The Designer’s Early Life:
Lloyd Carlton Stearman was born in Wellsford, Kan., Oct. 26, 1898, the son of Fred and Icie May (Grimm) Stearman, who came to Kansas from the Chicago area. According to the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle-Beacon, Lloyd Stearman had a quiet nature, loved classical music, played violin and was conservative, practical and an “aircraft designer extraordinary.”
He attended schools in Harper, Kan., prior to enrolling at Kansas State Agricultural College, Manhattan, to study architecture. He left college at the onset of World War I to join the U.S. Navy and went to the University of Washington in Seattle and to San Diego, Calif., for preliminary flight training. There he developed his love of flying.
Building his Dream:
After the war ended Nov. 1, 1918, Stearman moved back to Wichita, Kan., where he found a job doing cubical structure design work for the S.S. Voigt architectural company. By 1920, he had become a mechanic at the newly formed E.M. Laird Airplane Co., building the “Swallow” biplane. In 1924, Laird reorganized the company to form the Swallow Airplane Manufacturing Co., with Stearman as chief engineer and Walter Beech as test pilot and salesman. Stearman and Beech worked on the prototype for a new airplane with a welded tubular steel fuselage but it was not approved.
As a result, in 1925, Walter Beech, Lloyd Stearman and Clyde Vernon Cessna, an aeronautical engineer, formed the Travel Air Co. in Wichita, and the Travel Air commercial biplane first flew the same year. In October 1926, Stearman moved to Venice, Calif., where he did some stunt flying and where he met Fred Hoyt and Mac Short, also Kansas fliers. The trio formed Stearman Aircraft Inc. to build planes for the movie industry.
They built the first “Stearman” C-1 and the C-2. However, business was slow. A former investor, Walter Innes, convinced Stearman to take his company back to Kansas, helped by friends in Wichita who raised $60,000 to facilitate the move.
The renamed Stearman Aircraft Co. in Wichita started out 1927 equipped only with two lathes (9 and 16 inches), a 20-inch drill press, five small bench drills, an 8-inch shear, a 4-inch roll and a beader. Nonetheless, it built the successful C-3, designed for both mail and passenger services. It was used by Charles A. Lindberg to survey the route for Transcontinental and Western Airways, and 136 were built. In 1931, the well-known Los Angeles flier, Ross Hadley, took the Model C-3B on a trip around the world.
In 1929, Stearman Aircraft joined the Boeing Airplane Co., Boeing Aircraft of Canada, Varney Airlines, National Air Transport, Pacific Air Transport, Boeing Air Transport, Hamilton Standard Propeller, Sikorsky, Pratt & Whitney, Chance Vought, Northrop and United Airports of Connecticut as part of the United Aircraft and Transportation Corp., owned by William Boeing.
The C-3 was followed by the M-2 Speedmail in 1929, built for Varney Airlines. Stearman’s first military aircraft, the Model 6 Cloudboy, sold to the U.S. Army Air Corps under the designation of YPT-9.
The Later Years:
Lloyd Stearman continued as president of the Stearman division until 1930 and then resigned from the board in 1931.
In 1934, post-Depression legislation separated the Boeing Airplane Co. and its Stearman division from the United Aircraft and Transportation Corp. However, Boeing engineers used Lloyd Stearman’s drawings for the Cloudboy as the basis for the Model 70 trainer and the legendary World War II Stearman Kaydet trainer.
In 1932, Stearman joined a group in California who purchased the then-bankrupt Lockheed Aircraft Co. He left Lockheed in 1935 to work for several other companies but returned in 1955 to work on vertical takeoff aircraft and space vehicle projects through 1968. Then he started a new Stearman Co. in Los Angeles and continued to design aircraft and spacecraft until his death in 1975.*
The Stearman in the Military:
Even though the US Army Air Corps needed a new biplane trainer in the mid-1930’s, it moved slowly to acquire one because of the service-wide lack of funding for new airplane purchases. In 1936, following the Navy’s lead the previous year, the Army tentatively bought 26 airframes from Boeing (the Model 75), which the Army named the PT-13. With war on the horizon, this trickle of acquisition soon turned into a torrent; 3519 were delivered in 1940 alone.
Built as a private venture by the Stearman Aircraft Company of Wichita (bought by Boeing in 1934), this two-seat biplane was of mixed construction. The wings were of wood with fabric covering while the fuselage had a tough, welded steel framework, also fabric covered. Either a Lycoming R-680 (PT-13) or Continental R-670 (PT-17) engine powered most models, at a top speed of 124 mph with a 505-mile range. An engine shortage in 1940-41 led to the installation of 225-hp Jacobs R-755 engines on some 150 airframes, and the new designation PT-18.
The US Navy’s early aircraft, designated NS-1, eventually evolved into the N2S series, and the Royal Canadian Air Force called their Lend-Lease aircraft PT-27s. (The Canadians were also responsible for the moniker “Kaydet,” a name eventually adopted by air forces around the globe).
The plane was easy to fly, and relatively forgiving of new pilots. It gained a reputation as a rugged airplane and a good teacher. Officially named the Boeing Model 75, the plane was (and still is) persistently known as the “Stearman” by many who flew them. It was called the “PT” by the Army, “N2S” by the Navy and “Kaydet” by Canadian forces. By whatever name, more than 10,000 were built by the end of 1945 and at least 1,000 are still flying today worldwide.*
Tuskegee Airmen Training:
The term “Tuskegee Airmen” was used for a group of African American military pilots (fighter and bomber) who fought in World War 2. This group was the first African American military aviators in the United States Armed Forces. They ultimately formed the 332nd Fighter Group and 477 Bombardment Group for the US Army Air Force. The 332nd Fighter Group flew more than 1,500 missions over Italy and the Mediterranean.
The link below tells the story of a couple who bought a Stearman only to find out that that very aircraft was used in the training for this group of pioneers at Moton Field in Tuskegee Alabama. The couple, graciously, donated it to the Smithsonian Institution to be displayed in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.