Stearman – The Early Days Part Two

Stearman – The Early Days Part Two

Stearman – The Early Days Part Two

In 1927, Stearman Aircraft, Inc. struggled to meet demand for its Sport Commercial Model C2 biplane, but operators carrying the mail by air were soon clamoring for the Model C2M.

According to records held by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Stearman Aircraft, Inc., designated the airplanes built in California using constructor (serial) numbers 101-104. These ships were not registered or certified during Lloyd’s brief time in California, chiefly because no federal regulations had been developed to govern the design, construction and manufacture of commercial airplanes.

In addition, as part of the postwar Treaty of Versailles in 1919, nations were assigned a letter to designate civil aircraft registered and operating in that country. Although the letter “N” had been assigned to the United States, Congress did not ratify the treaty and America was not bound to comply with its applicable provisions. In 1927 when the United States Department of Commerce began regulating and registering commercial aircraft, the letter was adopted and remains in use.

In the wake of the Model C1’s first flight, the C2 was under construction, followed by a second C2 and the new Model C2M. The C2M, however, was a landmark airplane because it heralded Lloyd Stearman’s entry into the new and potentially lucrative airmail business that would help fuel his company’s success into the early 1930s.

Rear view of the Model C2 reveals the single fuel tank in the center section that held 38 gallons. Note long span of the ailerons and single-bay design – a feature that was standard on many light aircraft of the day. (Wichita State University Libraries and Archives, Department of Special Collections)

The following information provides the basic specifications for the Stearman Commercial Sport Model C2 and the C2M:


Wingspan: 35 feet (upper panels); 28 feet (lower panels)

Wing chord: 66 inches (upper panels); 54 inches (lower panels)

Wing area: 297 square feet

Airfoil: Stearman design

Height: 9 feet 2.5 inches

Length: 23 feet 2 inches

Weight: 2,450 pounds

Engine: Curtiss OX-5, 90 horsepower

Maximum speed: 90 mph

Price (approximate, standard aircraft): $3,500

Fuel capacity (standard): 38 gallons


Same as Model C2 except for:

Engine: Wright Aeronautical Corporation J4, nine-cylinder static, air-cooled radial, 200 horsepower.

Payload: 500 pounds

Fuel capacity: 68 gallons

Oil capacity: 8 gallons

Maximum ceiling: 18,000 feet

Maximum speed: 130 mph

Of the four airplanes built by Stearman Aircraft, Inc., during its brief operation in California, the third (constructor/serial number 103) was designated Model C2M. In February 1925, Representative Clyde Kelly from Pennsylvania was serving as the chairman of the House Post Office Committee. He introduced H.R. 7064 that became known as the Contract Airmail Act. The bill authorized the postmaster general to contract carriage of the mail by commercial air operators, set rates and the amount of cash subsidies that would be paid to the carriers. In addition, H.R. 7064 would expand airmail service without placing more burden on the taxpayer. Its passage into law would have an enormous impact on development of the commercial aviation industry in America. One of the beneficiaries of that development would be Stearman Aircraft, Inc.

Harry S. New was the postmaster general in the administration of President Calvin Coolidge. New was enthusiastic about the prospects of airmail service and urged carriers to buy larger, faster airplanes that could haul more mail across longer distances. Initially, about 80 percent of the money derived from the sale of postage was paid to operators of C.A.M. routes. The amount of postage required to mail a letter or parcel varied by the weight and volume of mail and how many “air zones” it would cross before reaching its destination. Contract airmail operators, however, quickly realized that they would make more money if they carried small but heavy bulk mail and over a shorter distance. The postmaster soon saw what was happening, and in June 1926 the Kelly Act was amended to pay $3 per pound of mail for the first 1,000 miles and 30 cents per pound for each additional 100 miles flown.

It should be noted that the Kelly Act was not the first attempt to provide airmail service to the public. The United States Post Office had begun flying the mail in the mid-1920s, using obsolete aircraft left over from World War I. The brave pilots who flew Curtiss JN-4 and deHavilland DH-4 biplanes lacked any benefits to help them achieve their mission. Despite the total lack of navigational aids, dangers of weather, night flying, mechanical failures and fatigue, these pilots flew routes stretching from coast-to-coast with surprising success.

