Assembly of a Stearman:
By Scott Snortenland for World Airshow ,2010
Wingwalking can be traced all the way back to the early 1900’s, WWI and the good old days of barnstorming. Despite its existence for some time, just hearing the word wingwalking today still raises eyebrows and witnessing it nearly a century later continues to raise the hair on the back of people’s necks. Captivating and exciting for an article you may think so when I was asked by our editor Jim to cover a story on Carol Pilon of Third Strike Wingwalking I assumed I would focus on just that, I was wrong. What can be more interesting than walking on the wing of a flying airplane performing loops and barrel rolls you may ask? Well aside from her show, Carol brings something else just as intriguing to the aviation and airshow community with her unique method of transportation. Carol is not a pilot and does not fly, so when she informed me that she transports her Stearman to each show herself, I became confused. I impulsively thought at first, how can one perform in an airshow if they do not fly? I answered my own question with a one word answer, motivation. Despite traditional means, Carol’s love of aviation and wingwalking motivated her in 2004 to establish Third Strike. In an effort to do so, Carol became a leading performer on the circuit who chose to ground haul her aircraft rather than flying it to and from show sites. Hard work indeed, yet she will continue to do so in her seventh year in a row for the 2010 season.
Carol began wingwalking in 2000 with the late Jimmy Franklin performing in the mystery ship, Waco and the infamous Jet Waco. After parting ways in 2003, Carol remained passionate about her desire to continue wingwalking but no longer wanted to be dependant on another’s business to insure her employment. Without a plane or even a pilot’s license this notion presented Carol with some pretty big obstacles to overcome in order to achieve her goal. “At the beginning of my forming Third Strike, it was with the full understanding that I was not a pilot, could not afford a full time ferry pilot and truthfully, I had no desire to fly an aircraft anywhere safely”, states Carol. “Not being dependant on another did not however preclude me from being dependant on both a plane and a skilled pilot”. While the rather typical team would have one dedicated pilot, Carol’s finances did not allow this. Instead she formed her team with several pilots to fly her act at the show and put together a roster of four highly skilled and accredited performers. This team includes Marcus Paine, Melissa Pemberton, Bill Gordon, James Leavelle and Kirk Wicker. All associated with other teams and performances, they would come to provide Carol with greater flexibility and her ability to perform throughout different parts of North America.
Now that Carol had someone to fly a plane for her show, she was still at a loss without her own plane. This problem was solved when she purchased a 1940 Boeing Super Stearman accompanied with a trailer. The trailer, specifically designed for her Stearman know as Royal Rhapsody, would allow Carol to transport the aircraft to and from airshows via truck.This Stearman/trailer combination worked perfectly and in 2004 Third Strike Wingwalking hit both the road and the air on the airshow circuit.
The Ground Haul and Preparation for Assembly:
When I first heard of Carol’s unique transportation method of ground hauling her aircraft I could not get the image of a big red biplane being towed on a trailer up and down interstate 95 out of my head. It seemed comical and something right out of a Leslie Neilson movie, with Carol measuring the width of her plane and then the tunnel before driving through. Using better judgment I quickly realized that with a wingspan of 33 feet there had to be a more logical, though less funny method. Carol’s trailer is enclosed, similar to that of a horse trailer but still how can a Stearman fit inside? The answer; in many separate pieces!
Ground hauling requires Carol to transport the aircraft disassembled in order to fit in the trailer. This in turn requires it be put together before a show only to be taken apart again right after, destination, next show site.
The assembly is time consuming and somewhat daunting despite custom assembly gear and a well orchestrated assembly routine implemented to reduce wear and tear on both the aircraft and assembler. The assembly will take anywhere between six to eight hours with each show appointing Carol with her designated assembly crew. The crew can vary from airport mechanics to untrained civilian volunteers. Though the record of assembly stands at four hours and forty five minutes, this was with a crew of three Stearman restorers. The majority of the assembly crews are compromised of civilians, pushing the completion towards the normal six to eight hour mark. “I probably get about 70% volunteers with little to no knowledge of aircraft and the other 30% with some or more than I ever will”, reports Carol. “With this great variation I have the manpower; however it is useless without effective management”. So I presented the question, how does a 107 pound woman put together a 2600 pound airplane? Carol responded, “One step at a time”.
The Assembly process:
Due to the high time and work demand of the assembly Carol looks to arrive at the show site on the Tuesday before the weekend of the show, much earlier than other performers.
Upon arrival the first step in the assembly is unloading the trailer. Though this may sound as simple and mundane as unpacking your suitcase after vacation, it is really the first of several systematic processes and takes about an hour to complete with the help of the crew. “Everything has its appointed space and just like the actual assembly, the unloading is done in a sequenced order as well”, states Carol. “Before you put together a puzzle you should have all the pieces face up and grouped together by color to make it easier on yourself, this is really no different”.
