Stearman devotees come from many walks, share one passion

Webmaster’s Note: This story appeared in the Sept. 7, 2007, edition of The Register-Mail, Galesburg’s daily newspaper, and is posted here with the publication’s permission.

BY MATT HUTTON
of The Register-Mail

We know what Stearman pilots do. We know that they’ve come to Galesburg in droves for the 36th annual Stearman Fly-In. But who, exactly, are these folks?

On the surface, they have little in common. They come from Pittsburgh and Florida and England. They are airline pilots, rocket scientists, real estate agents and even reporters. They are young and old. They are men and women. But their common bond, a life-long love of planes and flying in a Stearman.

“It’s a motorcycle in the sky,” said Doug Moran, a real estate agent from Jacksonville, Fla. He inherited the love of Stearman planes from his father. “I was born and raised around these planes,” he said.

So too was Cam Youree, an airline pilot from Pittsburgh. His father had been trained as a pilot on a Stearman in 1942. Youree and his father then bought his Stearman in 1984 and he hopes to pass it down through the generations.

“Everybody who’s ever flown an airplane is in love with this,” he said. “Anybody can have this airplane, the average 9 to 5 guy to the multi-millionaire – it runs the gamut.”

Love of flying also crosses gender lines. Madonna McMahan and her husband, Merrill, from Wausau, Wis., bought their Stearman back in 1982 when there were few female pilots, Madonna said. At the time, she was an artist and writer and Merrill an accountant. They were inspired to act on their life-long interest in flying after seeing the Smithsonian documentary “To Fly!”

Madonna’s mother had worked at a World War II air base and they saw planes fly over the base all the time. But, when she finally got her pilot’s license, her mother wasn’t happy, but worried, Madonna said, chuckling.

Now a real estate broker, Madonna has been happy to see more women get involved with Stearmans, saying she counted about five other female pilots in Galesburg this week.

John Ockenfels, who works at a paper recycling company in Iowa City, said he owns one Stearman and is a partner with others, including a rocket scientist, on another. He has loved flying ever since he was younger, growing up off the end of an airport and watching planes fly over his house. He was hooked on the Stearman 15 years ago when he went up for a ride with a friend.
“Everybody’s into Stearman,” he said.

However, “they are a machine that demands attention.” For example, on Thursday Ockenfels was getting help from another pilot to replace his carburetor.

Roger Brown, who came to Galesburg from Key West, Fla., via Michigan, said he probably puts $4,000 to $5,000 per year into his plane, between insurance costs, hangar rental and other maintenance needs. The owner of a real estate magazine in Key West, who recently sold two weekly newspapers in Michigan, said it was his hobby, as opposed to golf.

“It’s like a country club membership,” he said.

However, Ockenfels pointed out it was low maintenance compared to the time he spends flying.

While flying is a hobby for some, Youree and many other Stearman pilots are commercial pilots as well. But that has not dampened his love of flying the Stearman.

“It’s something special. If I never saw another 757 for the rest of my life and I could have this, I’d be happy,” he said. “This is what flying is all about.”