Stearmans, some hot air balloons, and several sky divers that would perform for the crowd on the north end of International Street at King’s Dominion, a large amusement park in Doswell, VA.

I was a crew member on the hot air balloons and helped inflate and recovery them after the flight. Sometimes, we’d do a “Crash for Cash” in the parking lot, and sometimes we’d do longer flights to various places around the area. We did it so much, 180 shows each summer, that we could practically tell where the balloon would land as soon as it cleared the buildings and caught the wind line. We also flew champagne flights, promotional events for car dealerships, and whatever else paid money.

But in wanting to be around the planes, the Stearmans caught my eye. Our pilots were a varied lot. One worked as the mechanic and kept everything running; the other two were ex-World War II. One guy had given me my Private Pilot checkride, and worked full time selling aircraft parts. During World War II he had been a Primary Instructor in Stearmans, in the U.S. Navy. The other was a Battle of Britain veteran who had gone to Canada to enlist and never converted over to the U.S. Army Air Corps when he had the opportunity, because he wanted to stay in Spitfires. He ended up a Group Captain, and earned a Victoria Cross. Watching those two fly was a dream.

One of the aircraft was N179M. (They were both pretty much the same, but 79M is the hero of the story.)

Years later, when I owned my Harvard and flew the Mustang I’ve written about on these pages, I was at an airshow in up-state New York, at the Historic Air Group (HAG) museum in Geneseo. “The Greatest Show on Turf” they called it, and they were right. In 2006, I arrived at the show early to demonstrate the Mustang for a group of local kids. That’s when I saw a Stearman with a familiar paint-job.

After my family showed up, I began doing the “Dad” thing, walking around the airplanes with my kids. We began talking with the Historic Air Group’s C-47 check airman, Chris Polhemus. I thought I’d seen him get out of that same Stearman, so I asked about it. He told me how long he’d owned it, and related some of its history. I asked if a certain guy had ever owned it, and he said yes.

It had to be. This was the same Stearman from which I’d wiped the oil, twenty-eight years before.

Chris was overwhelmed at the chance meeting.

Later, as the show progressed and I had a chance to be around him, I proposed a deal. I had some time in the Mustang I could fly off, and while my wife had experienced open-cockpit flying before (in a 450 Stearman), my kids had not. Would he be willing to trade rides for my kids for a ride in the Mustang? Of course. And he thought I had to get reacquainted with her too.

So, the day after the show, he took my two sons for a ride. It was perfect Stearman flying -- end of the day, not much wind, out low over the cornfields to do wingovers and chase the deer feeding on the corn. The next night I took him up over the lake in the Mustang, an entirely different experience. I think he was about as thrilled as Matt, my youngest, was about his biplane flight.

The next evening, it was my turn. I climbed in the back seat and he talked me through the start, as I had no memory of the switch locations – but it starts just like any round engine. He had put a tow mechanism on the airplane, so the taxi was rougher than I remembered, especially on grass. Out we went, into the setting sun to do wingovers and chase the deer.

Not wanted to over-stay my welcome, I came back and we shot some approaches. I did it just like I was taught for a military airplane: A one-eighty turn to final, for a perfect touchdown on the grass. (Hey, it’s grass, and it’s hard to screw that up in a Stearman.) A couple more, and I felt happy.

Taxiing back in, as we talked about old airplanes and grass strips, Chris suddenly yelled “Stop!” I thought there was something I didn’t see and was about to hit, when I saw his straps come off and he said, “You should take your wife up.” Not believing I would be given the keys to somebody’s Stearman, I tried to fend it off by saying there was nobody to watch the kids.

“I’ll do it.”

So, Susan climbed in and he got her strapped in, and off we went. By now, the sun was down further and you could just begin to see the flame out of the exhaust stack. Again, not wanting to overstay the welcome, we did a couple of wingovers, then headed back for a couple of touch and goes, then quit for the day.

The joy of flight is shared by many people in many ways. Nowhere have I ever run into people who were as giving of their time and equipment as people in the aviation and warbird community. A Stearman is not a Mustang, but the experience is just as unique. And it’s the people you meet that make it work. In talking more and more with Chris, I found he also got to fly a Pitcairn PA-8 Super Mailwing, one my grandfather worked on at Pitcairn, before it became Eastern Air Lines.

And the circle goes ‘round and ‘round.

But it got better. This year, I took Chris’s son, a cadet at a military academy (since he wants wings, I won’t say which one), on a flight in the Mustang, and also took Chris up in my Harvard. For that, he let me take 79M up again, this time with my kids in the front seat.

Flying that one particular Stearman was another experience neither my kids, nor I, will never forget.





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© 2011 The Doublestar Group, All Rights Reserved

All images are used with permission of the original photographer(s).
Please respect their work by not downloading and using these images

for any purpose other than your own non-commercial enjoyment.
Most photos by John Hyle, Susan Northrup, and Chris Polhemus.
Photo #2 by Stearman pilot James Willess and submitted by Otis Dowdy.