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  • Writer's pictureJ.K. Caldwell

Boeing Stearman PT-17 Kaydet

PT-17 Stearman
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First Impressions: Iconic WWII trainer. Truly a humbling experience getting the opportunity to get to fly a plane that trained the greatest generation of combat aviators.

History: This Boeing-built primary flight trainer took a generation of fledgeling student pilots from zero flight experience and got them proficient enough to transition to intermediate trainers such as the T-6 and SNJ. This plane started almost all American and Canadian aviators on their path to B-17s, P-51s, F6Fs, B-24s, SBDs, P-47s, Spitfires, C-47s, F4Us, P-38s and B-25s. The list goes on and on. This is a plane that did the job that it was designed for extremely well. One could make a valid argument that this was the trainer that won WWII.

Powerplant: Continental R-670 with wooden Sensenich prop. 220 horsepower that burns 13 gph of fuel and only .4 gallons of oil per hour!

Taxi/Takeoff: There is nothing to see in front of you but engine when taxiing due to the high resting angle of the Stearman. Taxiing itself is easy with good tailwheel authority and responsive toe brakes when required. When taxiing straight ahead, use gentle swerves to take peeks left and right, ensuring the path ahead is clear. The run-up is straightforward; 1700 rpm, check mags, check carb heat, back to idle and you’re ready to go! Take the runway, throttle full forward and listen to the beautiful music of that round engine! Rudder inputs are certainly required but you don’t need the footwork of Fred Astaire to keep it tracking straight. Push the stick forward to get the tail up and visibility is instantly better. Pull slightly back to create just a little angle of attack and let both sets of wings do all the work! The Stearman lifted off and started climbing before I expected it to. Many Stearman pilots recommend three point takeoff and landings when operating from the grass. Climbout is at 65-70 mph. With two people onboard and only 220 horsepower do not expect to be amazed at the climb rate.

Cruise: You’re not going anywhere fast so enjoy the ride! Some Stearman pilots say that takeoff, climbout, cruise and landing all occur at the same speed and they’re not far off! There is a trim handle below the throttle but it’s not needed much. This plane requires rudder during turns but it’s not too sensitive. The visibility is good and unencumbered by plexiglass. Enjoy the sights and smells of the countryside! Basic, positive G aerobatics are what this plane was designed for so, if you’re so inclined, study up on your Army Air Corps Aerobatics manual, grab a parachute and go for it!

Landing: 80 mph on downwind at 800 feet agl and slow to 70 mph on base. Do not start your descent until you’re established on final. Pull the throttle to idle and throw in a slip so you can see the landing area. When established on glideslope on short final take out the slip and transition to the flare. Grease that wheel landing and nudge the stick forward. There are no surprises and lightning fast rudder work is not required. Remember this plane was a primary trainer meant to train young men straight from the farm. The PT-17 will definitely teach stick and rudder skills, but it does so at the right level; the primary level. Once on deck with a wheel landing, let the Stearman’s tailwheel settle, then plant the stick aft. Once you’re back at taxi speed begin to gently swerve to see what’s in front of you as you taxi back to the hangar. Once back in the line, rev those seven cylinders to clean the valves and all 14 plugs, then pull the mixture to idle. There is something somber about the sound of a radial shutting down. Take a minute to just sit there and take in the experience before unstrapping and stepping out out onto the wing just like thousands of sweat-soaked student pilots and instructors did before.

Wrap-up: This airplane just feels right. Everything about it is big and mechanical. It smells like an airplane should smell. The seven cylinder radial sounds like an engine should sound. I have wanted to fly a Stearman for a long time and the experience exceeded all expectations. If you ever get the opportunity to fly a Stearman, treasure the sights, smells and sounds of this iconic trainer.

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