A Stearman Smile

Flying 'The Cannibal Queen'...one last time

November 1, 2008

I have Doug DeVries to thank. He is making a movie called The Stearman Spirit, and he remembered my book, The Cannibal Queen. So he called me and told me about his project. “If I find your old airplane,” he asked, “and the owners are agreeable, would you let me film a reunion?”

Blasts from the past make me nervous. My old girlfriends are never as cute as I remember them (they probably say the same about me), and I’m not getting any younger. The Cannibal Queen was my hot aviation flame during the 1990s. She was a 1942 Boeing Stearman, a little older than me, but gorgeous and sexy and a joy to own and fly. I bought her in 1990 from Robert Henley, whose father, Skid Henley, had completed a frame-up restoration the previous year. In 1991 I flew the Queen to all the Lower 48 states, spent a wonderful summer doing it, and wrote a book about the adventure.

After I got remarried in 1995, my bride, Deborah, also fell in love with the Queen and learned to fly her. I’ll never forget the first time Deb, who is only five-and-one-half-feet tall, flew her from the rear cockpit and turned final. She started laughing nervously on the intercom. I asked what she was laughing about, and she said, “I can’t see the runway! I can’t see anything forward!”

“That’s what they made the rudder for,” I replied. “Push the nose out of the way and take a look.”

Deborah still chuckles when she thinks about that airplane.

Yet in 1998 we decided it was time for another aviation adventure, and we sold the Queen. Told her she was still terrific and it had been fun, but au revoir, baby.

I have always felt a little guilty. We had so much fun together, gave literally hundreds of rides, gave all those people a magical, priceless aviation memory that they will carry with them all of their days. And after that I pushed her away, had affairs with other airplanes.

But what the heck, she’s only an airplane.

“Sure,” I told Doug.

He found the owner, Jim Lonergan, who with his crew of Dave Farley and Joe Schepis makes a business of hopping biplane rides in the Queen over Philadelphia, and in the summer, the Jersey shore. They were agreeable.

The gods of flight took pity on us. The day before our adventure it rained more than two inches in Philadelphia, then that night the system blew out, leaving clean, pristine skies. We rendezvoused at Northeast Philadelphia Airport at dawn on that gorgeous, cloudless morning, the hangar doors rolled open...and there was the Queen, much as I remember her, brilliant yellow in the morning sun, with a seductive chrome prop and spinner and still wearing that 300-horsepower Lycoming R-680 battleship-gray radial engine with the August 2, 1942, manufacture date that the late Skid Henley installed on her.

Jim Lonergan and Dave Farley are professional pilots, yet on pretty evenings and weekends they hop rides in the Queen. “This is the real flying,” Dave confided with a grin. Joe Schepis, a professional A&P, is the royal mechanic, and he flies her occasionally, although he doesn’t give rides.

They told me they replaced the cowling, installed a shiny new prop, and they installed a two-place front seat in place of the single-place seat that Skid put in her. “Working on her is a labor of love,” Joe said.

The years have been kind to the Queen. Twenty years after Skid finished his restoration, she still looks mighty spiffy, the engine is dry and tight, the wings sound, the wires tight and rust-free. As Doug’s film crew, Jim Clark and Eric Thiermann, recorded the moment, I stirred the ailerons, which moved freely, without resistance. I ran my hands over the fabric, caressed the prop and studied my reflection in it, fingered this and that, all the while listening to Jim tell me how he and his partners purchased the airplane in October 2003 from Steve Collins of Atlanta, who had purchased her from me. Collins used her in his Atlanta biplane ride business. He is using a Waco now, Jim said.

“But what about the nose art?” Jim asked. “Who painted that bathing suit on the Queen?

“That was me,” I confessed. When I bought the airplane, I asked artist David Zlotky to paint a nude woman with a bone in her hand on a right-side panel. I thought she looked really cool, but after I got married and acquired a 10-year old stepson, I had second thoughts. “Times change, attitudes change, and I decided that I wanted a new image,” I explained. “I got a couple cans of enamel and a brush and tried my hand at modern bathing suit design.”

They forgave me. Maybe.

As I examined the Queen, the memories came flooding back. Like the time I offered a ride to Meagan Reed, who was only 7 or eight 8 old at the time.

“Where’s Mrs. Coonts?” Meagan asked.

“She couldn’t make it today,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” Meagan told me. “I only fly with women pilots.”

I looked at my reflection in the chromed spinner. What I saw was a fool grinning widely.

“Let’s go fly,” Jim said.

With Jim in the aft cockpit, the captain’s seat, we flew north toward a grass strip near his house in Bucks County. The sensations of riding in the Queen’s open cockpit were as delightful as I remember, perhaps even more so. The day was extraordinarily clear; from 2,000 feet we could see the skyline of New York City on the horizon, Trenton, New Jersey, nearby on our right, and behind us, Philadelphia.

