Stearman – The Early Days Part One

Stearman – The Early Days Part One

Stearman – The Early Days Part One

In 1926 Lloyd Carlton Stearman bid Wichita, Kansas, farewell to go west and build biplanes, but a year later was back in town to stay.

Walter H. Beech shook hands with his friend and associate at the Travel Air Manufacturing Company after flying the Travel Air Special – a handsome, custom-built biplane designed for speed. It was September 1925, and that month Beech had “cleaned up” at the regional air races held in Tulsa, Oklahoma, beating all competitors and taking home much needed cash to keep the infant company solvent.

The friend/associate, Lloyd C. Stearman, was a young, self-taught designer and budding engineer who, with help from aeronautical engineer Mac Short, had created the Special and installed a 160-horsepower Curtiss C-6 engine up front under a metal, hand-crafted cowling. Capable of speeds in excess of 120 mph, the sleek biplane earned the admiration of both civilian and military pilots at the races.

In 1920 Stearman had begun his career in aviation when he assisted Emil Matthew Laird in development of the Laird Swallow – a two-place, open-cockpit, double-bay biplane powered by the ubiquitous Curtiss OX-5 engine, of which thousands were available at bargain prices after the end of World War I.

Lloyd was born in Wellsford, Kansas, on Oct. 26, 1898, to Frederick C. and Icie May (Grimm) Stearman. The eldest of four children, he worked with his father in the construction business based in Harper, Kansas, along with his younger brothers, Waverly and Ivan. Drawing plans and erecting commercial and residential structures taught Lloyd the elementary and practical applications of construction. In addition, he became familiar with the many types of wood and how they could be employed most effectively in the construction process.

At age 13 he had set up an elec-trical laboratory in the attic of the family home, and during his high school years Lloyd designed and built a welding machine as well as a small number of elementary electric motors and transformers. Blessed with a seemingly insatiable appetite for knowledge, he later established a photography studio in a local ice cream parlor and turned a profit until he graduated in 1916.

Lloyd’s next step was to follow in his father’s footsteps and pursue a degree in civil engineering from Kansas State Agricultural College located in the town of Manhattan. He began his freshman year in September 1917, only five months after America’s entry into the Great War that was devastating the European continent.

Not content to stay on the sidelines when the flower of American youth were fighting in the trenches, in August 1918 Lloyd enlisted in the United States Navy and eventually was transferred to Naval Air Station North Island, San Diego, California, where he completed training as a Master Airplane Rigger. Stearman’s greatest desire, however, was to fly and he did begin flight training in a Curtiss N-9 floatplane and may have soloed before the Armistice signed in November 1918, clipped his wings.

It is interesting to note that when the United States began fighting alongside the Allies, it lacked an air force capable of challenging the enemy in the skies above France and Belgium. So, it was with great enthusiasm and high expectations that Congress appropriated the staggering sum of $640 million for the production of military airplanes. The ambitious plan called for building 22,625 aircraft and 44,000 aero engines as well as manufacturing sufficient spare parts to construct thousands of additional warplanes. In addition, the federal government assigned 27,000 men as inspectors saddled with the responsibility of guaranteeing the quality of spruce wood and ensuring that the lumber mills and suppliers were providing the massive quantities required to assemble a fighting air fleet.

After Lloyd was discharged from the Navy late in 1918, he returned to his hometown of Harper and opened an electrical shop, but the venture was short-lived. Undaunted, Stearman accepted a position as a journeyman architect with the S.S. Voight Company in Wichita. He had worked there about one year when, sometime in 1919, his eyes were drawn to an advertisement in the local paper for men interested in fashioning wood and metal into flying machines.

The notice was placed by E.M. Laird, who at that time was preparing to start limited production of the Laird Tractor biplane. Confident that his education in college, coupled with the technical and flight training he received in the Navy qualified him to apply, Lloyd was hired as a draftsman, junior engineer and airplane and engine mechanic and shop foreman. A few months later Lloyd was supervising construction of the biplane’s wood fuselage and wings.

Early in 1920 Laird had 11 men working in an abandoned factory in downtown Wichita. A prototype biplane was completed in April and prepared for its first flight at a flying field north of the city. Late in the afternoon of April 8 Laird flew the ship on a short but successful test hop.

