Budd Davisson, Air Progress Vintage Annual, 1989

Classic is as Classic Does

It is dangerous to use the word "classic." One reason is that, under the EAA's scheme of things, the term applies to a specific group of airplanes made after the war. For another, it denotes something that is timeless which knows no era of birth or death. That is the traditional definition of the word, and it is usually applied to a work of art whether one, two, or three dimensional ­one that will live forever. It's also 'the definition of the Ryan STA.

I am a STA buff, pure and simple. I am not an expert. I have very little Ryan time and I doubt if I've seen more than three STAs in my entire life. But that can't stop me from loving a celebrity I've never met or a place that I've never been. In that respect, I suppose I'm like ninety percent of the aeromaniacs around the world. You don't have to have flown an STA nor do you even have to be a pilot to appreciate the lines and the history of performance that has made the STA live well beyond her prime of life. No, correct that, because she is still in her prime of life, which is why she is a classic.

If I were being totally honest, I would have to admit to an unnatural lust for the STA; in my eyes, there is simply no better looking open-cockpit monoplane. In fact, most of my Veco Chiefs and Warriors (those are control line models to you for young'uns out there) came out looking like STAs. But, if you think about it, most of the control line models of the 1940s and 1950s tried to look like STAs since that was every kid's way of owning the airplane they all loved.

I've never owned one nor will I, a simple matter of economics because the Ryan has never been cheap airplane. Costing $6,000 in its 1938 version, there was a brief period right after the war where a few surplus STMs (military STAs) showed up at bargain basement prices. That, however, was only the briefest blink of history's eye because she has always been one of the more expensive "antique" airplanes around. Today she commands prices in the $50,000 bracket. (Editor's note from the year 2000: we'll buy any $50,000 STA you can find. Yeah, right!)

Designed originally in 1934 by T. Claude Ryan, he of Spirit of St. Louis fame, the plane first took to the air as the S-T with a little 95-horse Menasco four cylinder, in-line engine in the nose. After only four or five S-Ts were produced, the engine was replaced with the 125 horse C-4 Menasco which gave it a lot more performance and quickly grabbed the attention of such aeronautical luminaries as Tex Rankin who used an STA to win the International Acrobatic Championships in 1938. According to folklore, Rankin used to dive the airplane to 260 miles an hour to start some of his maneuvers which, if true, certainly proves the fact that there were no real structural limitations on the STA airframe. The only limitation was the pilot's intestinal fortitude.

Since the STA attracted the so-called "sportsman" pilots of the day, it was only natural Ryan would produce a hotrod model STA called simply STA Special. It was the supercharged 150 horse C-4S Menasco that made the STA Special, really special. That extra 25 ponies gave a top speed of 160 miles an hour (according to yellowed pilot handbooks) along with acrobatic performance that was hard to match.

Which brings us to STA Special Serial No.188 and Lou Russo.

Lou has owned No. 188 for something over twenty years and, for at least half of that time, he and I have been trying to get together so I could live out my Ryan fantasies for real. But even though he bases the airplane less than 80 miles away, somehow we just never seem to dovetail our schedules or weather. Finally, just before he changed job locations, which would have taken his STA away from me forever, we managed to meet at Andover-Aeroflex Field in New Jersey where I am based. (Ed note: moved to Arizona in 1992)

As I watched him come down final to the stubby little 2,000-foot runway I call home, I was more than just casually observing. I was analyzing his approach and his way of handling the airplane since I knew in a few minutes that would be me up there. I didn't want to blow this one opportunity that had eluded me for so long. As he gently touched down and rolled to a stop in less than half the runway, visions of Veco Chiefs and all the film clips I had ever seen of STAs dancing through the sky flashed through my mind and I couldn't help but grin. I just knew that I was going to love this. I felt as if I had known the airplane all my life.

There is bound to be an inevitable comparison between the PT-22 world war two trainer And the STA since they are of the same lineage and general configuration. I am not particularly in love with PT-22s but I had always heard there was a giant difference between the 22s and the STAs. I noticed some of the physical differences as soon as I started to saddle up No. 188. Certainly the most noticeable is the size of the cockpit opening. Most of the military model Ryans (STMs, PT-20, -21s, -22s, etc.) moved the fuselage stiffeners to the outside and down so as to allow a much larger cockpit cut-out so cadets could climb in and out with that infamous cement-hard seat pack parachute. Also, the STA had heel brakes (more about those later) instead of the 22's toe brakes while the windshield was a formed, highly streamlined fairing made to cheat the wind while protecting the pilot. The landing gear was a full foot wider on the 22 and used gigantic castings rather than steel weldments for the yokes. The fuselage on the 22 was 14 inches longer and 3 inches wider. Oh yeah, I forgot the most obvious change, the little C-4S Menasco apparently wasn't giving the military the reliability they wanted so they went to a Kinner 160 horse radial. The net result of militarizing the STA airframe added almost 300 pounds to her empty weight, nearly thirty percent over the STA's 1,050-pound empty weight.

A lot of old airplanes feel just that, old, but the STA envelops you in a tight little aluminum womb that makes an old Pitts pilot like me feel right at home. Only the aforementioned heel brakes were of any real concern. They pivoted off of the bottom inside corner of the rudder pedals, requiring you to swing your heels well inboard and up to use them. This would be no real problem except I was wearing cowboy boots with riding heels and I had to work especially hard to make sure I didn't slip off the brake pedals. Since the airplane has a full swivel tail wheel, the ultimate authority in steering once the wind is gone out of the tail is the brakes.

In taxiing through the grass toward the end of the runway, I was pleased (and relieved) to find that with just idle power and virtually no forward speed, the rudder had absolutely no trouble steering the airplane. The brakes were only for stopping and not for directional control.

Lou made the first takeoff and I observed his technique carefully. When it came my turn, I brought the stick forward just as quickly as I moved the power up getting the tail into the air almost before we were rolling. The engine had that flat, hard bark that only comes from short exhaust stacks on in-line cylinders. It's a world away from a Lycoming or even a radial. It's a sound all it's own.

A little rudder pressure here and there kept that long, narrow cowling pointed straight down the middle of the runway. I felt that familiar grin work its way across my face, as the airplane lifted off and began climbing in a near level attitude. The wind nipping at my helmet, the stick vibrating in sympathy with the Menasco, the airplane had an aura of graceful eagerness to it, as if it was reacting to your wishes, rather than being forced to go somewhere it didn't want to go.

Leaving the go-lever forward, I brought the nose up searching for 80-85 miles an hour and found another gigantic difference between the STA and the PT-22 . . . the STA really knows how to climb! Since No. 188 was a Special, that extra 25 horses probably did wonders to her takeoff and climb performance. Since I'll probably never get another chance to fly a straight STA, my memories of its takeoff performance will always be that of the STA Special.

We weren't even out of the pattern and I knew I had definitely not misplaced my affections for the last thirty-five years. She was everything I had hoped she would he.

Russo and I were both very, very pressed for time, so the time allotted for me to make the STA's acquaintance was much tighter than I would have preferred, but I still felt as if I was being allowed to poke my head into airplane heaven. As I pushed the nose over into cruise and the speed built up, I began doing Dutch Rolls to get a feel for the rudder/ aileron harmonization. . it was absolutely perfect. There was no problem keeping the nose dead on a point as I rocked from side to side. It was as if I had been doing this for years because the controls flowed together so nicely. The ailerons were quicker and more precise than I had even imagined. Although not as quick as a Swift or a Pitts, in its day the STA must have been a real mind breaker. The only contemporary that had similar controls was the fabled Bucker Jungmiester, another of the legends to come out of the 1930s.

