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Fri, Dec 13, 2002

Guest Article: Timeless Stearman, Timeless Airman

By ANN Reader Dan Nickens

The sleepy southern fields of December jumped to the staccato roar of seven unmuffled cylinders. The air reverberated and settled into a steady beat as the old airplane shook to life one more time. Inside the cockpit a dream decades in the making was being reaffirmed. The man and flying machine intersected again more than half a century after the dream was just a juvenile longing.

The seasoned pilot gazed over the long blue nose stuck between the two yellow wings of the Stearman biplane. The smell of the leather lined cockpit and the engine oil mixed sweetly just as he remembered. The same two eyes had been wide open staring at the big round engine in 1946. He was only thirteen then and his dream of taking to the air was realized for the first time.

For the boy growing up in a modest Norfolk (VA) neighborhood, the thought of flying was all-consuming. He read everything about flying he could get his hands on. He made model airplanes to simulate flight. He worshipped the flying heroes returning from winning a world war. His prospects for ever following their path into the air, however, seemed wildly hopeless.

Dad understood.

His father understood the passion of the boy's dream. He prevailed upon a friend of his to take the boy for a flight in a surplus military trainer. There was, however, a technical problem: the friend was just a student pilot. Student pilots cannot carry passengers.

Seeing the boy's desire, the long-time student made an appointment with the Civil Aviation Administration (the FAA's predecessor) to ride with an inspector for his license. He flew to the appointed airport in a rented Boeing Stearman for the checkride. [Here he is, in 1946 --ed.] The boy joined him there in anticipation of being the newly minted pilot's first passenger.

The CAA inspector never arrived. There would be no new pilot to fly the boy. The boy was crestfallen.

For a kid, the rules got bent.

"Go ahead and get in," the student pilot directed, "but keep your head down until we get up. We don't want anyone to see you in here." He directed the boy's father to meet him at a muddy, unattended field to retrieve the illegal passenger.

The clandestine operation surely added to the boy's adrenaline level. Crouching down in the seat of the open cockpit he could barely contain himself. It was the biggest excitement of his thirteen-year life.

This time, it was legal.

That same excitement seemed little reduced in the intervening fifty-six years. The now-seventy-year-old man was beaming as he advanced the throttle to move the Stearman onto the grass strip. For this trip, the flight was completely legal. There was an instructor riding in the front seat to administer another in a long string of flight reviews.

The boy that hid in the Stearman cockpit was now a senior aviator. In the half-century following his first ride, flying had been his life. He had wrangled his way into the Air Force, flown jet bombers during critical days of the cold war, been in a hot war in Vietnam, was nearly killed when his airplane was shot down in Albuquerque [!], served as an Air Force advisor to the Shah of Iran's air force, retired from the military to fly charter flights, then retired to fly a homebuilt experimental amphibious seaplane. By any measure, he had proven himself to be a consummate airman.

Long trail back to the Stearman:

As a youngster, the boy entered the U. S. Air Force under a special program in the 1950s. As a cadet, he learned to fly in a slightly more-modern trainer, the T-6. He was then assigned to bombers and learned that trade by flying obsolete World War II B-25s. He graduated to fly a multi-engine jet bomber, the Boeing B-47 Stratojet for the Strategic Air Command.

Shortly before the demise of SAC, the Air Force captain transferred to transport aircraft and was shipped off to Vietnam. In Vietnam he flew dignitaries throughout Southeast Asia. He also flew commandos into mountain strips at night, guided only by flashlights the Special Forces troops arranged at the edge of the jungle.

About getting shot down in New Mexico:

After a year, he returned to the United States without taking any serious damage in the heat of combat. It was on a training flight out of Albuquerque (NM), however, that he came closest to dying in an airplane.

The dusk departure had the aviator flying as Instructor Pilot in a C-47 'Gooney Bird.' Shortly after liftoff, a flash fire developed in the right engine. With the crew unable to extinguish the fire or feather the prop on the stricken engine, the plane would not stay in the air. In a smoke-filled cockpit with zero visibility he set up the airplane for a controlled crash. Although the aircraft was destroyed both the instructor and his student escaped. It was later determined that a high -caliber bullet had pierced the engine, disabling all the critical components that led to the crash.

Iran was safer than Albuquerque.

The aviator also served time in the Middle East. He worked as a liaison officer with the Iranian Air Force. Before retiring as a Major and Command Pilot with five air medals, he returned to the U.S. and flew jet transports out of Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, DC.

Flying small jets for the Air Force led directly to a job with an aircraft charter company. The airman flew executive jet transports until the company he worked for went out of business.

Retirement was better, yet.

After some years out of aviation, the self-grounded pilot retired to Florida. Here he discovered the world of light, homebuilt aircraft. One in particular, a kit-built seaplane, caught his interest. He bought a Searey kit and built it.  He's been flying it for fun, on and off the water, for six years.

The FAA requires even someone of this airman's experience to pass a flight review every two years. Since the thrill of flying remains as strong as ever in the boy turned senior aviator, he scheduled the flight review shortly after his seventieth birthday.

Don't make it too easy, now...

Instead of taking a rubber stamp check ride in a plane he was familiar with, the persistent pilot chose to make it a challenge. He wanted to relive the experience of his first flight from the perspective of an accomplished pilot. He purposefully sought out Tim Preston, a Certified Flight Instructor, owner of Preston Aviation and one 1941 Stearman at X55, for his flight review.

Preston's Stearman was developed as a trainer, but it is no easy airplane to master. It was built when airmen flew in an open cockpit, with minimal instruments, behind two wings in an airplane that had little visibility for taxiing on the ground. Unlike modern trainers, it is a demanding taskmaster.

The biplane the pilot sat in was built in 1941. Dates stamped on the wings and ailerons showed that it started life as Pearl Harbor was being bombed. The date of the check ride coincided with the sixty-first anniversary of that attack.

It was impossible to tell that the airplane was that old. It was decked out in the sparkling blue and yellow colors specified by the Navy. It gleamed under the beckoning Florida sun. In the spirit of the craft, the pilot chose to wear a leather flight jacket and silk scarf. The cloth headset connected to a modern radio was one concession to the date on the calendar.

Watching the pre-flight ritual was a small cadre of spectators. One remembered the thirteen-year-old boy selling newspapers to raise money for flight time. Pauline Young, a lifelong companion, followed the aviator to Florida when he retired. She worked alongside him to build his little experimental seaplane. She was now present to commemorate the renewal of the man's lifelong dream.

In the space of a few hours, the government's requirements were ably met, to the instructor's satisfaction. The timeless flight concluded with the required signature in a book logging thousands of accumulated flight hours. One more time, Norman Frank Gracy, Major U.S.A.F. Retired, proved to himself and the world that he was born to fly.
[ANN Thanks Dan Nickens, "One of the Admiring Spectators," for his insight and enterprise --ed.]


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