Stearman: Boeing’s Biplane Masterpiece

First taking to the skies in the mid 1930's, the Boeing Stearman has trained, entertained, been an air tractor and carried passengers both inside…. and outside, the aircraft! The latter being an interesting decision to take, and not for the faint hearted! It seems Boeing’s biplane masterpiece was ready for any mission; according to Paramount Pictures and Tom Cruise’s current project ‘Dead Reckoning’ … it’s even fit for a ‘Mission Impossible’ too!

Jamie Chalkley  |  05th April 2023
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Jamie Chalkley
Jamie Chalkley

Jamie Chalkley literally grew up around Warbirds... and crop spraying! Quite the contrast! Not content...

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From the plains of Kansas (or is that ‘planes’?), Lloyd Stearman drove a certain company forward in the autumn of 1927, its name? The ‘Stearman Aircraft Corporation’. In 1934, Boeing took the reins and pushed hard on the production of the ‘Stearman / Kaydet’; a primary aircraft trainer for the US Military. Between then and February 1945, over 8,000 aircraft had been built as flyers plus a further 2,000 that didn’t fly but were used as spare parts. 

To the US Army it was called a ‘PT’, to the US Navy a ‘N2S’ and by the Canadian forces; the ‘Kaydet’. But to just about everyone else who’s ever seen one, it’s simply: the ‘Stearman!’. And ‘simple’ was really the key to its success. The aircraft sported wood and fabric wings (x 4 of course!) and a rugged welded steel frame fuselage. It was a tough aircraft and was suited perfectly to the burden of being a primary trainer. 

Its construction was basic and so was its cockpit. No roof of course (overrated when the weather is nice anyway!) and in the early days, no intercom either… and being an open cockpit training aircraft; discussing the go-around or impending ground loop of the trainee pilot was no easy task. So you’d need to either warm up the vocal chords before flight (and have some soothing throat seats ready for afterwards), or have a better plan up the sleeve. Luckily, there was a better plan; from early on the Stearman used something called the ‘Gosport Tube’! 

Invented all the way back in 1917 by a certain Major Smith-Barry during some communication frustrations, he and a young pilot by the name of Sydney Parker experimented with some hollow stethoscope type tubes. These had a speaking mouthpiece (funnel) at one end and a pair of ear pieces at the other. The tubes were spread between the front and back cockpits and voila! They proved a great success. After testing thoroughly on the ground, an open cockpit aircraft departed from Grange Airfield in Gosport, Hampshire (on the south coast of the UK) and flew over the waters of the Solent on 20th June. It worked perfectly! Thus the ‘Gosport Tube’ was born! 

Following many hours of training pilots, the Stearman was retired from the production line. The last to roll out the door of Boeing’s Wichita facility was on 16th February, 1945. But that was far from the end of the story for the Stearman. Instead, it was launched, actually catapulted, firmly down Civvy Street by the growing demand of civil aviation. For instance, thanks to its rugged strength and relatively docile handling, it found, perhaps, unexpected success…. as a ‘tractor!’ 

Flying tractors?

Certain modifications to already well established aircraft made way for a whole new breed of flying… they called it ‘agricultural flying’ (or “ag flying”). In the case of the Stearman this was a huge success story; the front seat was swapped out for a dispensing tank, some had canopies fitted, others; larger rudders, and in later years an extra set of ailerons for improved roll handling. Many also had the engine upgraded from earlier variants to a more commonly used 450 hp Pratt & Whitney (still a radial). The tough but forgiving nature of the Stearman in the hands of an appropriately skilled aviator made the aircraft very much in demand. 

But it wasn’t just farmers that got to see the wonder of a Stearman carrying out thrilling low level manoeuvrers, the iconic biplane provided a whole world of entertainment as a stunt performing display plane. As the age of ‘Barnstorming’ got up to full speed, the Stearman wowed crowds and fellow aviators alike as they watched on to see this four winged wonder delight audiences at air shows across America. 


‘Barnstorming’; basically, the act of unusual or circus like stunt flying where aviators were keen to impress and show something new to their adoring fans. They took the art of aerial theatrics to a whole new level, especially when pilots got out their seat…. and started climbing out on the wing! 

