What’s it Like Getting Checked Out in a Stearman?

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So what’s it like getting checked out in a Stearman?  Well, when it’s your Stearman, it’s a little terrifying.

The aircraft is a taildragger so you have those attributes to contend with and the Stearman has a reputation that precedes it, and deservedly so.  Add to that the fact that this was going to be MY airplane.  These few hours of a checkout would (hopefully) allow me to get my airplane home safe and sound and I certainly want to make a good showing in front of the seller who is also teaching me how to fly this giant old biplane!  So, no stress right?

What's it like getting checked out in a Stearman?

What’s it like getting checked out in a Stearman?

Like all Stearman students before me I start off in the front seat.  The rear seat is the captain’s chair.  You can’t see a thing in front of you when it’s on the ground (not that much in the air either) so when you taxi around you make s-turns on the taxiway.  You weave back and forth; going left you stick your head out the right side so you can see what’s out there, and vice-versa.  Lining up for takeoff you see none of the runway ahead of you.  You want to line up so you have equal runway appearing on both sides of you and after you turn onto the runway roll forward just a bit to make sure that tailwheel is straight, set yourself up for success!  Lots of right rudder when the power comes in and more as the tail comes up.  On my first several takeoffs I saw both sides of the runway clearly as I swerved back and forth, trying to find the sweet spot and not over control it.  Liftoff is at 60mph and let her accelerate just above the runway to 75mph and climb out.

We spent a little time flying around the practice area just to get the feel of her.  In the air she likes rudder in the turns but the controls are stable, not heavy, and certainly not light or touchy like some small planes.  But it’s back at the airport where things really matter, we need to do some practice takeoffs and landings, lots of them.  The Stearman is a big plane, with big wings.  It’s like flying a Cessna 182 but with a Cub wing on it.  Heavier plane but the slightest breeze will affect you, the slightest!  The center of gravity is high, all the fuel is in the top wing center section, and like all taildraggers the center of gravity is also behind the landing gear, and wants to be in front.  Put this together and on landing the aircraft will not tolerate any sideways drift.  If you get the center of gravity swinging to the side it’ll come around on you quick and you’ll get a 360-degree view of the airport, it’s called a ground loop.  The aircraft is also tall remember, so when you come in to land you have to remember “tall gear, tall gear” because your eyes are ten feet off the ground in the final moments before touchdown.  Thankfully the gear is huge with giant oleo struts to soak up student’s attempts at landings.  Even the tailwheel uses a strut and not springs like most taildraggers.  Everything about this aircraft is bigger.   But it was built for training day in and day out and hey, it’s a Boeing remember?

There is a ton you can learn about this plane and the way to fly it but we didn’t have that kind of time.  Our goal was to teach me how to land this plane so I can get home safely, the rest I could learn later.  The seller demonstrated the first landing for me.  80mph for an approach speed we arrive above the runway and wait.  Back pressure, more, more, more stick, more, wait, she’s not ready yet, and then, from about 5 feet in the air she stops flying (under 50mph at this point) and plops onto the runway.  No bounce, it’s just done flying.  Quick on the rudder pedals to keep her straight, jab and move, like a boxer, never still for even a second.  The upgraded brakes help us slowly quickly and safely and like that, it’s done.  Next it’s my turn.

We spend a few hours over a couple flights doing nothing but takeoffs and landings and the airplane and I get along famously.  I get the hang of things pretty quick and can tell when I do something wrong; that’s the benefit of 25 years in the cockpit.  I couldn’t imagine doing this as a kid out of a farm field having driven nothing but a tractor before and oh yeah, I’m going to war too.  I move to the back seat next and the seller shows me how to start the engine.  Radials are a different animal but there’s no trick to it and she barks to life on the 3rdblade.  Still, first time I’ve started a radial, and that was darn neat.  I taxi around the ramp to get used to the even worse view before we fuel up head to the runway.


The sight picture is different than the front seat but I’m used to it in a couple landings.  The seller hops out on the taxiway, now I go solo.  This was definitely as nerve racking as my first solo.  I’m alone in a WWII warbird, an antique, a big biplane taildragger with a reputation of being difficult to land.  This is awesome, absolutely awesome.  As is customary I do 3 takeoffs and landings and it’s official, newest Stearman pilot in the world.  Plus we’ve finalized our deal and when we get back to his house we sign the paperwork.  Holy cow I just bought a Stearman, now to make the 450-mile trek home!

-Nate Perlman

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