In 1933 the Stearman Aircraft Company unveiled the Model 80 and Model 81 – transtional designs that represented the ultimate biplane at the dawn of the monoplane age.

In 1932, the halcyon days of the “‘Roarin’ Twenties” were nothing more than painful memories for the American people. Wall Street was still in shambles three years after the horrendous stock market crash of October 1929, and President Herbert Hoover’s policy of laissez-faire did nothing to help spark the economic recovery the United States so desperately needed. The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in November 1932, however, saw a major shift from Hoover’s Republican “let do” attitude to FDR’s democratic “let’s do” agenda. During the next year the gradual implementation of his “New Deal” program resurrected the banking system, restored the public’s confidence in the economy and began to put Americans back to work.

In 1927 Mac Short, a graduate of the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in aeronautical engineering, worked side-by-side with Lloyd Stearman to transform their designs into production aircraft. As with Stearman, Short was a native Kansan and a key figure in the Stearman |Aircraft Company from 1927 until the late 1930s. As chief engineer, he led the team that created the overall design of the Model 80 and Model 81.
(Courtesy Wichita-Sedgewick County Historical Museum)

Despite Roosevelt’s efforts, by July 1932 the Dow Jones industrial average had plummeted from a high 350 in 1929 to about 50 in July 1932. Interpreted another way, the stock market hit bottom after losing 89 percent of its value during a three-year plunge. Beginning in 1930 and continuing into the early 1930s, the once thriving aircraft industry in Wichita, Kansas, had come perilously close to annihilation. Many of its small companies had quickly succumbed to the Great Depression, and even the Travel Air Company, the city’s first truly successful airframe manufacturer, fell silent in 1931 followed by the Cessna Aircraft Company one year later. The Stearman Aircraft Company was hanging on by a thread, thanks to being part of the giant aeronautical conglomerate, United Aircraft & Transport Corporation (UA&TC). These three Wichita companies had built and delivered nearly 900 new airplanes in 1928 alone, and for 1929 local executives Walter H. Beech, Clyde V. Cessna and Lloyd C. Stearman had been confident that numbers would double.

It is important to mention that soon after an order for 12 Model 4CM Junior Speed Mail biplanes had been completed and delivered to customer American Airlines, Lloyd Stearman decided to resign from the company he had founded in 1926 that still bore his name. His decision came in the wake of a business trip to New York City where he met with officials of UA&TC. Lloyd’s announcement came as a surprise to many Wichitans, but his departure may have been inevitable given his independent nature and entrepreneurial spirit.

His company had become a mere cog in the wheel of a giant profit-oriented enterprise that had swallowed up not only Lloyd’s company, but also Boeing Airplane Company, Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, Chance-Vought Corporation, Hamilton Aero manufacturing company and the Sikorsky Aircraft Company. Stearman told local newspaper reporters that he intended to leave Wichita and return to California “where he will take a rest and look into various business prospects,” according to the July 7, 1931, edition of the Wichita Eagle. Lloyd also told reporters that, “The growth of aviation may be slow in the next few years, but it will be consistent and steady. I believe there is no question but that it will shortly become one of the great industries of the nation.” He added that, “Because of Wichita’s natural advantages as to climate, and because it is easily reached from the eastern and western airplane markets, this city will always be an important factor in the growth of aviation.” In the second week of October 1931, Stearman and his family climbed into their eight-cylinder, four-door Packard and headed west.

After his resignation, Lloyd had begun working on the design of a completely new airplane intended for small airlines and airmail operators. In California, he teamed up with Walter T. Varney and Robert E. Gross to form the Stearman-Varney Aircraft Company. The Great Depression may have decimated the commercial aircraft industry, but it also provided unique opportunities for those brave enough to take a risk. So it was that in 1932 Lloyd, Gross and Varney cobbled together $40,000 to buy the assets of the Lockheed Aircraft Company. Stearman was appointed president and at age 34 began the fourth phase of his distinguished career in aeronautics. In 1933 the new design Stearman had been working on in the parlor of his house in Wichita became the Lockheed Model 10 Electra, which first flew in February of that year. Lloyd would remain with the Lockheed company until 1935 when he resigned to pursue other aviation interests.

Meanwhile, back in Wichita the year 1932 had marked a low point in the fortunes of the Stearman Aircraft Company. The factory had grown quiet and only a skeleton crew remained on the slender payroll. The number of employees had sunk to fewer than 25 – down from 250 during 1929. Thanks to the hefty bank accounts of UA&TC, the Stearman operation still survived while senior officials of the company, Walter P. Inness, Jr., and Julius E. Schaefer, hoped for better days ahead. Meanwhile, the engineering department, still under the capable leadership of Mac Short, had been reduced to only a few souls and blueprints were collecting dust on the drawing boards. Money for new projects was extremely tight and the business was operating day-to-day on a shoestring budget.