Jim and Dave don’t push the engine as hard as I used to do. They cruise at 19 inches of manifold pressure and 2,100 rpm, which gives them a cruise of 90 mph indicated. Nor do they lean the engine aggressively. Although they use a bit more fuel and have to change spark plugs more often, the engine runs cooler, and will, probably, last longer. The secret to keeping these big round engines in service, Joe Schepis said, is to aggressively manage the vibration and go easy on them.

They are doing something right. That Lycoming ran as smooth as sipping whiskey, and sounded...well, there is no sound on Earth like a round engine, up close or far away. Especially far away, when you are on the ground and the sound comes from the sky, a deep low hum. No matter where I am or what I am doing, when I hear that radial engine sound, I freeze and search the sky. If I’m lucky, I spot the airplane moving sedately against a blue or cloudy sky, singing of flight. Even when she disappears, I close my eyes and listen to the throb of that engine. Sometimes I can feel it even after it has completely faded.

The Queen gently serenaded the folks in Bucks County that day, and I hope they too enjoyed the music.

Jim turned the Queen over to me. She responded as I remembered, sensitive to elevator and rudder input, slow to respond to aileron. The sun on the wings and the wind and singing engine filled me with joy. Sometimes you can indeed go back and repeat a marvelous moment in your life.

At the grass field, a perfect place for tailwheel airplanes, the film crew got set up to shoot some footage while people driving by on the nearby road slowed down for a gander at the Queen.

As Eric Thiermann and Jim Clark waltzed me through my film debut, Doug DeVries supervised and walked around nervously, looking at the Queen from every angle. He knows a thing or two about Stearmans. In 2005 he and adventurer Rob Richey shipped a Stearman to Australia so they could participate in an aerial outback odyssey with eight other vintage airplanes to benefit the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia (see “ The Great Circle Air Safari,” September 2007, AOPA Pilot). He also made a movie about that adventure, The Great Circle Air Safari, which is available on DVD. That experience was the inspiration for The Stearman Spirit project.

This summer he and partner Mark Schoening flew two Beavers on floats all the way around the coasts of Canada, including the now ice-free Northwest Passage. The pair left on August 2 and returned home to Seattle September 16. Doug plans to make a movie about the 45-day trip. Doug DeVries is a man with big dreams.

We flew three flights that morning for the filmmakers. When the wind rose, we took a break and drove out to Van Sant Field in Erwinna, Pennsylvania. Van Sant is one of those delicious general aviation fields that used to dot America and are now becoming all too rare. Van Sant, however, is alive and well. A group of older aviators loafed and visited on the picnic tables and chairs under the trees behind the FBO, watching an occasional airplane come and go on the grass runway. What a cool place to hang out!

Jim Lonergan introduced me to George Taylor, the mechanical mullah at Old School Aviation who is going to re-cover the Queen and give her a major overhaul when the time comes.

There were six Stearmans at the Van Sant airport, and Jim and I visited each and oohed and aahed. One was a sprayer undergoing restoration. One was a rental airplane—yes, gentle reader, at Van Sant you can rent a Stearman by the hour, after you get signed off—and four were works of art, waiting for their owners to come on weekends and roll them out. Amazingly—hold on to your hat—the Van Sant folks also have a Tiger Moth that is available for rent by the hour. We will put the aviation altar right here!

Standing in front of the Boeing hangar queens, Jim was a little apologetic about the Queen’s appearance. After 20 years of hard flying, she no longer looks as snazzy as her sisters, who were lolling in the half-light of the cavernous interiors.

The Cannibal Queen is right where she belongs,” I assured him. “She is flown and maintained by three guys who love aviation and use her to share the wonder and magic. Believe me, you are doing the right thing with that airplane. You are enriching a lot of lives and making friends for general aviation. Keep her flying as long as you can, then rebuild her and fly her some more.”

It won’t be easy. Aviation gasoline at Northeast Philly is hovering around $7 a gallon, and round engines are getting ever more difficult, and expensive, to overhaul. Still, “When people get out of that airplane after a ride,” Joe Schepis said, “they are always smiling. We call that the Stearman smile.”

If you want a ride in the Cannibal Queen, or want to give your children or grandchildren an experience they’ll remember until their dying day, e-mail Jim Lonergan and his partners. They’d love to share the adventure of open-cockpit flight with you.

That evening we flew the Queen back to Northeast Philadelphia. As Jim filled her with gas, a reporter and his lady showed up. Before long, Jim strapped them in and gave them a ride. Then he gave a ride to Jim Clark and his daughter, who had come by bus from New York to see her dad. Skid Henley would have been proud.

I watched the Queen lift off the asphalt and take to the sky with the Clarks in the front seat, reveled in the roar of that engine and the sight of the yellow wings and fuselage glowing in the evening sunlight. I listened to that engine as long as I could hear it, then listened some more. Finally I walked out to my car, wearing a Stearman smile.

Au revoir, Cannibal Queen.

Stephen Coonts’ latest novel is The Assassin. His aviation classic, The Cannibal Queen (Pocket Books, 1992), is still in print and available wherever good books are sold, and, of course, online. Visit his Web site.