Soon after the flight the airplane was renamed the Laird Swallow and the stage was set to being limited manufacturing. Thanks to advertising in national aviation magazines, the E.M. Laird Company Partnership began receiving inquiries about the new biplane as well as a steady flow of visitors to the factory and flying field. By the end of the summer, production for 1920 was sold out and Laird was accepting orders for the 1921 sales year. Lloyd Stearman’s role in the design and development of the Swallow was, at best, minimal, despite a story written seven years later by Dwight Pennington in September 1927 claiming that the airplane was “designed largely by Stearman” (there is, however, no known evidence to support that statement).

During the next three years Lloyd gained valuable knowledge and experience assisting Laird in the development of improvements that were made to the Swallow as production slowly increased. When Laird resigned from the company during autumn 1923 and returned to Chicago, his business partner Jacob Moellendick took the reins and promoted Lloyd to chief engineer. In 1923 Stearman was chiefly responsible for the design of the aging Swallow’s replacement – the New Swallow.

In 1924, however, he and Walter Beech, along with pioneer aviator Clyde V. Cessna, formed the Travel Air Manufacturing Company and moved Clyde’s woodworking equipment into a small workshop in downtown Wichita. Lloyd had designed a single-bay, three-place, open-cockpit biplane that was designated the Travel Air Model A and although initial sales were slow, in 1925 sales increased and Stearman’s name was appearing more frequently in national aviation publications as a promising designer.

Early in 1926 Stearman was approached by aviators Fred Day Hoyt, George Lyle and a few local businessmen in California to “go west young man” and build airplanes for the Hollywood elite. Hoyt was based at Clover Field, Santa Monica, and was a successful salesman and dealer for the Travel Air company. He was convinced that there were more than enough potential customers not only in Southern California but in the entire Golden State. On Oct. 8 he resigned from Travel Air, bid farewell to his good friends Walter Beech, Clyde Cessna, Olive Ann Mellor and the small but dedicated workforce, and headed west in his quest for a fresh start.

Beech was sorry to lose his chief engineer, but he understood Lloyd’s desire to make his own name in the aviation business. The seven years Stearman and his family had spent in Wichita had served him well, but many new challenges lay ahead that would test his spirit and determination to succeed. The decision to relocate to California was a logical one for a number of reasons:

  1. Hoyt and his friends possessed both the money and facilities to help establish the Stearman Aircraft Company.
  2. There was growing demand for custom-built airplanes, particularly in the Los Angeles area where Hollywood produced a steady crop of wealthy thespians.
  3. There was an emerging need for new airplanes to carry the airmail within California as well as the states of Nevada, Utah, Idaho and Washington.
  4. Lloyd had designed an entirely new biplane that not only built on his experience at Travel Air but would incorporate a number of innovations not found on a majority of light aircraft.

Late in October Stearman and his family relocated to Venice, near Santa Monica, and early in December a charter was granted and filed with the State of California for the new company, “Stearman Aircraft, Inc.” A small building was leased and construction of the first airplane to bear the name Stearman began late that month. The location was only a short distance from Clover Field and the Lyle-Hoyt Aircraft Corporation’s hangar. The Santa Monica Evening Outlook reported that “several orders had been received for open-cockpit biplanes, and future plans called for building an enclosed cabin ship powered by a Wright Whirlwind static, air-cooled radial engine. Lloyd informed reporters that he intended to build one airplane each week when operations were fully underway and that standard-equipped airplane would cost about $3,000.

Stearman Aircraft, Inc., began in a small building in Venice,
California. This is the only known photograph of the facility located at 353 Third Street. Completed airframes were taken by truck to nearby Clover Field in Santa Monica for assembly, rigging and test flights. (Santa Monica Public Library)

Fortunately for Lloyd, he was able to hire a few men who had worked for Donald Douglas and his aircraft company and had the skills necessary to build flying machines. His tiny workforce, however, lacked a chief engineer, but Stearman knew that his old friend Mac Short was the best man for the job. Lloyd easily persuaded Short to leave the ivy halls of the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology and go west.

Throughout the winter of 1926-1927 Lloyd completed design work on a three-place, single-bay biplane designated the Stearman Sport Commercial Model 1, or simply the C1. It featured a welded steel tube fuselage and wood wings, with the upper two panels spanning 38 feet and the lower panels 35 feet. The fixed, outrigger-type landing gear featured a hydraulic shock strut in combination with rubber bungee cords to absorb taxi, takeoff and landing loads. Mechanical, cable-operated brakes were fitted to the wheels and were adequate for an aircraft of the C1’s size and weight.