Lloyd Stearman and Mac Short anticipated that there would be demand for airplanes designed specifically for that mission, and the basic Model C2 airframe was used to develop the C2M. The C2 airframe was designed from the beginning to accept more powerful engines than the ubiquitous and aging Curtiss OX-5, and with the introduction of Wright Aeronautical Corporation’s nine-cylinder, 200-horsepower J4 static, air-cooled radial powerplant in 1926, the C2M would have the horsepower necessary to haul up to 400-500 pounds of mail. Early in 1926, before relocating to California, Lloyd Stearman had gained experience engineering the Wright radial into the airframe of a modified Travel Air Model “A” to create the Model BW – the first Travel Air to feature that powerplant as an option. By the end of 1928 the majority of Travel Air biplanes rolling off the assembly lines were powered by Wright engines.

The Wright J4 engine originally was developed at the request of the United States Navy. The admirals wanted to find an alternate powerplant to the inline piston engines that were cooled by water. The additional weight of the large coolant heat exchangers coupled with the required plumbing of tubing, hoses and connections, made the engines more expensive to maintain and operate, not to mention being prone to leaks and other malfunctions. The Navy was searching for an air-cooled engine to power its future fleet of fighters, torpedo and dive bombers.

The J4 was among the first modern military and commercial engines and helped transform the aviation in the mid-1920s. In the early 1920s the Wright Aeronautical Corporation hired engineer George Mead to redesign the original Lawrence radial into a lightweight, reliable engine. A minor disadvantage of the J4, however, was the mounting of two magnetos on the front of the crankcase where they were exposed to moisture, dirt and other contaminants on the ground and in flight.

Front view of the C2M. The rod/torque tube aileron control systems was retained and was later used on production aircraft built in Wichita, Kansas.
(Wichita State University Libraries and Archives, Department of Special Collections)

Despite its general reliability and robust design, the J4’s potential proved limited, and by 1927 it was eclipsed by the advanced Wright J5 that quickly became the engine of choice for a large number of military and commercial airplanes (magnetos were mounted on the radial’s accessory section at the rear of the powerplant, shielding both units from potential contamination). The famous Ryan monoplane Spirit of St. Louis, flown by Charles A. Lindbergh from New York to Paris in May 1927, was powered by a J5 rated at 220 horsepower. During Lindbergh’s 33.5 hours flight over the deadly North Atlantic Ocean, it never missed a beat.

As for the C2M, the only salient changes incorporated into the new biplane’s airframe were a metal cover for the front mail pit and reinforcement of the front windshield to withstand random impacts of mail being loaded into the mail pit. On April 6, 1926, Walter T. Varney, owner of Varney Air Lines, began operating Contract airmail (C.A.M.) Route 5 that stretched between Elko, Nevada, and Pasco, Washington, with one stop in Boise, Idaho. The Varney Air Lines fleet, based at Boise, consisted of six New Swallow biplanes powered by Wright J4 radial or Curtiss K6 inline engines.

The route would prove to be a formidable challenge considering the aircraft and technology of the day. One Post Official described C.A.M. 5 as “starting nowhere and engine ending nowhere, and over impossible country getting there.”

Walter Varney and Lloyd Stearman knew each other well. Varney was the first customer to order a custom-built airmail airplane from Lloyd – the C2M. Built to Varney’s specifications and completed in the summer of 1927, it would prove to be the right airplane at the right time both for Varney and Stearman. The handsome ship was assigned Varney Fleet Number 8 and quickly proved to be a major improvement in performance compared to the aging New Swallows that would eventually disappear entirely from the C.A.M. 5 route.

manufacture of rugged biplanes. Short was a native Kansan

On July 19 Fred Hoyt departed Clover Field in the C2M. He landed at a field near San Francisco where Varney pilots put the biplane through its paces, then took off for Salt Lake City, Utah, where Mr. Varney officially accepted the ship. The C2M was quickly placed into service flying the mail along the treacherous air trail, a distance of more than 400 statute miles between Elko, Pasco and Salt Lake City. A testimony to Varney’s success as an airmail operator appeared in the August 1927 issue of Aero Digest magazine – a popular publication that covered news, technical developments and regulatory issues. The article stated that during the first six months of 1927 Varney Air Lines averaged an efficiency rating of 84 along that route. Of 332 scheduled flights, 278 were completed, 26 were listed as “incomplete” and 28 were grounded by inclement weather both day and night. Reports showed, however, that Varney’s fleet had flown 147,340 statute miles while carrying 22,612 pounds of mail that earned the company $67,838.

