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Breitling Wingwalkers and The Boeing Stearman

Lloyd Carlton Stearman was born in Wellsford Kansas in October 1898. The son of Fred and Icie May Stearman, who came to Kansas from the Chicargo area. Lloyd Stearman had a quiet nature, loved classical music, played the violin and was conservative, practical and an “aircraft designer extraordinary.” He formed the Stearman Aircraft Company Inc. alongside Fred Holt and Mac Short in 1927.

The Stearman first flew in 1933. By 1938 the Stearman Aircraft Company was taken over by Boeing, but the name stuck. Sales were initially modest but the coming of World War II transformed the market and about 10,000 Stearman had been built by the end of the war in 1945.

It should come as no surprise that the design harks back to what Biggles might have piloted when dog-fighting the Red Baron over the Western Front in 1918. The Stearman first took to the air just 15 years after World War I had ended, and its design continued the tried, tested and well-understood features of the aircraft of the day. It has two wings to increase lift (at the expense of high drag). The fuselage is a welded steel tube and the wing spars and ribs are made of wood. Both are covered in fabric. (Originally it would have been varnished- to taunt it).

The Breitling Stearman are covered in a plastic material, which is tightened up with a hot domestic iron.) The fixed undercarriage can take plenty of punishment. A radial engine powers the aircraft driving the propellers so fast that their tips break the sound barrier.

When it was used as a trainer the two pilots sat in tandem, with the instructor in the rear cockpit. Open cockpits were favoured to get a “feel” for their aircraft, and the way the wind was blowing around their head was an important factor in making sure the aircraft was flying in balance - or not. It was the standard training aircraft of the era. The contemporary British de Havilland Tiger Moth biplane is very similar, although a bit smaller and less powerful.

When the war ended, thousands of Stearman came onto the civilian market. Often they were fitted with tanks and nozzles for agricultural crop dusting duties. In a roundabout way this led to the Stearmans’s most famous appearance in the movies, when Gary Grant is chased by a machinegun toting crop-duster in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller "North by Northwest".

Wingwalking dates back to when young flying aces returned from the First World War totally addicted to the thrill of flying. After the war surplus aircraft were cheap to buy, so they were purchased by these pilots who would thrill the crowds with their aerial antics and sell joy rides to the spectators.

To entertain the crowds the further and to ensure they returned the pilots began to persuade their girlfriends and engineers to walk out along their biplanes wings. This was part of wingwalking and flying circus entertainment.

Breightling Wingwalkers fly a 1940 Vintage Boeing Stearman biplane in a striking livery. The aircraft has been modified with extra ailerons and a bigger engine. They are fitted with a massive 450hp Pratt amp Witney radial engine with a 10-foot diameter propeller. The tips of the propeller reach supersonic speeds.

The aircraft that make up the Aero superbatics Wingwalking Team are not stock Stearman’s, though. There are no controls in the forward cockpit because the wingwalkers need to climb out and up and onto the display area when ready as they would be exhausted and frozen by the time the display started if they had to be there in the beginning of the display. And although the ladies of the team are breathtaking in their athleticism, in aerodynamic terms they are giant air brakes- their bodies create great deal of ‘drag’. So the engines are considerably boosted to punch that assembly of wings, wires, struts and ladies through the air.

Standard Stearmans have a 220 horsepower engine. The super Stearman’s of the Breitling Wingwalkers team are driven 450 hp radials. That mighty extra power means the pilots don’t need to gain energy for manoeuvers by continually diving, then climbing for altitude in order to dive again. All the energy they need is bolted to the front of the aircraft.

And to improve the roll speed of the aircraft, extra pair of ailerons is fitted to the upper biplane wings, slaved to the ones on the lower wings. (‘Aileron’ is a French word that literally means ‘little wings’ as they move up and down in the airflow they rolls the aircraft.

One of the Wingwalkers girls refered to it as performing gymnastics in a hurricane, which explains it very well. It’s so difficult to push against the wind speed. It’s like when you stick your hand out of the car on the motorway. When it rains it’s like having pins thrown at your face. It a very busy display team that performs at events throughout the world. The firm operates a fleet of four Stearman’s and in the process of adding a 5th to the fleet.


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