Boeing PT-17 Stearman

The Time Machine

The Boeing PT-17 Ttearman does not just set the viewer back into the time of the aviation pioneers – its pilots experience much the same feeling too.

With its imposing double-decker construction, aggressive paintwork with flames of silver and blue, a steep nose pointing towards the sky and a beefy 9-cylinder radial engine it's no wonder that the Stearman on display at Hangar-7 is one of the most photographed aircrafts. Yet passions are seldom roused by the likes of everybody's darling but rather by the more extreme types. Such is the case with the Stearman – a Harley Davidson of the skies and a hot rod of the heavens. Similarly to its counterparts on the road, expectations should not be set too high as far as comfort and uncomplicated flight characteristics are concerned.

The Flying Bulls pilots are thus split into two opposing camps – the passionate enthusiasts and the, let's say, less ardent aircraft captains. Sigi Angerer belongs to the latter group and refers to flights in the Stearman as “a natural selection amongst pilots“, owing to the aircraft's taildragger undercarriage. The challenge such an undercarriage poses is the location of its centre of gravity, which lies behind its two main wheels. This is of importance primarily during landings: if the aircraft's centre of gravity lies in front of the landing gear, it has a stabilising effect. If the centre of gravity lies behind this, however, the aircraft is pushed around its own centre of rotation, namely the undercarriage. The further away the centre of gravity is from the undercarriage's centreline axis, the greater the leverage is which then rotates the aircraft. Side winds of as a little as 12 knots can demand the utmost handling skills of a pilot.

Generally, two kinds of pilots fly a Stearman: those who have mastered the Ringelpiez manoeuvre – an uncontrolled, sharp turn during which the wings make contact with the ground – and those who haven't. But the aircraft's challenging handling characteristics was not the reason the US Army commissioned the plane designed by Lloyd Stearman as a trainer aircraft in 1934. This prototype also proved to be a robust aircraft with good flight properties. As a result, the Model 75 became the standard trainer aircraft for the US Air Corps as well as the US Navy. Over 10,000 of its kind were built. The Flying Bulls' Stearman was introduced to the world in 1942, and was originally fitted with a 220 HP Lycoming engine. As was typical of many other Stearman aircraft following the Second World War, this model was upgraded with a 450 HP Pratt & Whitney R-985 engine (9-cylinder radial) and was used as a crop duster.

Following its restoration, the Flying Bulls' Stearman found itself endowed with four ailerons and a wingspan of 9.80 metres as well as a hefty Pratt & Whitney Junior- Wasp engine. Much of the aircraft's fascination owes to this strapping motor, which gives it the climbing power of a Lear Jet. The cockpit's welded steel-tube fuselage and wing assembly were largely covered with fabric due to weight considerations. Its open construction demands warm clothing even in the hottest weather, whilst the motor itself is the passenger's best ally against the cold. With a fuel consumption of roughly 70 litres per hour, it forces one to land after a maximum of two hours. For some pilots a relief, for others it is a much too abrupt return to reality.

Sigi Angerer's Logbook

Stearman PT - 17

I am not responsible for all the planes that fly for us, nevertheless I like them all. More challenging goals and greater heights can of course also be reached, albeit by younger pilots. Whenever I dreamt about an aeroplane I first went and got a hold of its operator's manual, as was also the case with the Stearman, studied it, then put it aside. After I had made several flights in our beautiful blue PT-17 30 years later, I knew that I had been right.

Admittedly I'm not a Harley-rider but to my credit I owned a Morgan Plus 8 at the time. To cut a long story short, about five years ago we wanted to buy a Stearman. We sent our restorer Hubert on a reconnaissance mission to Braunschweig to Martin Volke, an otherwise very likeable friend of mine, who has three flight-worthy Stearmen. Hubert then made a find in the US, bought and restored the aircraft, and barely four years later we had the most exquisite Stearman in the world. The first few flights were very impressive as, once in the air, you were transported back in time to the beginnings of aviation.

The open cockpit, where the pilot occupies the backseat, renders the engine's powerful growl a whole-body-experience. Fragrances and scents of the landscape as well as of the 9-cylinder engine permeate the cockpit. The airplane's steep angle of attack results in severely restricted sight, which is why one sees the Stearman in constant movement whilst in the air. A good view can only be enjoyed through inclining and cornering. The landing should then take place in a straight line, which was not always the case! At the time I acquired the proceeding operator's manual: F4U Corsair. And the rest is history!

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