president Rod Hightower spent 7 years restoring his PT-17
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said, "and that look is superseded only by the history of the
"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,
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
"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
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
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
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