Stearman’s Last Stand – The “Cloudboy”

Stearman’s Last Stand – The “Cloudboy”

Stearman’s Last Stand – The “Cloudboy”

In 1930 America’s economy was in a tailspin when the Stearman Aircraft Company introduced the Model 6 biplane – a rugged design but one that found few commercial buyers and was rejected by the military as a primary trainer. 

The “Roarin’ Twenties” had been good to Wichita’s airframe manufacturers. In 1928, for example, the city’s big three – Travel Air, Cessna Aircraft and Stearman Aircraft – delivered more than 900 new airplanes and company officials were expecting to manufacture more than 1,000 aircraft in 1929. Travel Air, under the capable guidance of Walter H. Beech, was swamped with orders and the 600-man workforce struggled to build five airplanes per day. A few miles to the southwest, Cessna Aircraft Company’s president Clyde V. Cessna and his employees were frantically trying to complete and equip a new factory complex, one designed to manufacture the popular Model AW cabin monoplane.

In addition, north of downtown Wichita the Stearman Aircraft Company was overwhelmed with orders for the handsome C3B and the new M-2 Speedmail open-cockpit biplanes. Nationwide, more manufacturers were entering the marketplace and the growing economy served to fuel the country’s appetite for flying and everything aviation.

The driving force behind the nation’s robust economy was the stock market. A growing number of people had money to spend and they spent it investing on Wall Street. Buying and selling stocks was no longer for the rich and the privileged few. Beginning as far back as 1925 it had become “all the rage” to dabble in stocks and bonds through a process known as “buying on margin.” The process was not only tempting but simple: A person went to a broker, purchased a certain amount of stock, made a down payment and bought the remainder on credit by making monthly payments. One advantage of the procedure lay in the fact that as the value of the stock increased, the higher value would help pay off what a person still owed.

Lloyd Stearman’s final design before he resigned from the company was the Model 6 Cloudboy. Rugged and reliable, the biplane was intended to be the Stearman Aircraft Company’s entry-level airplane. (Kansas Aviation Museum)

The nation’s fledgling aviation industry benefited greatly from such investors and fueled Wall Street’s seemingly unstoppable growth. Private individuals, businessmen and high-ranking corporate executives were beginning to realize the advantages of flying compared to automobiles or trains, and flight schools were popping up across the country almost daily in an effort to train the latest batch of would-be aviators.

Amid that wave of prosperity, Lloyd C. Stearman sought to expand the company’s product line by designing a biplane that could be powered by radial engines rated at 165-300 horsepower. Designated the Model 6 Cloudboy, the ship began life in the engineering department at the old Bridgeport factory that had served as the company’s headquarters since the autumn of 1927. Company officials realized that a market existed for an affordable training aircraft, and the Model 6 was designed to be Stearman Aircraft’s entry-level product; one that would cost less to manufacture and sell without sacrificing overall performance that had become a worldwide hallmark of the Stearman brand.

Working in concert with chief engineer Mac Short and his staff, Lloyd planned to offer the Model 6 equipped with the new J6-5 static, air-cooled radial engine manufactured by the Wright Aeronautical Corporation in Paterson, New Jersey. Rated at 165 horsepower, the five-cylinder powerplant was relatively thrifty with a gallon of aviation fuel and enjoyed a solid reputation as a reliable engine. For customers who demanded more power, the Model 6 could be fitted with a nine-cylinder Wright J6-9 that developed 300 horsepower.

Lloyd also recognized that the Cloudboy could be a strong contender for military contracts, and he harbored high hopes that the airplane would find its greatest success wearing the colors of the United States Army Air Corps. The air service, however, had been starving for funding by Congress since the end of the “Great War,” and by 1930 was preparing to solicit bids for a new primary trainer to replace the aging but reliable Consolidated PT-3 that had entered service in the mid-1920s. The PT-3 had, in turn, replaced the obsolete fleet of Curtiss JN-4/JN-6 biplanes that had served the Army Air Service well since 1917. During the postwar years Consolidated had built more than 460 trainers, and the rugged PT-3 was still teaching fledglings how to fly in the mid-1930s.

By design, the Cloudboy was a utilitarian flying machine. Although it lacked the graceful lines of its older siblings, the C3B and the Model 4 series biplanes, the Model 6 was a tough aircraft that could withstand the errors of student pilots in stride. In an effort to keep manufacturing costs to a minimum, the Cloudboy used conventional conduction practices for the time – a fabric-covered fuselage fabricated from welded chrome molybdenum steel tubing, wood wings with spruce spars with Friese-type ailerons on both the upper and lower panels.

The upper wings spanned 32 feet and the lower panels 28 feet with a chord of 60 inches for both sets. Total wing area was 272 square feet. An N-22 airfoil section was employed that provided good handling characteristics at the stall, during low-speed maneuvering and while landing. A simple but effective outrigger-type main landing gear with shock struts was installed and a tailskid replaced the tailwheel found on the more expensive Stearman airplanes.

