Flying the Stearman PT-17

Story submitted by Tally One member Phil “Kaiser” Wilhelm about the interesting way he got a job flying a unique aircraft.  Thanks for sharing Phil!

I live in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, and one day my wife and I were driving past the Washington, Missouri airport on our way to antique hunting. On the ramp was a Stearman and I told her when we finished we had to come back by the airport. Well we did, and I sheepishly walked up to an older gentleman and asked him if I could get a ride in the Stearman. With out-stretched arms he said “why of course!”

He put me in the back seat and at the very beginning he was telling me how to start the airplane, how to taxi, and how to fly. After we landed and I went into the office to pay for my ride, I noticed on the board behind the display were rates for his airplanes. They had rates posted for Cessna 172s, 150s, etc. and at the bottom there was a rate for the Stearman. I asked him, “Are you telling me you rent out the Stearman?” And he said they did.

I saved up my nickels and dimes went back and soloed his Stearman. I kept going back to the airport if nothing else than to get hanger time. The FBO’s name was Carl Cochran, now deceased. He was a retired Ozark Capt. who decided to get into the FBO business. I have an old time commercial license that I got in 1969 – that means of course no instrument rating. However, Carl said that he was becoming too busy to do his FBO work and fly Stearmans too.  He asked if he could talk me into giving rides for him.  “I’ll even pay you,” he said! Well to me that was kind of like asking me to make love to my wife and get paid to do it.

I have flown all kinds of folks, from little boys and their daddies, to World War II pilots, to Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine pilots.  I’ve even flown little old ladies. I’ve got just over 350 hours flying Stearmans, and most of that time was paid for by my passengers.

One of my favorite stories is of a little old lady I took for a ride.I was doing hanger time at the Washington airport, and two gentleman came in asking for a Stearman ride for their grandmother. It turned out that when their grandmother was a little girl she saw a biplane land in a field for the purpose of giving rides. She wanted a ride so very desperately, but could not afford one. Apparently her whole life she had wanted a bi-plane ride.  They wanted to fulfill her dream of getting that ride.

Their family was to have a big reunion at a park about 30 or 40 minutes away by air. (It’s been so long ago I don’t remember where it was.) But we made arrangements whereby I would fly over the reunion and land at a grass strip. They were going to gather her up and drive her over to see the airplane. Well that’s what happened and when she came up to the airplane they sprang the surprise on her by giving her a white scarf and a pair of goggles.

I got her into the front seat, cinched her up in the seatbelt, and away we went. We flew over the park where her family had gathered and that little old lady was one of the happiest passengers I have ever had. She was waving and yelling down at her family and they were doing the same back to her. (Even now after all these years I still get choked up telling this story.) This grandmother, who had to be in her mid to late 70s, climbed down off the wing of that Stearman and was jumping around as if she were 10 years old. By the time we landed other family members had arrived at the strip, and cameras were clicking from all angles, it was like a major news event. After everyone had left, I flew back to the Washington airport and all I could think about was that grandmother’s face and how broad her smile was and how bright her eyes were after that flight.  To this day, when I’m down, thinking about that flight lifts me up.

Editor’s Note: We plan on picking Phil’s brain more on flying the old Stearman and hope to bring you some photos and videos. Check back often!