Tracey Curtis-Taylor says May 11, 2016, is “branded into my memory for many reasons.”
The British aviator had spent much of the day flying over America’s Grand Canyon, Lake Powell and Monument Valley. It was “one of the most spectacular and breathtaking experiences of my life,” she says.
Then came a late-afternoon refueling stop at Winslow-Lindbergh Regional Airport in Arizona before continuing to Falcon Field in Phoenix. The Winslow airport’s altitude is 5,000 feet, and it was a warm day in the desert.
“Shortly after takeoff we experienced a partial power loss, some 300 rpm, which was enough to stop the Stearman climbing at a density altitude of just under 7,000 feet,” Curtis-Taylor recalls.
“There were power lines looming directly ahead, so there was no choice but to turn to the south and fly it into the ground,” she says.
Curtis-Taylor’s Stearman “dug into the deep soft sand and hurtled forward some 20 to 30 feet before a sage bush tore of the right-hand undercarriage leg and sent the aeroplane into a full 360-degree cartwheeling somersault.”
It was a devastating end to a cross-continent flight to celebrate the 100th anniversary of The Boeing Co., one of Curtis-Taylor’s sponsors. After leaving Seattle, WA, on May 2, Curtis-Taylor flew along the west coast and had planned eventually to follow old air mail routes from near Wichita, KS, to Boston, MA.
“Amazingly neither myself nor Ewald Gritsch (her passenger that day) was hurt, but the damage to the Stearman was woeful,” Curtis-Taylor says. That experience underlines what Stearman pilots know: their rugged planes, built around a welded steel-frame core, are famous for protecting their occupants.
Gritsch, who owns 3G Classic Aviation in Hungary, restored Curtis-Taylor’s airplane before her 2013 flight from Cape Town, South Africa, to Great Britain. The wrecked craft was taken apart, put into a shipping container, and sent to Europe for a second rebuild.
“We flew it back to the UK for the Farnborough Air Show (in July), which was a big celebration of Boeing’s centenary,” Curtis-Taylor says.
“Next spring we will bring the Spirit of Artemis back to Winslow and continue the U.S. transcontinental from where we left off,” Curtis-Taylor says. “My Stearman will then have been around the world.”