Saturday, July 30, 2016

Stearman Star: Before She Was Famous

By and large, the planes featured in our vintage photos haven't survived into the 21st century. So when my brother, Eric Radecki of Vonrad Vintage in Fresno, discovered this old 8x10 glossy print and donated it to the archive, I made the assumption that the Stearman's hazardous line of work probably meant it hadn't survived, either. Was I wrong! Boeing Stearmans, to be sure, a durable and hardy lot, and N68405, built as a PT-17 in 1943 (c/n 75-7759), is one of those happy exceptions, and this is yet another example of a random, lost photo uncovering a fun story!

N68405 at Hawke Field, Merced CA on September 19, 1977.
Photo courtesy of Geoff Goodall, used with permission
The Steaman was a mere 20-something years young when an unknown photographer took this photo of the beginning of a crop dusting pass - under the wires! - in the mid-1960s. Today, N68405 is a movie and TV veteran owned and flown by Michael Samuel Mason, she graces the skies above Sequim, Washington (more about that in a minute!).

After serving (and surviving) as an Army Air Corps trainer in World War II, the Stearman was surplussed into the crop dusting world (an old duster I once knew told me "If you want to be a crop duster and live to 50, start at 49." I presume that goes for the planes, too!). In the above right photo by Geoff Goodall (from his website), our girl is seen still hard at work in September, 1977 at the Flying M Ranch's Hawke Field near Merced, California.

Production still from Airwolf as found on the "Wings-on-Film" Wikia
Like so many dreaming of stardom, the Stearman eventually left the farm and headed for Southern California and the world of movie and TV flying. When Airwolf debuted as a mid-season replacement show in the spring of 1984, N68405 made a guest appearance in the 11th episode, To Catch a Wolf (this same episode also features an appeance of the C-133s in the Mojave boneyard!). While owned by Mike Dewey, the Stearman was also flown in the Bruce Willis/James Garner comedy western Sunset. 

Before Mason bought it, the old gal was owned by Eric Newman and was used in Independence Day. The original ending envisioned for the movie included a suicide mission inwhich the Stearman (instead of the F/A-18 used) was flown up into the evil alien ship (you can see that version in this YouTube excerpt).

Our Stearman has also appeared in several music videos, including Aerosmith's "Amazing" (she shows up at 5:33 in this version on YouTube), and there's some gorgeous footage of the bright red Stearman doing aerobatics in the official music video for Mark Wills' "High, Low and In Between" (you can see it here on YouTube).

Photo by Brian Lockett, linked by permission
In August, 2005, aviation photographer Brian Lockett caught up with N68405 on display at the Santa Paula Airfair (right). Current owner Mike Mason grew up in Santa Paula, and his uncle still has two other Stearmans based there. Now in Sequim, Washington, Mike and and his wife Marilyn use the plane as a training platform in their unique Mason Wing Walking Academy, the only such school in the world! (They still do a bit of movie and TV work with it as well.)

Just as the name suggests, anyone with the $850 fee and an adventurous spirit can spend a day or two learning how to wing walk on top of this bright red Steaman. Mike does the flying, and Marilyn does the instructing. The world-wide population of wing-walkers is relatively small, as one might guess, and over 90% of them have been trained by Marilyn. One recent Academy student was Boston Marathon bombing survivor Megan Williams, and her experiences learning to wingwalk, profiled in an article in this great Sequim Gazette article, helped in her recovery journey.

It's wonderful to see this beauty still going strong a half-century after our feature photo was taken. One presumes that these days, Mason and crew keep a safer distance from power lines!

Courtesy of Mike Mason, Mason Wing Walking Academy
(Huge thanks to Eric for the print and Mike Mason for taking the time to share the past of his Stearman!)