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Oakdale pilot hopes to set up fly-and-ride service at Lodi airport

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Posted: Thursday, September 12, 2002 10:00 pm

"Five-two-niner" gets around pretty well for a 62-year-old. During a long, industrious life, it has trained Army Air Corps pilots for combat, dusted food crops, pulled banners over sports arenas, and now gives rides to passengers.

"She's lived four lives," said owner Glenn Smith of Oakdale.

Five-two-niner is a single-engine bi-plane. More specifically, it's a PT-17 Stearman, built in 1940. It's outfitted with a Pratt and Whitney model R-985 450-horsepower engine.

The blue and yellow beauty is in town this weekend at the Lodi Airport with Smith and his partner Tom Thompson, also of Oakdale. Rides will be offered from 7:30 a.m. to sundown on a first-come, first-served basis.

Hopping aboard the plane is more than just a chance to grab a quick adrenaline rush; it's an opportunity to take a ride on an historic craft. It offers a brief moment to revel in man's finest machine, to feel like a pioneer aviator, and to see Lodi from an aerial perspective.

It is a once-in-lifetime encounter.

Glenn Smith flies over the Lodi area Thursday in his Stearman. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

I had the chance to ride aboard 529 (that's her registration number) the other day with News-Sentinel photographer Jennifer Howell.

The ride went like this:

First, while standing on the tarmac, we were outfitted with Snoopy-esque helmet and goggles. Smith helped us board the plane which required a degree of dexterity.

"Step there," he instructed, pointing to the wing root that is lined with skid-proof material.

"Grab the handle above the cockpit," was the next instruction.

One by one, we were loaded into the forward cockpit. It's cramped at 24 inches or so in width, but we managed to sidle next to each other sitting hip to hip. In this tight space, we got to know each other a little better.

Smith took his position in the rear cockpit and started the engine. The chrome propeller immediately spun.

About Lloyd Stearman: 1898-1975

  • Lloyd Stearman was a prolific aviation designer. He is an inductee in the National Aviation Hall of Fame

  • He was born in Wellsville, Kan., on Oct. 26, 1898.
  • Stearman built many different aircraft models: The early Stearmans, C-1 through C-3s; the Wichita model 4s and M2s, the model 6 Cloudboy and the military Stearman model 70-76s.
  • stearman_lloyd.jpg
    Lloyd Stearman
  • In 1924, Stearman designed the New Swallow airplane which had many innovative features, such as the first fully enclosed cowled engine.
  • In 1924 Stearman teamed with Walter Beech and Clyde Cessna to incorporate the Travel Air Manufacturing Co.
  • Stearman Aircraft Co. was formed in 1927 in Wichita, Kan. The first Wichita built Stearman C-2B was delivered to Western Air Express in December 1927.
  • Lloyd Stearman left his company to become associated with Walter Varney in his airline ventures. In 1932, Stearman became president of Lockheed Aircraft Corporation of California in Burbank.
  • In 1935 Stearman resigned from Lockheed and went with the Bureau of Air Commerce in Washington, D.C. (known today as the Federal Aviation Administration).
  • While on BAC assignment, Stearman became interested in the Hammond Model Y airplane. With Dean Hammond, Lloyd formed the Stearman-Hammond Aircraft Corp. in San Francisco in late 1935. A complete new designed Stearman-Hammond model Y-125 was the result of the merge.
  • After World War II, Stearman designed agricultural aircraft under the banner of the Stearman Engineering Co. at Dos Palos. He took the Boeing 75, which had been manufactured for the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, and the Royal Canadian Air Force at Wichita, Kan., during 1936-45 by the Stearman Aircraft Division of the Boeing Aircraft Co., and converted them into duster planes.

  • Stearman continued with agriculture airplane work and the design of The Stearman MP airplane (a twin boom, split V-tail airplane) until his death in 1975.

The engine sputtered and coughed like a cigarette smoker in the morning. As Smith revved the accelerator, the nine cylinders began to warm and the engine progressed to a hum.

Within moments, the plane taxied some 300 feet down the runway, and then up, up and away, the Stearman was buzzing the vineyards of Lodi. It flew 500 feet over the north side of town and then ascended to 1,000 feet as it entered Lodi proper airspace.

Prominent landmarks - General Mills, Lodi Lake and Wine & Roses - took on a different look from above. From this distorted view, cars seemed to move slowly on Turner Road, Ham Lane and neighborhood streets.

The Mokelumne River meandered westward through a forested path; the sun reflected off its water.

From the ground, witnesses would say the plane appeared to be traveling fast - it does in fact fly at 100 mph. But from the air, it feels slower, almost calm.

The passengers have a small windscreen to shield some of the air, but flying in an open cockpit is akin to driving in a convertible. We could feel the wind rush through our shirts and helmets.

Smith returned to the airport. The approach to the runway involved a 60-degree bank and then a fast descent over Highway 99 - it most likely became a distraction for curious car drivers below. With the ground rushing some 20 feet below, the point of reference returned; it became obvious the plane was going fast. Just as Smith leveled the plane for landing, he pulled up and the plane hit 200 feet again.

It was a "touch and go," and an adrenaline rush for us. We giggled involuntary and grabbed our butterfly-filled stomachs. Disneyland has nothing on this ride.

A few more tight banks and finally the plane touched down, this time at a slower speed.

Only 20 minutes had passed for us, but time had also become irrelevant. Perspectives were lost and hearts were racing.

It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

For two people, the 15- to 20-minute ride costs $100. Credit cards, checks and cash are accepted. The Lodi Airport is located on the Frontage Road near Highway 99 between Jahant and Peltier roads.

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