Pilot of Vintage Aircraft Flies Low and Slow : Operating 1941 Stearman Biplane an Exercise in Patience

Samuel Greengard is a Burbank free-lance writer.

When Bertie Duffy flies her 1941 Stearman biplane cross-country, people follow in their cars to get a good look at the vintage aircraft. Most find it amusing that they can drive the open highway as fast as the plane can fly. They also get a kick out of seeing and waving to the low-flying pilot.

Designed as a basic military trainer during World War II, about 11,000 Stearmans--all covered with fabric--were originally built. Today, an estimated 1,000 Stearmans still take to the skies. And that number increases by two or three a year as aviation buffs complete their restoration projects.

All the planes that still fly have been restored at some point, and many have been built from parts and pieces of two, even three other planes. Those in good working order are worth $30,000 and up; a top-notch Stearman can fetch as much as $100,000.

Tortoise of the Air

Piloting one of these vintage aircraft on a long flight is an exercise in patience, according to Duffy, who lives in Studio City. With a cruising speed of 60 to 80 m.p.h., the Stearman might be called the tortoise of the aerial world. In fact, when Duffy and her husband, Pep, flew to Illinois it took them nine days.

"The plane has only a two-hour range, which is about all you can take," Duffy saids. "There's no automatic pilot, and you've got the wind blowing in your face. You're flying every moment you're in the air."

That means plenty of pit stops for refueling and rest. And, because of the open cockpit, a pilot can't fly in soggy or cold weather. Add to all this the fact that the planes have almost no cargo space--the Duffys pack only one change of clothing and the tools necessary to maintain and repair the aircraft--and it's a bit like operating a flying museum piece.

Personal 'Air Force'

Duffy, who earned her pilot's license 10 years ago, is one of only of handful of women who fly classic aircraft such as the Stearman biplane. She has rebuilt two of the planes from salvage and spare parts, duplicating every detail--from perfectly restored flying wires and aluminum propellers to Dacron-covered wings made of mahogany plywood and spruce. But she has the spare parts and the motivation to build three more. "Someday I'd like to have my own air force," she said.

Sitting in an office decorated with photos, patches and other memorabilia, a place she has aptly named "the Bird's Nest," Duffy conceded that her private air force may not be too far in the future. Already, she and her husband have managed to collect an impressive array of flying machines. Besides the two Stearman biplanes, they own a reconditioned Fairchild 22, PT19 and a PT26. All are kept in a row of hangars at Van Nuys Airport.

'Real Personality'

Their interest in vintage aircraft began five years ago when Duffy fell in love with the Stearman after taking a spin in a friend's plane. "I was bored flying conventional aircraft," she said. "I wanted to have more fun. I said to myself, 'There has to be more to flying than traveling straight and level from one point to another.' When I climbed in the plane and went up I realized it really had personality. It was something very special."

The Duffys purchased their first Stearman a few months later, and named the blue-and-silver classic la Chat d'Argent (the Silver Pussycat). Their second Stearman was a "basket case"; all of the plane's parts, thousands of them, were tossed into planes in various cities without regard to how they fit together. It was the Duffys' formidable task to assemble the gigantic jigsaw puzzle and still maintain a semblance of sanity.

"It took us 18 months, working with three other people, to put the plane together," Duffy recalled. "The first four months we didn't even have blueprints to work with." When they finally completed the restoration, they painted the plane red and white and fittingly dubbed it Euphoria.

Which is exactly the sensation Duffy feels when she takes the plane up. Sitting inside the open cockpit--along with anyone willing to plunk down $100 an hour for a flight--she will, by request, do a dizzying array of aerobatic maneuvers, including loops, rolls and hairpin turns.

'Come Down Grinning'

"It's really nice to take up people who have never been in this kind of airplane before. They almost always come down grinning ear to ear." Still, Duffy, a licensed aircraft mechanic who teaches at North Valley Occupational Center, acknowledges that her first love is to fly alone, "to play with the airplane and have fun with it."

Time permitting, she enjoys taking local excursions to wherever her curiousity leads her. "In the springtime, it's so nice to fly over orange groves or fields of flowers. Not only is it beautiful, it smells fantastic. You can't do that in most planes."

'His-and-Her Planes'

Longer trips aren't out of the question either. A couple of years ago she and Pep flew from Van Nuys to Cottage Grove, Ore., in "his-and-her airplanes"--Bertie flying Euphoria and Pep at the controls of la Chat d'Argent.

Another trip took them to Galesburg, Ill., where they mingled with more than 100 other Stearman pilots who had congregated for a weeklong "fly-in." Besides telling tall tales and "trading lies," the pilots exchanged tidbits of information and participated in a wide assortment of contests, including precision flying and spot landing.

Getting there was half the fun. "Wherever you land with one of these planes, you attract a crowd," Duffy said. "But, when you land two of them, or sometimes four or five when you're flying with friends, it creates quite a sensation. When people see the goggles, the scarf and the leather jacket, when they see the open cockpit and two wings, it brings back of a lot of nostalgia."

Pulling Pieces Together

Duffy usually acquires the "basket-case" planes she restores from others who have attempted a repair and given up. The time and energy she puts into restoring and maintaining planes is enormous, and sometimes there are frustrations.

"Whenever you buy a plane from someone, you can figure there will be plenty of parts missing. You have to put the word out. Sometimes it can take a while to get everything you need."

Even after all the parts have been gathered, there's still the long process of cleaning, oiling and assembling everything. One-inch steel tubing must be welded into a frame. The wings--made of lightweight, high-strength wood--must be fitted together precisely, then covered with special Dacron fabric. Guide wires have to connect the wings and the fuselage. And, finally, the rebuilt engine, brakes, cockpit and gauges must be put into place. When all the finishing touches, including a paint job, are complete, it's time for the moment of truth.

Getting a rebuilt plane off the ground the first time is not without its risks, of course. But, for Duffy, the advantages outweigh the peril.

"Taking up a plane that you've built yourself is one of the most exciting experiences there is," she said. "A lot of things go through your mind. You wonder if you did everything right, if you checked everything. It's a real accomplishment."

Besides, she added, "At some point you realize you didn't build a hangar queen, you built the plane to fly. And that's what it's all about."

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