Saturday, June 09, 2012

Pilot Wally Gray revisits history as he sails through the Park Rapids skies in his open-cockpit Stearman biplane

Pilot Wally Gray invites residents to see the area from above the earth’s surface in his open cockpit plane. 
(Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

Pilot Wally Gray revisits history as he sails through the Park Rapids skies in his open-cockpit Stearman biplane.

The Texan with Minnesota roots is piloting a plane developed by Lloyd Stearman in the 1930s. Boeing purchased the Stearman Aircraft Company in the mid ’30s and began production of the plane that would be used to train World War II pilots. 

Gray’s dad, Bud, a member of the Army Air Corps, flew the plane in 1935. “As a kid, I thought everyone’s dad flew.”

Over 10,000 of the 220- horsepower, two-seater planes were built during the war years, the last trainer delivered to the government in 1945. 

Gray estimates more than half of the WW II pilots trained in the PT-17 Kaydet, as the Army dubbed it, and the “Yellow Peril,” N2S, Navy version.

After the war, the plane was sold on the surplus market, some for as little as $200, and found a new use – crop dusters. The agricultural industry used the planes for aerial application of fertilizers and pesticides until the 1970s, he said, when more powerful models claimed the market.

“People bought and restored them to their original configuration,” explained Gray, who earned his pilot’s license in the mid-’70s, or as custom sport planes with a variety of engines and modifications.

An estimated 1,000 of the biplanes still navigate the stratosphere.

Cruise speed for the plane with a Continental W-670 engine is roughly 90 miles an hour. “It took me 13 and a half hours to fly up,” the pilot said of his flight from Texas, bucking a headwind. “I can drive up in 19.”

Gray is returning to a family cabin on Schoolcraft Lake that his grandfather – with the help of his sons (Bud and brother) – built in 1939.

Now he’s inviting area residents to join him in the 1941 Boeing “Kaydet” PT-17 open cockpit, to gain a bird’s eye view of the city and surrounding lakes.

The 30-minute ride begins and ends at the Park Rapids Municipal Airport. Passengers’ minimum age is 18; maximum weight 275 pounds. 

Gray holds a commercial pilot and airframe/engine mechanic certification. The ride will include gentle turning and climbing and descending maneuvers only, no aerobatics. He will provide a flying helmet with goggles and a headset to allow passengers (who sit in front of the pilot) to communicate with him. 

Rides may be canceled in the event of inclement weather.

For information, or to schedule a ride, call 255-3018. Rides may be scheduled from June 11-July 7.


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