The first Barnstormer is believed to be care of one of aviation’s greatest pioneers; Glenn Curtiss, who trained a fellow pilot by the name of Charles Foster Willard. Well, technically he was an ‘aviator’ as Pilot’s Licenses hadn’t been handed out in 1909! Interestingly it was Mr. Curtiss who received the honour of being presented with America’s first Pilot’s License #1 in 1911. Although that is partly thanks to the licensing administration issuing them in alphabetical order. Orville and Wilbur Wright received their Licenses #4 and #5 respectively! Still, it was a very small crowd no matter which number you were given! Mr. Willard took home License #10 by the way. Not only was he the first Barnstormer, but he was also recorded as the first pilot to be shot down in an aeroplane when an angry farmer took aim and managed to take out a piece of his propeller! …perhaps it was his barn being stormed that day?!  

Disembarking… in flight?

Ok – so what about this whole ‘getting out of the plane in flight’ idea? Surely that wasn’t going to catch on, right?..... WRONG! It caught on… and it caught on in a big way. 

In the early days of aviation (i.e., pre-1920), entertaining the crowds with circus type stunt flying was gaining huge popularity. Not just at airshows, but in the movies too. And some famous names were there from the start. Charles Lindbergh for example (pilot of the Spirit of St. Louis) was both a Barnstormer and a wing walker. As was Hollywood actress Gladys Roy. These and many others entertained people by the thousand with their stunts and tricks both inside and outside the cockpit (being airborne in both cases!). American pilot Ormer Locklear was considered one of the big founders of this aerial spectacle, although his first few times out on the wing were a little more practical minded, he wanted to make some inflight repairs! But his nerve and flare took him through a career that found great success when he launched his flying circus. Things quickly went way beyond just standing out on the wing; there was hanging from the wing, in fact there was hanging from just about every part of the aircraft! and during one stunt the audience stood wide eyed as he and another pilot made an air to air transfer between their respective planes. His logbook must have made for some interesting reading; depart in one… arrive back in another! 

But what’s all that have to do with the Stearman? Well… wing walking is still alive and well, and still entertaining crowds around the world. And you’ll find no better example than at the hands of British Display Team ‘Aero SuperBatics’, or as you probably know them better; the ‘Crunchies Flying Circus’, the ‘Utterly Butterlys’ or the ‘Breitling Wing Walkers’. Whatever you know them as, they are fantastic! The operate their brightly painted Stearmans from the UK and travel all over the world showcasing their modern take on perhaps the most classic form of stunt flying. A genre of air display that’s been entertaining crowds for over 100 years! 

Mission Impossible

Off the back of perhaps one of the greatest aviation films of all time; Top Gun Maverick (honestly, it could just be one of the greatest films of all time!), Tom Cruise shares his love and passion for aviation once more and is set to entertain us in the sky again in his next blockbuster ‘Mission Impossible – Dead Reckoning’. Rumour has it there are some stunning Stearman flying scenes in store for us all and Mr. Cruise recently released a teaser himself, sitting ‘on top’ of a Stearman cockpit (yes, that means outside!), he delivers his line before you see the aircraft bank hard over and dive down toward the stunning terrain of South Africa. I for one, can’t wait to see the movie and think it’s superb that mainstream cinema is feasting on aviation thanks to film makers like Tim Cruise.

Open cockpit delight

Mostly thanks to the booming crop dusting industry of the late 1940’s and 50’s, the Stearman simply wasn’t allowed any retirement. Pilots loved the handling and rugged nature of the aircraft, there were plenty of spare parts and the aircraft was a joy to fly. All this means there are a great number of this wonderful type still out in the world today. And it’s possibly one of the best value true warbirds you can get your hands on. There’s also nothing like flying an open cockpit biplane on a summers evening. I was lucky enough to have some time in one flying from a farm strip some years ago. It was…. well, special! It felt iconic. It was like something out of a movie. But don’t take my word for it, go try one for yourself! You’ll only come back with a smile on your face if you do.  

Boeing Stearman 75

Wingspan: 9.8 m
MGW: 1,195 kg
Powerplant: 220 hp - 450 hp (Continental or Pratt & Whitney)
VNE: 186 mph
Cruise speed: 95 mph
Service ceiling: 13,300 ft

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