by Budd Davisson
The PT-17 Stearman is literally the airplane that has always seemed to just be ìthere.î Although, it is most often thought of as the school marm that taught a generation of airmen the skills necessary to win a war, she has actually lived three distinct lives and is entering a forthófrom military trainer to crop duster, airshow performer, and now, much loved antique.
When Boeing bought Stearman Aircraft in 1934, they already had a new design on the drawing board they eventually designated the Model 75. The military knew they desperately needed a new, totally reliable trainer, but times were tough and money was tight. Money was so tight, in fact, that Stearman/Boeing had developed the new bird using their own money. Luckily, when the prototype flew in 1936, the Army dug deep enough into its pockets to buy a few dozen of the new design.
The military had just begun to appreciate the tremendous abilities of their new trainer when the winds of war began to stir up dust on the horizon and the aviation industry became one of the first to go on a war footing. It was well accepted that the country would need pilots, which meant it first needed trainers and the Stearman was definitely on its way to stardom. It would be known as the PT-13 (Lycoming R-680, 225 hp engine), PT-17 (Continental) W-670, 220hp), N2S (USN w/Continental), PT-18 (245hp Jacobs) and PT-27 (Canadian w/Continental).
By the time the war ended, approximately 10,300 Stearman had been built and they were sold at auction on a where-is, as-is basis. This meant that each base simply lined their airplanes up and the new buyers came and flew them away for as little as $300 a piece with the tanks freshly filled (a military policy).
End of Life One, on to Life Two. Enter the Aerial Applicator.
After the war, crop dusting wasnít anything new, but with the arrival of a seemingly unlimited supply of inexpensive airplanes and parts, the concept really took off (sorry, couldnít resist). By bolting on the 450 hp P & W engine and prop from an otherwise useless surplus BT-13, the perfect bug swatter was created and 450 Stearmans criss-crossed Americaís farmlands for decades. It wasnít until the early 1960ís, when newer airplanes designed specifically for crop dusting appeared, that the Stearman had to go looking for other work.
End of Life Two, onto Life Three: Airshows are just too much fun.
Those Stearmanís that werenít working as crop dusters immediately put on colorful airshow paint jobs and looped and rolled their way into the 1960ís. By this time, airshows had become not only socially acceptable, but some performers found they could actually make money at it. If they lived long enough, that is. The 450 hp Stearman was king of the center ring. It was loud and, while it was cavorting like a huge sea otter, it would belch out enough smoke to eradicate mosquitos in two counties.
Slow down of Life Three, On to Life four: Even airplanes like to be pampered
The Stearman will never completely disappear from the airshow scene, but many of its performance slots are now taken by zippy, tumbling little bumble bees. Still, she has become the darling of the antique set. While sheís not in the league with a Staggerwing and is definitely different than a WACO, sheís found a spot in a lot of folkís hearts that guarantees sheíll be living in high cotton for the rest of her life.
Makes you wonder what Life Five will be, doesnít it?