Saturday, June 09, 2012

Jerry Stadtmiller provides expertise on 1941 open cockpit biplane - Western Carolina Regional Airport (KRHP), Andrews, North Carolina

Photo by SCOTT wallace/ 
A 1941 Stearman biplane lands at Western Carolina Regional Airport on April 27, following a two-year, ground-up restoration. The work was completed by local master mechanic and restorer Jerry Stadtmiller who owns BIPE Inc. antique aircraft restorations at the airport, and who is the world’s pre-eminent restorer of Stearmans.

Stearman biplane owner Gary Allen of Seattle (in hat) discusses the performance of his newly restored airplane with the man responsible for bringing it back to life, Jerry Stadtmiller of BIPE Inc. antique aircraft restorations at Western Carolina Regional Airport.


    Marble – In a scene reminiscent of the 1940s, a bright, yellow 1941 Navy Stearman biplane lifts easily off the lone runway at Western Carolina Regional Airport climbing into a brilliant, blue sky broken up by only a few white clouds.

    Delta Airlines Capt. Gary Allen was trying out his newly restored open cockpit Stearman for the second consecutive day on April 28. The Seattle resident had sought out one of the most renowned vintage aircraft mechanics and restorers in the United States.

    Jerry Stadtmiller moved his business to Cherokee County from Florida almost four years ago. BIPE, standing for biplane, is written in red on the hangar he built. It took two years, which is average, to restore the 1941 Stearman, the Hayesville resident said. This is the 22nd of this model he has restored.     “When you put together a puzzle so many times, you get to know how to do it,” he said.

    A trail of white smoke emitted from the rear of the aircraft as Allen brought it low over the runway, then gained altitude for one more pass over the mountains that surround the Andrews Valley. The smoke oil is the same oil used on concrete forms to keep them from sticking, Allen said. The pilot injects the smoke whenever he wishes through the exhaust. The purpose is for fun, although Allen uses it in traffic patterns when someone asks the location of his airplane.

    Most of the 60,000 Army and Navy men who learned to fly during World War II did so in a Stearman biplane. Although its basic design dates from 1930, it was the leading American primary trainer of World War II. After the war, the rugged airplanes were used as crop dusters, for aerobatic performances and as a sport plane.

    With a cruising speed of 60-80 mph, the Stearman doesn’t blind with speed but enlightens with pleasure. Its maximum speed is about 124 mph. Because of the open, two-seater cockpit, a pilot can’t fly in cold or soggy weather.

    Stadtmiller started working on planes when he was in high school in Rochester, N.Y. He worked for a flying school that paid him $4.89 a week and an hour and a half of flying time each week. He later moved to Florida, where he earned his mechanic’s license in 1958. He spent 50 years in Florida from Miami to Palm Beach.

    He owned and ran the same restoration business in Palm Beach that he now runs out of Cherokee County’s airport.

    “I owned this business at the airport in Palm Beach,” he said. “The airport got so crazy on fees.”

    He moved his business to the western North Carolina mountains outside Andrews and for the first four months, he wondered if it would be a problem moving from a high population area with a big airport to the small Western Carolina Regional Airport nestled in the mountains. However, business began to come his way, and he now has two employees – Justin Griffin and Adam Sanner. He said word of mouth and a dynamic Web site have brought business his way.

    “People come from all over. It is mainly word of mouth,” he said.

    Stadtmiller works on any aircraft that is fabric covered. The airplanes made from wood are made from sitka spruce, which is abundant in Alaska and the Northwestern United States.

    “It is the same wood they used to build masts on sailing vessels,” he said. “[Stearman] biplanes are physically four times stronger than a jet airplane.”

    The wood and being a fixed-wing aircraft with two superimposed main wings makes the craft very sturdy. Stearmans were used for training pilots because cadets couldn’t hurt them, he said. A total of 10,343 Stearmans were built.

    One of the five craft Stadtmiller is rebuilding is a 1937 Stearman with serial number 88, meaning it is a very early model. The owner lives in Matthews.

    Stadtmiller said when he got the 1941 Stearman it “looked like it was on the way to the dump.”

    “We go through it so carefully and thoroughly, there are seldom problems,” he said. “Dealing with owners is often the hardest part. I tell them that it will be [restored] in whatever time it takes. That is for quality. If you have a deadline, take it somewhere else.”

    “It loops and rolls just fine,” Allen said after stepping out of the plane.

    The last time the 1941 Stearman flew was in 1960, he said.

    “It is absolutely beautiful – a dream to fly,” he said. “This started with a million pieces on the floor. This is my third Stearman. I have known of Jerry’s work for about 30 years. Everyone [in the aviation industry] knows him.”

    Allen’s Stearman was a U.S. Navy airplane used to train pilots in Corpus Christi, Texas. It is the same as it was in the 1940s.

    “They took people who had never been in a plane and used [the Stearman] to train them. President George Bush Sr. trained in a plane like this,” Allen said.

    Allen added that in 2004, Stadtmiller received the Charles Taylor award, which is awarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration to aircraft mechanics of exceptional talent who have been working for 50 years. Charles Taylor built the engine used by the Wright brothers in North Carolina.

    “I am a mechanic myself, but I am not even in the same league with Jerry,” Allen said. “I feel really lucky. He lowered his rates like everyone else [because of the recession].”

    About 10 years ago Stadtmiller restored the engine and fabric covers for a 1938 Grumman Goose for the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The Goose was Grumman’s first monoplane to fly, its first twin engine aircraft, and its first aircraft to enter commercial airline service. This remarkably versatile amphibian has served for more than 50 years in a variety of roles that have confirmed the strength and durability of its original design.

    Alex Tibcken has been volunteering with Stadtmiller for two years, since he was a senior at Andrews High School. He helped rebuild the 1941 Stearman and did his senior project on rebuilding the vintage aircraft.

    “I love it. I am here seven days a week,” Stadtmiller said. “I come and play all day, every day. I haven’t worked for years.”

    Allen said he would go home to Seattle and return to fly the 1941 Stearman home. He probably could make the trip in three days if he goes straight home, but he wants to take a couple of weeks and “visit people and drop in on grass strips. It is such an experience to fly these things.”


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