Every Plane Has a Tale, Just Ask the Pilot

Webmaster’s Note: This story appeared in the Sept. 3, 2008, edition of The Register-Mail, Galesburg’s daily newspaper, and is posted here with the publication’s permission.

By ERIC TIMMONS
The Register-Mail

Gathering storm clouds didn’t discourage 91-year-old Bob Schafer from climbing aboard a Stearman Wednesday, for a flight he described as “very comfortable.”

It’s not a description that many people would have used to recount a hair-raising flight through the rain and the wind in a plane built in the 1940s.

But, with his 92nd birthday approaching this December, you get the impression that not much fazes Schafer. He had never flown in a small, open plane before, but that didn’t bother him in the slightest.

Waiting on the tarmac for Schafer was his wife Laverne. She was just disappointed that the rain stopped her getting good pictures of her husband’s proud moment.

Bob credited his smooth flight to the excellent handling skills of Harrell Timmons, who whisked Schafer up into the air and down again.

“The flight was very comfortable, thanks to the pilot,” Bob said. “It was a little damp and cold, but very exciting. You really get a different perspective on things from up there.”

Wednesday was supposed to be the day the Stearman flour-bombing contest took place. But the pilots were rained out, and the event was put back to Friday.

Grounded bomber Nick Sager joked that the rain would be a boon to local drinking establishments. “I think the bars will be happy about this rain,” he laughed.

Sager flew to Galesburg in his Stearman from Granbury, Texas, with more than a few stories to tell.

The Texan has been coming to Galesburg for the annual Stearman festival since 1991, and, at 70, reckons he has clocked 15,000 hours in the air.

But then, Sager didn’t always fly for pleasure, as he does now. “I used to be in the Navy in sixties,” he said. “We flew around the Antarctic on scientific expeditions.”

When he quit the Navy, Sager made sure his next job involved flying, too. He took a position with BNSF flying corporate executives around the United States and Europe.

When Sager retired, he just couldn’t kick the flying bug. In 1991 he bought his Stearman for the princely sum of $35,000. The Stearman had been used by the Army in the Second World War, but when he picked it up it was being used as a crop duster in Oklahoma.

Sager painted the plane gray and had his own Navy squadron’s motif, the “puckered penguin,” painted on the plane’s tail.

The penguin has bloodshot eyes, a cigarette drooping from its mouth and a bottle of whiskey in its hand.

The symbol, Sager said, was used to show the hell-raising nature of the squadron, who enjoyed more than their fair share of parties. “We had a lot of fun back then,” Sager said.

His Stearman was out of commission for 20 months up to this August. Sager, also a trained mechanic, spent six hours a day restoring the plane, in preparation for the trip to Galesburg.

It was a labor of love, and worth every minute. With all that hard work behind him, and his Stearman in sparkling condition, Sager said his only goal for the rest of the week was to have a good time.

“We meet a lot of friends here every year, and really the week is like a big party for us,” he said.