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THIS TITLE may sound as though I’m channeling a Glen Campbell song, but indeed I’m celebrating an aviation great who played a role in earning Wichita, Kansas, the title “Air Capital of the World.”
Stearman gave his name (if not his full design expertise) to an iconic aircraft, the Boeing-Stearman Kaydet. He kept Lockheed Aircraft aloft, designed crop dusters and other farm machinery, and had a hand in Gore Vidal’s childhood flying experience. Plus, Stearman’s fulsome aviation career gave rise to one of the best Personnel Office stories of all time.
First, the Wichita connection.
Stearman was born in the town of Wellsville, in eastern Kansas about 160 miles northeast of Wichita. He studied engineering and architecture at Kansas State College (later KSU), but left for San Diego in 1918 for pilot training in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He returned to Kansas in the mid-1920s and, in 1925, teamed up with Walter Beech and Clyde Cessna to form Travel Air Manufacturing Company in Wichita. The city’s terrain offered plentiful real estate for airfields; its prosperous oilmen offered venture capital.
Within a year, Stearman moved to Venice, California, where he set up Stearman Aircraft. Kansas connections were strong, though, and he moved the company to Wichita in 1927.
Prior to the 1929 Wall Street crash, Stearman and other aviation executives established the United Aircraft and Transport Corporation. This conglomerate, which evolved into United Airlines, included Boeing, Chance Vought, Hamilton Aero (propellers), Pacific Air Transport, Pratt & Whitney (powerplants), Sikorsky and Stearman.
As part of it, Stearman Aircraft became Boeing-Stearman, with Stearman continuing as its principal designer. But not for long.
In June 1930, he left for California again.
His design work, however, remained the property of Boeing-Stearman. An updated Model 6 biplane evolved into the most popular trainer of World War II, an aircraft that many people know as the Stearman Kaydet.
More than 10,600 Kaydets were built, starting in 1934 and continuing through World War II. The Kaydet found favor with the U.S. Army Air Corps/Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy, together with the air forces of 19 other countries.
There’s a great World War II video, one of Zeno’s Warbird collection, on Taxiing and Takeoffs of a Kaydet with movie star/U.S. Navy flight instructor Robert Taylor. See http://goo.gl/zIRzI7.
Stearman’s second stint in California dealt with a bankruptcy hearing in 1932 of Lockheed Aircraft (http://wp.me/p2ETap-1QF). Judge Harry Holzer accepted the offer of Stearman and his colleagues by noting, “I hope you know what you’re doing.” (Their offer was the only one tendered.)
As newly installed president of Lockheed in 1932, Stearman continued his first love, designing aircraft. He had a hand in the Lockheed Electra, an all-metal monoplane airliner (flown by Amelia Earhart on her fateful 1937 around-the-world attempt).
During Stearman’s (again, brief) tenure, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson was hired as only the sixth person in the company’s design staff. Johnson was later to set up Lockheed’s advanced design function known as its Skunk Works. Aircraft developed during Johnson’s Skunk Works leadership include the 1955 U-2 spy plane and 1966 SR-71 Blackbird.
Long before these aircraft, though, in late 1934 Stearman resigned from Lockheed. He went to work for the federal Bureau of Air Commerce, predecessor of today’s Federal Aviation Administration. This led him into cooperation with Dean Hammond and the 1936 Stearman-Hammond monoplane.
This aircraft and Stearman’s link with Gore Vidal are explored at http://wp.me/p2ETap-2sC.
During World War II, Stearman did engineering and design work for the war effort. Afterward, he turned briefly into converting war-surplus Kaydets into crop-dusters. Ever the design engineer, he then invested in what became Stearman-Hammel Co., Inc., which produced a twin-sickle hydraulically powered agricultural mower.
In 1955, footloose again, Stearman answered a newspaper ad for Lockheed engineers. In applying at its Personnel Department, he listed previous experience—completely honestly—as “Lockheed president.”
Stearman was hired and spent 12 years, his longest time with any company, as a Senior Design Specialist.
I imagine he enjoyed going to work each day. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014