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A 12-Year-Old's Birthday Adventure
Aerobatic Flying and Wing Walking in a Stearman Biplane

by Patricia Perratore-Anis & Nick Anis

When I was growing up back in Long Island, my dad's idea of adventure was taking the family on a three day vacation once or twice a year to a resort in upstate New York. Dad was quite successful, but he was a workaholic. Our rare and short getaways were fun, but I always said that one day when I have kids, I'm going to take them to see the world.

Being a travel writer has made it possible not only for my wife and I to travel around and see the world, and as it turns out, our two sons have also been able to do some globetrotting and exploring. Joseph (13) and David (11) have been on quite a few adventures. For example, during a month in Australia, we snorkeled amongst giant potato cod and docile white tipped reef sharks. At Lizard Island we shared the beach and water with an intimidating but harmless group of giant lizards, and at Cape York, we shared a mile long beach with "Gary" an 18 foot equestrienne crocodile who we kept a respectable distance from. In Florida the boys swam happily with the dolphins and manatees. While canoeing down the Husatonic River in Connecticut, Joey and David and I swam with some shy, but playful and curious river otters. While we parked our canoe on a sand bar and refreshed ourselves in the water, a small herd of deer came by to get a drink and cross the river at the shallows. In Palm Springs, atop the San Jinito Mountain in the back country, the boys came face to face with a fox that was as frightened as they were and spirited off back in to the brush.

Joey and David have gone snow skiing, water skiing, sailing, motorcycle riding, snowmobiling, wave running. They have raced ATVs and go carts, been rugged jeep riding in the desert, mountains, and rainforest. Besides commercial jetliners, the boys have also flown in small modern airplanes to exotic places. For example, Joey and I once flew to Catalina in a little single engine Cessina and we had buffalo burgers at the restaurant at the Airport.

But Alas, poor David, who is two years younger, didn't get to go on that trip. So a few years back, we hatched the plan that David, on his 11th birthday would go for a ride in a biplane and perhaps be given a live demonstration of wing walking.

We live in Diamond Bar so we weren't exactly sure where to find the local wing walker, vintage Stearman biplane, and veteran pilot; but somehow we did.

The Stearman, which has become the classic American biplane, dates back to the 1930's and the time of barnstorming. It is one of the most easily recognized aircraft. It's construction is relatively simple, even with high tech improvements. Originally, the soft surface of the wings was covered with cotton, now a polyfiber is used.

Designed by Lloyd Stearman, Boeing Aviation started building Stearmans in 1933. There were 10,346 built. It's estimated that there are 2,136 of these rugged and dependable aircraft in existence today. The Stearman has a wing span of 32 feet, 2 inches, it's 24 feet, 10 inches long, and is 9 feet, 2 inches high. The plane carries a crew of two who are typically clad in leather jackets and wearing goggles because the plane has two open, snug-fitting cockpits. The Searman has a range of 260 miles, and a ceiling of 14,000 feet. At level flight the plane cruises at 60 to 104 miles an hour. But it can reach speeds of 160 miles an hour or more during a dive and other aerobatic maneuvers. Wing Walkers might not want to smile least they get bugs in their teeth.

The Sterman is a highly maneuverable aircraft and requires little distance for taking off and landing. Because of the plane's taildragger design the pilot's forward vision is sometimes obscured. Stearman pilots rely heavily on their peripheral vision for landings, and usually prefer a circular final approach (depending upon traffic) to improve visibility and so they can better determine their proximity to the surface of the runway.

During World War II, the Stearman Kaydet (as it was officially named), was the only American aircraft used by both the Army and the Navy. The Navy model was the PT 13D an 17 D and the Army model was the N255. After the war the civilian sales for the Stearman soared. Thousands purchased the aircraft as a trainer, crop duster, and for performing at air shows. Today, the Stearman is just about the ONLY biplane still flying in significant numbers and "Stearman" has become synonymous with the word biplane; it's truly a classic.

Back in 1934 the Model 70 took an average of 60 days to be designed and built. Although the Model 70 could withstand load factors far in excess of what was expected to occur in normal flight training, the US Army decided to wait until the introduction of the improved model 75 in 1936. Over the next eight years the US Army ordered 8,500 Stearmans in five different variations. The Model 75 had wing mounted .30 caliber machine guns, a bomb rack between the landing struts and a single machine gun for the rear cockpit and was used as light attack or reconnaissance aircraft.

