The Biplane With So Many Lives
The PT-17 Stearman is literally the airplane that has
always seemed to just be “there.” Although, it is most often
thought of as the school marm that taught a generation of airmen the
skills necessary to win a war, she has actually lived three distinct
lives and is entering a forth—from military trainer to crop duster,
airshow performer, and now, much loved antique.
When Boeing bought Stearman Aircraft in 1934, they already had a new
design on the drawing board they eventually designated the Model 75.
The military knew they desperately needed a new, totally reliable trainer,
but times were tough and money was tight. Money was so tight, in fact,
that Stearman/Boeing had developed the new bird using their own money.
Luckily, when the prototype flew in 1936, the Army dug deep enough into
its pockets to buy a few dozen of the new design.
The military had just begun to appreciate the tremendous abilities of
their new trainer when the winds of war began to stir up dust on the
horizon and the aviation industry became one of the first to go on a
war footing. It was well accepted that the country would need pilots,
which meant it first needed trainers and the Stearman was definitely
on its way to stardom. It would be known as the PT-13 (Lycoming R-680,
225 hp engine), PT-17 (Continental) W-670, 220hp), N2S (USN w/Continental),
PT-18 (245hp Jacobs) and PT-27 (Canadian w/Continental).
By the time the war ended, approximately 10,300 Stearman had been built
and they were sold at auction on a where-is, as-is basis. This meant
that each base simply lined their airplanes up and the new buyers came
and flew them away for as little as $300 a piece with the tanks freshly
filled (a military policy).
End of Life One, on to Life Two. Enter the Aerial Applicator.
After the war, crop dusting wasn’t anything new, but with the
arrival of a seemingly unlimited supply of inexpensive airplanes and
parts, the concept really took off (sorry, couldn’t resist). By
bolting on the 450 hp P & W engine and prop from an otherwise useless
surplus BT-13, the perfect bug swatter was created and 450 Stearmans
criss-crossed America’s farmlands for decades. It wasn’t
until the early 1960’s, when newer airplanes designed specifically
for crop dusting appeared, that the Stearman had to go looking for other
End of Life Two, onto Life Three: Airshows are just too much fun.
Those Stearman’s that weren’t working as crop dusters immediately
put on colorful airshow paint jobs and looped and rolled their way into
the 1960’s. By this time, airshows had become not only socially
acceptable, but some performers found they could actually make money
at it. If they lived long enough, that is. The 450 hp Stearman was king
of the center ring. It was loud and, while it was cavorting like a huge
sea otter, it would belch out enough smoke to eradicate mosquitos in
Slow down of Life Three, On to Life four: Even airplanes like to be
The Stearman will never completely disappear from the airshow scene,
but many of its performance slots are now taken by zippy, tumbling little
bumble bees. Still, she has become the darling of the antique set. While
she’s not in the league with a Staggerwing and is definitely different
than a WACO, she’s found a spot in a lot of folk’s hearts
that guarantees she’ll be living in high cotton for the rest of
Makes you wonder what Life Five will be, doesn’t it?
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