Jim Leahy of Galesburg and Tom Lowe, of Crystal Lake, IL, first met at the Antique Airplane Association’s National Fly-In at Ottumwa, IA, in 1969. Over the next few years their friendship grew as they attended various fly-ins together in their Stearmans. Every time they met they would say to each other, “We ought to get the Stearmans together.” Eventually, in the winter of 1972, Jim telephoned Tom and informed him that he was going to have a Stearman Fly-In at Galesburg and he needed some help. Thus, a partnership was born.
Jim undertook the task of organizing the fly-in at Galesburg and Tom laboriously dug out the names and addresses of all the Stearman owners from the FAA Aircraft Register, a very large book with extremely small print (pre-computer days). Over 2.000 letters were mailed out to begin the publicity for the planned event. Tom had also just assumed the position as President of the Stearman Restorers Association and subsequently the SRA became a prominent and important participant at the NSFI, a relationship which continues to the present day.
The first National Stearman Fly-In was held Sept. 15-17, 1972 ,and saw 27 Stearmans in attendance. Jim’s original idea was to do this just once, but the initial success of the event led to the decision to try it again the next year. The 2nd NSFI in 1973 had a decrease in attendance, with only 19 Stearmans at Galesburg. Undaunted, they decided to try it one more time and in 1974 there were 24 Stearmans present. The die was cast and the totals began to increase steadily in each succeeding year. A milestone was reached in 1988 during the 17th NSFI when 118 Stearmans graced the grass, breaking the 100 mark for the first time. The largest number of Stearmans to attend was 141 during the 25th NSFI in 1996.
Initially, the NSFI was a three-day affair, Friday through Sunday. For about the first 10 years the Fly-In was financed by a public air show held on Sunday. Whatever financial shortfall occurred was then covered by Jim and Tom personally. In 1978, the Fly-In was expanded to five days, Wednesday through Sunday, and remained as such until the 25th NSFI in 1996, when it was extended to its current format of a full week beginning on Labor Day.
After about 10 years of operation the Fly-In was formally organized and incorporated as National Stearman Fly-In, Inc. Local Galesburg citizens and several Stearman pilots were appointed to the Board of Directors and became responsible for planning, conducting and financing the event. Over the years numerous local Galesburg residents and Stearman pilots from all over the country have served as directors and have volunteered their time to help make each year’s NSFI a success.
Harold Canada was elected as the first president of the NSFI Board of Directors and served in that capacity for 10 years. He is largely responsible for guiding the NSFI towards the growth and organizational success that it enjoys today.
Robert Harrison became president for the next five years and continued as an outstanding leader of this growing event. He oversaw the 25th anniversary NSFI, which inaugurated the current full week-long schedule.
John Lohmar next assumed the position of president and was instrumental in establishing the National Stearman Foundation, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation, which was founded to provide a permanent source of funding for the NSFI as well as to serve as a promotionally and educationally oriented organization for the preservation and presentation of Stearman technical and historical material. Under John’s direction the initial successful steps were taken to obtain significant corporate financial support for the NSFI.
Betty Campbell became the next president and served in the post through the 2006 Fly-In. She oversaw the Fly-In’s reorganization as National Stearman Fly-In, NFP, Inc. (not for profit) and helped guide the event towards more financial growth and stability.
Jeanne Conlon became the Fly-In’s president for the 2007 event, and continues in that capacity for this year’s Fly-In.
Throughout the passing years and changes to the organization, everyone has remained focused upon the ultimate goal of providing a safe and well-organized Stearman Fly-In annually for every Stearman enthusiast to enjoy, and in providing an event in which the residents of the host community, Galesburg, can and do take great pride.
The year 2010 sees us celebrating the 39th anniversary of the NSFI. From a small gathering of 27 Stearmans in 1972, it has steadily grown into one of the premier sport flying events in the country. NSFI now has more than 100 Stearmans each year travel from all corners of the U.S. and Canada and individual Stearman enthusiasts from all over the world congregate at Galesburg to renew friendships and to enjoy a great week of Stearman flying and camaraderie.
Planning and fund-raising for the Fly-In’s 40th anniversary, in 2011, has already started. One goal is to attract a record 200 Stearman aircraft to Galesburg.