MALVERN Despite the warm weather in Hillsboro, Ore., last month, Malvern resident John Tanner pulled on a snowmobile suit. He would soon be facing much colder temperatures - and a rather daring flight home in a 1941 Boeing Stearman Model 75.
A longtime pilot, