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EAA AirVenture Oshkosh RSS FeedLow-time Stearman, but still a basket case
By Randy Dufault
 

Incoming EAA president Rod Hightower spent 7 years restoring his PT-17 Stearman.

Everyone has his or her favorite airplane, and for incoming EAA President Rod Hightower, the favorite is the venerable Stearman biplane.

"The Stearman is one of those airplanes that to me has a fantastic traditional look," Hightower said, "and that look is superseded only by the history of the airplane.

"Its place in history is well-known, well-respected, and well-enjoyed."

When the time came for him to move from admiration of the type to ownership of a flying example, he took the route so many EAA members do: He found a nonflying example and spent seven years restoring it to flying condition.

"This particular airplane spent its service life in Winnipeg, Canada," he said. "I think that is kind of funny.

"How in the world could you possibly enjoy flying an open-cockpit airplane during the winter in Winnipeg, Canada?"

After completing its mission training Canadian pilots, the plane assumed a civilian role towing banners up and down the beaches of Cape May, New Jersey.

"So as Stearmans go, it had the good fortune of never finding itself in the ranks of crop duster service," Hightower said. "As a result of that it was a relatively low-time airframe when I acquired it.

"And I'll tell you what made it a low-time airframe. Its life flying banners came to an end one day when it lost power on takeoff with a banner attached. The airplane stalled and crashed inverted into a group of pine trees.

"The bad news was the airplane was pretty well-damaged; the good news was that the pilot was okay."

The pilot of Hightower's plane was but one of many who walked away from a mishap in an airplane that is legendary for protecting its pilots.

Stored in the top of a workshop since its April 1967 crash, the aircraft was purchased by Hightower in August 1988.

"What I bought was called a basket case," he said, "and there were plenty of missing parts in this particular basket case.

"[Because of the condition] we let the airplane sit for a little while before the restoration project started. We began the process, and seven years later we had a flying airplane."

The result of the project is an airplane in, at least as close as is possible, its original PT-17 configuration. A few modifications were made in the interest of safety, including avionics, strobes, and modern brakes.

"There was a lot of corrosion from sitting in that workshop for so many years," Hightower said. "You would be looking at what appeared to be an excellent-condition part that you were simply going to bead blast and refinish, and as you are in the bead-blasting process, boom, there would be a hole right in the middle of this large, expensive, beautifully crafted piece of aluminum.

"Now it's time for a new part."

Both the rare aluminum McCauley propeller and the 220-hp Continental radial engine that grace the front of the biplane are the same ones the airplane flew with until its 1967 crash.

"The greatest hindrance to the project was my skill level, knowledge of the regulations and of aviation best practices," Hightower said. "So it required lots of counsel and guidance from people that knew those things.

"The airplane made its first flight in July 1997, and I can tell you that the project was a success thanks in very large part to a large number of EAA members who shared their technical expertise, skill level, and good old-fashioned mentoring."

Business commitments took Hightower and his family to London in 2001.

"We brought the Stearman with us and got to experience flying it all over England," he said. "It was truly a very interesting airplane to the English. No matter what airfield the Stearman would land on, people would come from all quadrants of the airport to see it and to learn about it.

"And what really impressed me about the English is the 'air-mindedness' of the population. Most of the people we saw knew what the airplane was and what it did.

"I think the reason that is in England is that they understand and appreciate what airpower did for their nation."

Over the years Hightower has had opportunities to give the Stearman experience to many, both inside and outside of aviation.

"We've enjoyed flying the Stearman," he said. "We've given hundreds of rides to young people, we've given over 30 Young Eagles rides, and we continue to fly the thing about 70 to 75 hours each year."

The most memorable rider for Hightower was Tuskegee Airman Col. Charles McGee. The 91-year-old McGee, who trained in Stearmans, flew the plane for more than an hour at a Missouri air show - with Hightower simply along for the ride.

After that flight Hightower had McGee sign the rudder of the plane.

Of course, changes are coming to the Hightower household; he recently got a new job. As part of the change, Hightower expects to relocate the Stearman to Oshkosh sometime in the next year.

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