An aerial view of the new Stearman Aircraft Company factory was taken in the early 1930s. The sprawling facility on South Oliver Road remained unchanged until 1939 when large orders for primary training airplanes led to major expansions. (Edward H. Phillips Collection)

Fortunately, in September 1932 the situation suddenly took a turn for the better. The Boeing Airplane Company had contracted with the Stearman factory to manufacture hundreds of detailed parts and assemblies for the Model 247 airline transport – a new, all-metal, twin-engine monoplane featuring retractable landing gear and controllable-pitch propellers. The factory would be responsible for building the transport’s main landing gear, cockpit control columns, instrument panels and seats for the pilot and co-pilot. The Boeing 247 would soon sound the death knell of aging Ford Trimotors, Curtiss Condors and even Boeing’s Model 80 transports that had served the nation’s airline system well during the late 1920s and into the early 1930s. The Boeing 247 was designed to carry up to 10 passengers and about 500 pounds of mail at a cruising speed of 175 mph. United Air Lines had ordered a large fleet of the monoplanes and planned to operate the airliners on routes between Chicago and California. The order from Boeing would prove to be a blessing for the Stearman Aircraft Company and probably saved the enterprise from extinction.

In addition, the Boeing contract would allow Schaefer to begin interviewing and hiring experienced, skilled mechanics, machine operators, welders and sheetmetal craftsmen, many of whom had been laid off by Travel Air, Cessna and Stearman during the past three years. Although some of the men had found work in other parts of the country, a majority had remained in Wichita and the surrounding areas and were quickly notified of the job opportunities. Looking ahead to 1933, some of these workers would play a pivotal role in the fabrication and assembly of two special, custom-built biplanes that would be the last of their breed for the Stearman Aircraft Company.

Within weeks Schaefer’s recruiting efforts were paying off handsomely. He needed a minimum of 100 workers and he had no trouble filling those positions. The factory was soon humming with activity, filled with the sights, sounds and smells of workers building flying machines. In addition, the Boeing deal ensured that the band of employees would be kept on the payroll well into 1933. Although the company was not producing its own airframes, only components and assemblies for Boeing, it was playing a vital role in the manufacture of airline transports that would help launch Boeing on a path to become the world’s premier supplier of piston- and jet-powered airliners.

As workers manufactured parts and assemblies for the Boeing 247, it seemed as though the Stearman Aircraft Company would never build another design of its own. In late December 1932, however, a young businessman named John D. Vette, Jr., contacted Schaefer to discuss construction and pricing of a special-order biplane for his personal use. Schaefer quickly fired off a reply reassuring Vette that the company was still in the business of building airplanes and was fully capable of complying with every aspect of his custom-built Stearman.  Virgil Simmons, a Stearman distributor based in northern California, had spearheaded the sale after teaching Vette to fly at the Boeing School of Aeronautics in San Francisco.

The airplane Vette wanted did not exist within the company’s existing inventory of designs. It would have to be engineered and built according to Vette’s specifications, and was exactly the type of challenge that chief engineer Short and his team were eager to tackle. Vette intended to fly the airplane as part of a nationwide promotion tour extolling the features of a new fastener for joining metal structures. The fastener, called a Huck rivet, had been designed by his brother-in-law Louis C. Huck. Once details of the contract were settled between Vette and Schaefer, Short and his engineers began the massive effort of making Vette’s biplane a reality, and the contract stipulated that delivery had to be made no later than March 1933.

In 1932 the Stearman company was given responsibility for marketing the Northrop Beta 3D monoplane – an all-metal, semi-monocoque airframe designed by Jack Northrop for wealthy sportsman pilots. The photograph was taken in 1934 after the factory rebuilt the ship after an accident and installed another Pratt & Whitney Wasp Jr. radial engine. (Courtesy Kenneth D. Wilson)

The engineering department was soon busy working long hours on the two-place, open-cockpit design, which Short dubbed the Model 80 “Sportster.” It would prove to be the company’s last hurrah in a long line of purely commercial aircraft produced by the company. To power the biplane, Vette had specified a Pratt & Whitney supercharged, nine-cylinder Wasp Jr. T3A static, air-cooled radial engine rated at 420 horsepower at 2,200 RPM. It would turn a two-blade, Hamilton-Standard controllable-pitch propeller that would improve takeoff and climb performance.

The engine was equipped with an Eclipse electric starter and the electrical system included a 15-volt, 15-ampere Eclipse generator with a control box and a master switch in the aft cockpit. An Exide storage battery operated the instrument panel lights in both cockpits. Based on slide rule calculations, Short estimated that the Model 80 would have a maximum speed of 175 mph and a cruising speed of 150 mph. Range would be about 700 statute miles, rate of climb 1,500 feet per minute with a service ceiling of 20,000 feet.