After World War II, the Continental W-670 220 h.p. engines of most Stearmans were refitted with Pratt & Whitney 450 h.p. engines, and used for dusting crops as the war economy turned into a civilian one. These considerable more powerful Stearmans are the model and other high performance biplanes are currently used for wing-walking and aerobatic routines at air shows. For added reliability and safety for aerobatics and wing walking, an injected fuel system and provisions for uninterrupted fuel and oil supply while inverted have been added, making this plane at home right side up or upside down.

The Sterman Flight Center and Silver Wing Flight Team

The Sterman Flight Center is home of the Silver Wing Flight Team consisting of three skilled pilots: Hartley Folstat, Ron Caraway, Jimmie New, and the daring and beautiful Wing Walker, Margaret Stivers. Their next show in this area is May 13 and 14 at March Air Reserve Base, South of Riverside (admission free).

They perform at airshows as a team flying the three biplanes fly in formation and perform thrilling aerobatic maneuverers to the delight of audiences. A corvus oil tank on each of the planes creates environmentally friendly white smoke that's released during their airshow performance so spectators can better see the plane's path in the air.
There is a rack on the top wing for Margret (the Wing Walker) to stand. There is also a trapeze under the plane between the wheels at the axle area. Margret personally designed this piece of gear. Besides the top rack, and the trapeze, Margret also swings and does aerobatics from the middle of the wings. Her routine is like a ballet, only it's done while a plane is traveling between 60 and 160 miles an hour and during rolls, loops, turn, climbs, and dives.

The team and flight team doesn't normally do scenic rides or lessons because their schedule is so hectic. They do television commercials, music videos, and even major motion pictures, plus they fly together practicing their routines and honing their skills. The most recent film they worked on is Space Cowboys staring Clint Eastwood due to be released this summer.

One of the pilots, Hartley Folstad is also a highly skilled plane builder and mechanic who has restored dozens of vintage aircraft throughout the 1980's and 1990's. The instruments in these planes are designed for visual flight rules VFR so they only fly when there is half way decent weather or better.

During the flight, the pilot and passenger wear headsets headset at all times, so they only hear the muffled sound of the engine. But the Margret doesn't wear anything. It's fairly quiet when you have the headset on and the plane is actually no nosier than a modern single engine plane. Also is feels a lot more comfortable taxing because there's lots of fresh air. We were surprised that there was much wind hitting us during flight if unless we put our arms or face out of the cockpit or when we made a sharp turn, climb, or dive.

The tradition of Wing Walking started in the 1930's because pilots were trying to attract attention to get customers for scenic rides. The idea was that if someone dangling from the plane was safe, it would be safe to take a ride in the plane as a paid passenger. So these flying machines would fly down main street and over the town with someone dangling from the wing, and the they would land nearby offering rides to the locals.

The beautiful Searman biplanes and the wonderful crew at the Sterman Flight Center who also are the members of the Silver Wing Flight Team certainly got our attention. We were thrilled to share an afternoon with them and to go up into the wild blue yonder. It made for a wonderful 11 year old birthday experience for David. As we taxied down the hangerways many of the pilots of modern single engine planes came out to look at us. David looked like a real pilot, and in a way he was because, Jimmie New let he take the controls for a bit. We were taking a ride back in time in a vintage aircraft that was build before my son was born, before I was born, before there were computers, jet engines, and at a time were most of the world got around in horse and buggy. And it was GREAT! I don't think David or I are going to do any Wing Walking but we hope to one day take another ride in one of their spectacular aircraft and visit our friends at the Stearman Flight Center at the Chino Airport.

Sterman Flight Center
P.O. Box 29
Chino, CA 91708

At Chino Airport across Cal Aero Drive and the Planes of Fame Museum

Phone: 909-597-8511

About the Authors:

Patricia Anis is photographer and writer covering a variety of subjects from travel to restaurants and family recreation.  You can reach Patty at PattySein@aol.com.

Nick Anis is a food, wine, and travel and technology writer with 24 books in print. Nick’s beats include snow and water sports, and vacation destinations. Nick can be reached by email at: nickanis@aol.com.  

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