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Saturday, May 13, 2017


A vintage Stearman PT-17 biplane aircraft arrived in Scottsdale recently and will eventually become a display piece hanging from the ceiling of the future Thunderbird Field II Plaza and Memorial at the Scottsdale Aviation Business Center.  The plane’s flight originated in Cotter, Arkansas and made several stops on its way to Scottsdale.

You may be wondering what the Stearman aircraft was.  I spent four years in the U. S. Air Force in the early to mid 1960’s and must confess that I never heard of it until this year when I read a great book called “Flight of Passage” written by a guy named Rinker Buck.  In that book, Mr. Buck recounts a trip he and his brother Kern made as teenagers in 1966 from New Jersey to California flying in a small unadorned Piper Cub aircraft.

Rinker and Kern’s father was an old time stunt pilot who flew many different planes including Stearmans in an earlier era and had been highly impressed with the crop duster pilots of the mid-west who he referred to as the “Stearmen men of the west.”  More about those guys momentarily but for now I’ll say that Rinker and Kern Buck discovered that some of those guys weren’t exactly the romantic heroes that Mr. Buck senior envisioned.

As far as the Stearman PT-17 Trainer, the company had quite a history after being founded by Lloyd Stearman in 1927 as the Stearman Aircraft Corporation.  Their factory was built in Wichita, Kansas and by 1934 the company was bought out by Boeing.  The PT-17 was a tough little plane and was usually the first aircraft a pilot in training would fly when becoming a U. S. Naval Aviator or Army Air Corps Cadet.

Although the U. S. Army Air Corps needed new bi-plane trainers by the mid 1930’s they were hampered by a lack of funds needed for purchasing them.  Fortunately, after the Navy’s purchase of some Stearmans in 1935, the Army was able to follow in 1936 with a purchase of 26 of their own.  By 1940, 3,519 Stearman trainers were delivered mostly because of the threat of World War II.  It was a popular plane as it was rugged, easy to fly, and very forgiving of new pilots which takes us back to the previously mentioned “Stearmen men of the west.”

Barb, me, and the Stearman
After landing their Piper Cub in Brinkley, Arkansas to get fuel and spend the night, Rinker and Kern got a reality check when they found that the so called “Stearmen men of the west” would never receive any awards for congeniality.   While being lauded by their father, the boys found that the crop dusters had no use for what they called “prettyboy pilots.”  To say those guys were obnoxious and ill mannered would be to give them credit.  They were far from having the great “Stearmen men of the west” label given to them by the boys’ father.

Later, the airport manager explained that a lot of those guys were rejects with bad accident histories, license violations, and poor medical histories who would never be hired by the military or any airlines.  In a word, they were “down and outers” doing crop dusting for a living to support their welfare checks.

Fortunately, the Stearman PT-17 that arrived in Scottsdale is in mint condition and before it is put on permanent display, it will be flown to various locations as a fund raising tool.