With the trailer unloaded and everything in its proper place, the next step is to brief all involved on how the assembly rig works. Though somewhat old school, Carol continues to stick with a manual aluminum rig that was built specifically for Rhapsody. The absence of electronic, pneumatic or hydraulic controls on the rig can be physically challenging at times but Carol sees this as easier in the long run. “It would be unconscionable should a hydraulic leak or dead battery prevent the assembly and jeopardize my ability to perform at an event” remarks Carol. “It’s a happy medium that I continue to use that has not failed me thus far”.
Once everyone is familiar with the assembly rig, the physical labor begins to pick up. Starting on one side of the fuselage first, Carol and crew begin to attach the lower wing followed by the top wing. Once the lower wing is in position, Carol gets her crew to jog the wing tip in an effort to line up the fittings. “Sometimes, it slips right in and we continue on, unfortunately most of the time it doesn’t”, says Carol. Rumor has it that it is around this time when Carol’s sailor vocabulary makes an appearance but only for a little. Once the fittings are in place two bolts are tightened and secure the bottom wing to the fuselage. With no torque values used “tight” is the desired goal. Carol discovered early on that her tight is not always equivalent to that of her crew. As a precaution to prevent possible damage, her IA welded a spacer between the fittings to insure they do not bend if tightened with too much force. With the hardware in place and secure, landing wires are attached and the rig is removed to pick up and put on the top wing.
For the upper wing Carol crawls up onto the top center section and positions another crew member on a ladder at the tip on the wing to again line up the fittings. “Top wings are rarely contradictory in finding their proper place and once again two bolts do the trick, states Carol. “I then crawl down and install the two rear N-struts”. With the rig still supporting the weight of the upper wing, the wings need to be spread apart in order for the N-struts to clear their respective fittings. To accomplish this Carol assigns one crew member on the tip of both the top and bottom wings. On her cue the crew simultaneously pushes and pulls the wings respectively to spread them apart enough for Carol to clear the N-strut of its fitting. A slow release from both crew members allows the wings to return with the hardware now in place. With the back two N-struts in place, the assembly rig is then removed and the front strut is put in place. Carol and team next follow this same procedure for both wings on the opposite side of the fuselage. After approximately two and a half hours Royal Rhapsody has four wings, end struts and begins to resemble the looks of a Stearman.
There’s no chance of a successful takeoff without a tail as the next step focuses on the assembly of the empennage. Due to trailer space, the vertical fin is already attached to the fuselage for transport and must first be removed in order to install the horizontal stabilizer. This is not a difficult process, and the backtracking of work has far more positives with the transportation. The removal of two bolts frees the fin and the horizontal stab is then placed on its fittings. “Though quite big, the horizontal stabilizer is relatively light”, reports Carol. “I suspect it weighs less than seventy pounds and is no more than a two person job to move it easily”. Once one bolt is in place, the crew can let go, however four bolts are needed to safely secure it to the rear fuselage. “Three of these bolts will go into their fitting easily but the fourth is always a trial as tolerances become more constrained with the empennage”, states Carol. “We have been at this now for several hours and frustration levels can rise. To address this issue I’ve had a custom punch made to help, but on a hot day with expanded hardware it can still present as a challenge. From experience I carry plenty of extra hardware for the tail as bolts can sometimes become damaged during this part of the assembly. On a good day when I am exercising forethought, I stick the hardware in the cooler with ice as I have found that this helps considerably”.
Once the stabilizer is secured, the crew next reinstalls the vertical fin and voila. We now have a Stearman but it’s not airworthy just yet as the next step is focused on tightening of all hardware. Carol dispatches the crew with appropriate tools and specific assignments on who will be responsible for tightening what. With a crew of three she assigns them to wing root bolts, N-strut hardware and tail hardware. While the crew begins to turn away, Carol installs the flying wires. During transport the wires remain attached at the fuselage, folded back and tie wrapped to tubing in the back of the cockpit. Although installing them is not a very difficult task, it is one that Carol insists on doing herself. “At the beginning of the assembly, I make sure that everyone understands this to a fault”, says Carol. “No one is to touch the wires! The reason for this is simple; they are fragile and vulnerable to injury. Damaged terminal threads could easily go unnoticed to an untrained eye, therefore I feel most comfortable working on them myself”.
Since the teams beginning, Carol has rigged the wires simply by feel. “There is tight, too tight, not tight enough and just right”, says Carol. “Tightening one side affects the other so I work the wires on each side back and forth searching for that balance”. Around the time Carol finds, “just right” on the wires, the crew is finishing up their respective jobs. At this point the crews work is officially complete and they are free to go. Carol finds that the majority hang around to the finish, as it has now become more meaningful work than just simply a job. Like the wires, the rest of the assembly is done by Carol herself. She focuses on hardware connecting the control column to the push pull tubes as well as to the elevator. She herself installs and rigs tail wires, rudder horn cables, javelins and the pilot/static system.