Other specifications included:

  • Wingspan: upper panels – 35 feet, lower panels – 27 feet
  • Total wing area: 275 square feet
  • Empty weight: 2,436 pounds
  • Maximum gross weight: 3,500 pounds
  • Fuel capacity: 104 gallons
  • Stall speed: 58 mph

The Model 80’s basic airframe would be based on the Model 4 series but with a number of changes that would set it apart from its older siblings. For example, to increase speed the engineers chose the NACA 4412 airfoil that provided a good cruising speed without sacrificing slow-speed handling and landing characteristics. A new empennage was designed that incorporated an offset rudder tailing edge to help counteract the Wasp Jr.’s torque during takeoff and climb. The fixed, semi-cantilever main landing gear featured only two struts per side and was an advance compared to the braced configuration that had served Stearman airplanes well since 1926.

Throughout the design process Short worked closely with Vette to ensure the Model 80 would be exactly what the customer ordered: “Stearman engineers are collaborating with Vette and have extended themselves in an effort to design a plane not only to meet the special requirements, but to be the last word in comfort, utility and speed.” The aircraft featured dual flight, engine and wheel brake controls in both cockpits as well as a dual set of Pioneer flight and engine instruments. In the aft cockpit only, workers installed Sperry gyroscopic attitude and heading indicators for flying by reference to instruments. As a final touch, Vette ordered a sliding canopy to cover the aft cockpit.

The forward cockpit and a small windshield are visible in this photograph taken with the cover panel removed. The three small circles on the side of the fuselage covered parachute-type flares that could be ejected, slowly drifting downward to illuminate a landing area at night. (Courtesy Kansas Aviation Museum)

Sparing no expense, Vette also specified installation of a Lear Radioaire receiver set with a frequency range of 235-720 kilo cycles, and one headset. In a time when very few personal aircraft carried radio communication equipment, the Model 80’s airframe was bonded to minimize interference with the radio. A final specification called for retractable landing lights manufactured by C.M. Hall, as well as five Elgin flares that were electrically discharged for illumination of the ground if a forced landing was necessary at night.

Despite every effort by the engineering department and factory workers, the company missed Vette’s firm delivery target of March 1933. First flight did not occur until April 9 with veteran test pilot Eddie Allen at the controls. Following the initial flight, Allen performed a series of tests and declared the ship ready for delivery. In mid-April Vette arrived in Wichita and handed a check (amount unspecified) to Schaefer after inspecting the airplane to ensure that it met all of his custom requirements. Donning a leather helmet and goggles, he climbed into the aft cockpit and took off for California. During the next few years Vette flew the Sportster extensively on cross-country excursions to promote the Huck rivet as well as for personal trips.

Although the climate for sale of new commercial aircraft was slowly improving by 1933, the market was still lethargic. Despite that fact, Stearman officials applied for certification of the Model 80 and received Approved Type Certificate (ATC) No. 504 May 3, 1933. Vette’s one-of-a-kind Stearman creation eventually passed out of the hands of Vette, was modified with a 420-horsepower Wright J6-9 Whirlwind radial engine and eventually was sold into Mexico. The fate of the Model 80 remains unknown.

Later in 1933 the Stearman company followed up the Model 80 with the Model 81 that was essentially identical to the Sportster but was aimed at the market for a military training aircraft. Only one airplane was built, apparently by the company on speculation that it would spark sales, particularly in Latin and South America. The Model 81 featured a multi-segment sliding canopy over both cockpits and was originally powered by a Pratt & Whitney Wasp Jr. rated at 400 horsepower. Later it was replaced with a Wasp Jr. developing 420 horsepower, and later still that nine-cylinder radial was replaced by a 420-horsepower Wright R-975-E2 (J6-9).

Another view of the graceful Model 81 taken at the Stearman factory in 1933. Note landing lights built into the lower wing panels. The airplane was powered by a Pratt & Whitney Wasp Jr., radial engine rated at 420 horsepower driving a two-blade, ground-adjustable propeller. The checkerboard-covered Ford Model AA fuel truck is also noteworthy.

In 1933, the Model 81 was flown on an extensive demonstration tour of South America by Stearman sales and export representative, Clark M. Carr. His efforts, however, went unrewarded and eventually the handsome biplane was sold into Mexico and may have served with the Mexican air force. In October the airplane was certified through an amendment to the Model 80’s ATC and was also approved for operation on Edo floats. In a final effort to arouse interest in the design, the company proposed building the Model 82 but the concept never went beyond the drawing board. It would have been equipped with two forward-firing, 0.30-caliber machine guns in the upper wing center section and one 0.30-caliber machine gun mounted in the aft cockpit. Provisions for carrying small bombs on racks under the lower wing panels also would have been available.

The Sportster and the Model 81 helped the Stearman Aircraft Company survive into the mid-1930s when Congress loosened the purse strings allowing the United States military to acquire new aircraft. One of the airplanes designed to compete for Army and Navy contracts was the Stearman Model 70, but that is another story.

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