The Model 6 was designed from its inception as a commercial biplane and a primary trainer for the military. Late in 1930 the Stearman company was awarded a contract by the Army Air Corps to build four airplanes designated YPT-9. Note the tailskid that replaced the tailwheel on commercial ships.
(Walter House Collection)

The J6-5 engine ensured that the Model 6’s performance would be less than stellar, but it would be more than adequate for the flight training mission. Maximum speed was only 110 mph, slowing to 90 mph for cruise with a stall speed of 50 mph. The first airplane built (serial No. 6001) registered X786H, was soon followed by two other ships registered NC787H and NC795H. In September 1930 the Bureau of Aeronautics awarded the Model 6A Approved Type Certificate No. 365.

During 1930 and 1931 a series of other radial engines were approved for the Cloudboy, including a 165-horsepower Continental (Model 6F), the five-cylinder Kinner R-715 rated at 210 horsepower (Model 6H); the Model 6L equipped with a 215-horsepower Lycoming R-680, and the 300-horsepower Pratt & Whitney Wasp Junior engine (Model 6D). Lloyd’s hopes for a military contract increased when the United States Army Air Corps held a competition aimed at selecting a new primary trainer that would finally put the PT-3 out to pasture.

The Model 6 fit the Air Corps’ requirements well and the company submitted the first Model 6A built for evaluation and was assigned the military designation XPT-912. In the wake of flight trials held at Wright Field in Ohio, the ship was flown back to Wichita and a second Model 6A was built to comply with modifications specified by the Air Corps. In December 1930 another series of tests were conducted, followed by a contract to construct four airplanes for full service testing.

These aircraft, however, carried the designation YPT-9 and were powered by the Wright J6-5 powerplant. The first ship was delivered March 2, 1931. Soon after, the other three airplanes were flown by Lieutenants C.J. Crane, A.C. Kelly and C.B. McDaniel to Brooks Field, San Antonio, Texas. Two of the pilots, Crane and Kelly, were instructors while McDaniel was an engineering officer as well as an instructor. Three of the aircraft were assigned to the 11th Training School Group based at Brooks Field, but the fourth YPT-9 went to Wright Field for further evaluations. In addition, one of the ships was displayed at the annual Detroit aviation show held in April 1931.

All of the service test airplanes underwent a series of engine changes and other modifications in an effort to improve climb performance, but the Air Corps chose the Consolidated YPT-11 over the YPT-9 and other competitors. Senior officials of the Stearman company were disappointed that the trainer had failed to secure a contract, but the Air Corps competition would prove to be a valuable learning experience that helped pave the way for future business with the military services.

During the time that the Model 6 and the XPT-9 were being developed, senior management at the Stearman Aircraft Company experienced a major shift in power. At the request of Frederick B. Rentschler, then serving as president of the giant United Aircraft & Transport Corporation, in December 1930, Lloyd resigned as president of the company he had founded in 1927. He was replaced by local Wichita businessman Walter P. Innes, Jr., who had been serving as treasurer.

Apparently, the change in management was driven largely by Lloyd’s desire to design new aircraft coupled with a growing disdain for being entrenched in the day-to-day operations of the company. Specifically, Rentschler wanted him to focus on research and development projects and investigate methods that would expedite manufacturing processes and reduce costs, not only within the Stearman company but across the corporation’s numerous subsidiaries as well. Lloyd retained his seat on the board of directors and was designated a consultant and technical adviser to the company.

In a letter dated December 23, 1930, Stearman penned a letter to employees that mapped out his future plans:

“Mr. Rentschler … has called upon me to devote my entire time and energy to research. Realizing that this will require that much of my time will be spent away from the factory investigating and developing new models and new ideas on management, production, sales and service, as well as aircraft design, he has requested that I pass the business responsibility of the company to Mr. Innes. This will give me ample time and energy to pursue my work, a work in which my deepest interest lies and a work I feel will permit my greatest and best contribution to the United Aircraft & Transport Corporation in general, and our company in particular. I am in no way diminishing my interest in the company. I am retaining my membership on the Board of Directors, and while my business responsibilities have been lessened, my technical responsibilities have been enlarged. It will be just as necessary now to have the loyalty of everyone in the company and to bespeak for Mr. Innes in his new office the same support and loyalty you have given me.”

Only seven Cloudboys were built and at least four have survived into the 21st century, including a former YPT-9B owned and flown by the Yanks Air Museum in Chino, California. (Courtesy Yanks Air Museum)

In July 1931, however, Lloyd submitted his letter of resignation to the board of directors. In October 1931, he and his family departed Wichita for California and the promise of a new future. Before he bid Kansas farewell, Lloyd had a few final words for the press:

“The growth of aviation may be slow for the next few years, but it will be constant and steady. I believe there is no question that it will shortly become one of the great industries of the nation. 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.”

His words proved to be prophetic, and even today the “Peerless Princess of the Prairie” maintains its reign as the “Air Capital of the World.”

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