Almost done and ready to fly, Rhapsody is still a few steps short of completion. Keeping in mind that her main role at the show is that of a wingwalker and not flight mechanic, Carol lastly installs her wingwalking rack. Though requiring only two bolts and four rigging wires, it is a task once again Carol feels most comfortable doing herself and for good reason as this will help keep her on the wing during her fifteen minute performance.
With the rack now in place, Carol retrieves her inspection sheet and goes over it, visually inspecting every article on it. Both her work as well as the work of the crew is checked first by her and then all over again in the same manor by another person. The pilot is the last to inspect the assembly process and aircraft for a third time. Once everyone is satisfied, inspection panels are put on and the team is set to fly.
The Show and Breakdown:
As if driving and the assembly process aren’t daunting enough, Carol’s presence at the show is to perform in the air not on the ground. Her early arrival allows her to be fully ready to fly as early as Thursday. After practice and media days prior to the actual show days, Sunday evening quickly roles around. For most performers this means an early show departure home or dinner and drinks before returning to the hotel for a good nights sleep. For Carol this means the above process all over again in reverse order. “Once the Sunday show is over and the autographs signed, I head back to the hangar and start loosening hardware for the next morning”, states Carol. “This takes about three hours but saves a tremendous amount of time the following day during the actual breakdown. If we start the tear down at nine in the morning on Monday, I can be on the road by one in the afternoon, headed wherever the circuit leads me”.
Why Fly When You Can Drive?
Carols system is comparatively unorthodox in today’s industry but she wouldn’t have it any other way. With even the perfect plan presenting pros and cons, the two major drawbacks of Carols ground hauling is simply that of both the time and work involved. Since 2004 these drawbacks have been a small price to pay and clearly outweighed when considering the benefits. Carol chooses to focus on these benefits as there are many.
For starters, instead of having to worry about weather and VFR, Carol’s commute, similar to that of the general population, is concerned with traffic, maps and roads supporting commercial vehicles; working to her advantage in more ways than one. “I have found myself at shows were I am the only performer ready to fly as my colleagues sat trapped in weather at alternate airfields”, states Carol. “Even with perfect weather my truck still proves faster than my Stearman in any marginal head wind. I am never forced to make decisions about weather during a cross country flight, and can drive through various conditions without concerns about low ceilings, wing icing, dehydration or freezing to death. It keeps me from sleeping at random airfields and food on the road proves healthier than the vending machines at the FBO”.
Carol’s early arrival to show sites has also generated an opportunity for advanced press. There has been nearly just as many photos printed of the assembly as there have been of her actually wingwalking. “Another major positive of the ground haul and assembly is that the aircraft undergoes more inspections by more people at each event than the norm,” reports Carol. This has proven to be a major advantage that really helps with preventative maintenance down the road.
Driving to and performing approximately ten shows a year puts only about fifteen hours on my airframe and engine. Perhaps the biggest benefit of ground hauling however is the simple humanity of it. I can live like a person, bring tools, spare parts, extra oil, water and yes all the shoes that I want”.
Since the teams start Carol has never had to turn down an event because of distance, weather or aircraft maintenance issues And her longest drive you ask? Well that was in 2008 and again in 2010 with a 4000 mile, 76 hour drive from Ottawa to Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage Alaska, one way! If you’re not a numbers person look it up on MapQuest, it is quit impressive.
The Bigger Picture:
As an aviation lover attending an airshow, how many times will you get the chance to put together a Stearman? Carol’s past six years of ground hauling has extended the airshow to the ground providing hundreds of civilians with a once in a lifetime opportunity, one that they are not likely soon to forget. While etching a memorable experience in the mind of those fortunate to take part, Carol’s story provides a much larger life lesson for all.
With change and adaptation two of the most primitive human characteristics, they are still perceived by many as quite difficult and troublesome even in the modern year of 2010. Producing a multitude of feelings and anxiety, change has the capacity for new and great opportunity or merely stagnation.
With the termination of her act in 2003 Carol’s desire and determination pushed her to move on working towards her goal of forming her own act. Without a plane, pilot’s license or even the wish to fly, seeking work as an airshow performer would naturally be perceived as an unrealistic goal by many. Her use of unconventional means to achieve her goal in forming Third Strike serves as a motivator to all. Though some may argue there is a better way or easier way, her love of wingwalking drove Carol to make it happen any way. Because of this her ground hauling and assembly method truly is the perfect way and reminds us that you don’t need to rely on traditional means to obtain your dream.
For more information, photos and scheduling please visit Carol’s website at http://www.thirdstrike.ca