The fourth and final airplane built by the original Stearman Aircraft, Inc., was a Model C2C (constructor number 104). George Lyle, one of the original investors in Lloyd Stearman’s company, bought the fourth airplane and it remained in airworthy condition at least through 1934 when it was operated by the Quick Flying Service based at Chehalis, Washington.

Although almost identical to the C2, it featured a Hispano-Suiza upright V-type, eight-cylinder engine rated at 180 horsepower. The engine was well-built and reliable, having evolved from the same powerplant that powered the famous British S.E.-5 and French SPAD S.VII and XIII-series fighters during the Great War. The engine was built in the United States by the Wright-Martin company under license from Hispano-Suiza – a famous company long renowned for building exquisite automobiles both before and after the war. As with the Wright J4 radial engine, Stearman also had experience with the Hispano-Suiza during his years with the Travel Air Manufacturing Company. The engine was installed in a small number of biplanes designated Type 3000, but the company did not keep those engines in stock because of their high cost – it was the responsibility of the customer to provide the engine.

Stearman and Mac Short designed the C2M to be a
workhorse airplane for pioneer airmail operators such as Walter Varney and his Varney Air Lines. To increase fuel capacity, the wing center section was enlarged to
accommodate four tanks. Note “Stearman Aircraft, Inc.”
on the rudder and “Venice, California.”
(Wichita State University Libraries and Archives, Department of Special Collections)

After only a year in California, Lloyd Stearman was doing well and as of August 1927, he had a three-month backlog of orders but was struggling to complete and deliver the ships to impatient customers. What Stearman needed was more capital to fuel his business. He required the money to expand the enterprise and sought local funding, including a group of businessmen in Venice, California, to help meet demand for his airplanes. Fortunately for Lloyd, his friends back in Wichita, Kansas, were well aware of his situation and made him an offer he could not refuse – they raised about $60,000 and proposed that Stearman relocate to Wichita.

Lloyd had to make a decision: stay in California and hope that new investors would be found, or relocate men, equipment and materials 1,500 miles eastward and start from scratch all over again. He chose Kansas. Lloyd ceased operations and sent his “factory” and workforce to Wichita by rail. As for his customers, he offered them a choice: return money deposited for aircraft on order or wait until production resumed in Kansas. The majority of customers chose to wait but others reclaimed their deposits.

Profile view of the C2M before delivery to Varney Air Lines in July 1927.
Assigned Fleet Number 8, the Stearman biplane was quickly placed in service on the tortuous C.A.M. 5 route between Elko, Nevada, and Pasco, Washington. One drawback of early production Wright J4 radial was mounting of the two magnetos on the front of the engine, subjecting the units to moisture and contaminants. Control rods for the aileron system are visible forward of the windshield. (Wichita State University Libraries and Archives, Department of Special Collections)

Lloyd had always liked the West Coast, and California in particular. After arriving in Wichita with his family on September 30, he told reporters, “I have always been impressed with Wichita, but I cannot say that I don’t like California, for I do and I have lots of friends out there.
I can say that Wichita is an almost ideal location and has better flying weather than California. There are no fogs or mountains here. I’ve always liked the town and the people in it, and it seems a great deal like coming back home to be here.”

By the end of 1927, the old Stearman Aircraft, Inc., of Cal-ifornia had been renamed the new Stearman Aircraft Company of Kansas, and at last, the future looked bright. The national economy was booming, flying fever was sweeping the country, and people had money to spend. It looked as though the excesses that defined the “Roarin’ Twenties” would never end

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