To reduce costs, Stearman and Short chose the ubiquitous Curtiss OX-5 engine to power the biplane, and it was enclosed in a cowling that blended seamlessly into the airframe and complemented the graceful lines of the fuselage. The water radiator was another example of Lloyd’s innovative spirit: It was integrated into the front of the cowling to reduce drag, and water temperature could be controlled from the cockpit by a series of shutters that adjusted airflow.

George Lyle (left), Lloyd Stearman (center) and Fred Day Hoyt posed with the new Commercial Sport Model C1 after the first flight in March 1927. The Curtiss OX-5 engine was later removed and replaced with a static, air-cooled radial powerplant. (Edward H. Phillips Collection)

The C1 made its successful first flight late in March 1927, and soon after that momentous event, Fred Hoyt flew the ship to various airports in Southern California. He was accompanied that day by Hoyt’s friend, Frank E. Samuels. His interesting comments about flying in the C1 are presented in full:

“I had the pleasure of making the first official passenger-carrying flight in the first airplane built by Stearman Aircraft, Inc., using the plane to make the delivery of the March issue of Aero Digest on the airfields of Southern California. We loaded the magazines in the front cockpit and took off from Clover Field. I was greatly surprised with the smooth takeoff until I remembered that the plane was equipped with the new hydraulic landing gear. Before I realized it, we were in the air and climbing fast, crossing the Santa Monica Mountains at a height of 2,500 feet and landing at Kinner Field, Glendale, in less than 15 minutes. The field is short and rough in places but the oleo shock absorbers made the landing with perfect smoothness. Taxiing up to the Kinner factory the wheel brakes showed their efficiency, with Fred Hoyt turning the plane around in very little more than the length of the plane. The brakes can be used individually as well as in unison. The short field did not hamper us in taking off as we were well up in the air after covering one-half the length of the field. From Glendale we made the rounds of the fields delivering the Digest, the plane causing favorable comment wherever we landed. The large, comfortable cockpit, well upholstered for its passengers, is a comfort to ride in and the performance of the aircraft must be a great pleasure for any pilot flying it. The motor was the same OX-5 with which Hoyt won the “On-To-Philadelphia” race and was used to prove that the aircraft would give good performance with an OX-5. It will be replaced with a 200-horsepower motor for which the aircraft was built. Lloyd Stearman has gained new laurels in the designing and building of this, his latest engineering feat, and Fred Hoyt, George Lyle and other members of Stearman Aircraft, Inc., may well feel proud to market a plane of this high-class performance.”

The Stearman C1 was a handsome airplane. The Curtiss OX-5 engine was housed in a hand-fabricated, sheet metal cowling with the water radiator integrated into the entire design. The outrigger-type landing gear provided good shock absorption and the front cockpit was generously upholstered for comfort of the two passengers. (Edward H. Phillips Collection)

By the first week of March three more aircraft were under construction in Venice. One of these was the Stearman C2 that shared the same airframe as the C1 but the aileron control systems incorporated push-pull rods from the cockpit that connected to torque tubes in the upper wing panels, which in turn actuated the ailerons. The new system would remain in use throughout production of the C-series biplanes. Another change made in the C2 centered on installing the water radiator between the landing gear struts, not in the front of the cowling.

The Stearman C1 appeared in a number of advertisements published in 1927 that underscored Lloyd Stearman’s penchant for advanced design without sacrificing performance. The aircraft further reinforced Stearman’s growing reputation within the aviation industry as a talented designer.
(Edward H. Phillips Collection)

The change may have been prompted by two factors: 1) The original radiator design required considerable work to fabricate and install that possibly increased manufacturing and labor costs. 2) The radiator was pleasing aesthetically but may not have proven as effective in practice as it did in theory. In addition, relocating the radiator made maintenance easier for mechanics by greatly improving access to the heat exchanger and associated plumbing.

As 1926 drew to a close, Lloyd Stearman had established himself as a viable airframe manufacturer and flown the first ship to bear his name. The year 1927, however, would put obstacles in his path that prove impossible to overcome.

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