On the ground, even before Lou walked around up front to yank the engine into life he apologized for his airplane being out of rig. While I did notice a slight wing down tendency in cruise, it wasn't until bringing the power back to set up for a stall that I really noticed what he said. As the needle dropped below 50 miles an hour and the wing decided it had had enough, the nose dropped and the airplane rolled briskly to the left demanding that I push the nose down and punch the Menasco. Instantly it was back flying again, so I brought the nose up and set up for another stall, this time out of a 20-degree bank to the left. Pulling controls a little hard produced an accelerated stall that, again, dropped the left wing sharply down, showing me that, if I wanted, a quick spin entry was only a little rudder pressure away.

With time working against us and the sun working its way toward the horizon, I turned around and headed into the pattern at Aeroflex. As I was parallel to the runway and preparing to bring the power back, I realized we had never even discussed the landing and I had no idea what approach speed to use. Theorizing that airplanes generally glide at the same speed at which they climb best, I brought the power back and set up an 80 mile an hour glide. Later, Lou told me I had been right on the money, so guess-work once again replaces talent. The airplane's clean lines fooled me because it was obvious the STA wasn't losing altitude at the rate I had expected. A slight slip was in order. I had forgotten the airplane had flaps, which may have helped in that situation, but I prefer a slip anyway.

At no time did the nose block out any of the runway, not even as I broke the glide and gently felt for the grass with the main gear. Again, guessing that it probably safer to wheel land the airplane, as I had seen Lou do, I held a level altitude gently holding off until that long stoke-gear kissed the grass ever so slightly, and I gently eased the stick forward to pin the STA into position.

As on the takeoff, just the gentlest of rudder pressures kept the nose dead in front of me. However, as the wind began to go out of the tail and I let the plane come down into a three point position, it suddenly dawned on me that I couldn't reach the brakes with my heels! I moved around for a few seconds fishing for the brake pedals and finally said the hell with it and brought my head inside the cockpit to see exactly where my feet and the brake pedals were. I located them just in time to help me slow down a meandering swerve that had developed while I had my head between my knees.

On the second takeoff and landing, I felt even more at home except I once again was high on the approach and no amount of slipping was going to get me down in the first 500 feet of the runway. You get in the habit when flying off a 2,000 foot strip of going around if you haven't got it down right where you want it and that was the case on this approach . . . go arounds happen in the best of families. On my third approach I had enough sense to back the STA out a little further and Lou ran out the flaps which helped even more. Knowing this would probably be my last landing in an STA, I was determined to make the touchdown as smooth and perfect as possible, since that's the memory I would always carry. Before I broke the glide, I glanced inside to make sure my heels were on the brake pedals should I need them and then gently held off as the wheels whispered through the grass. As they began to settle on, I again pinned it to the runway and felt that silly grin working its way across my face for the umpteenth time on this trip. This time I had it wired and made an arrow straight roll out, which was much more of a tribute to the airplane than the pilot.

The comment a person makes when they unstrap an airplane after they've flown it for the first time often reveals much of what went on during the flight. In this case, the first thing that came to mind as I climbed over the side of the fuselage was "Lou, I now see why everybody loves STAs."

So what's not to love? The STA is a beautiful machine with some of the best control harmonization to be found in airplanes of the period. The visibility in takeoff and landing is excellent, considering that it is a taildragger, and in a wheel landing she's dead easy to handle. However, Lou says in a three-point, the Ryan does have a tendency to wander one way or the other and he prefers to always put the plane on its main gear as a form of insurance.

I know for a fact that I will never own an STA. The economic gods have willed that things like college payments and houses have to come first. It's not as if I haven't been there, and that at least puts me several notches up the totem pole of dreams. I was probably ten years old when I fell in love with the machine, and it took thirty-three years to consummate that romance.

A classic? Yes, in every possible sense of the word. She'll undoubtedly live on forever.

'Who knows? Maybe I'll own one yet.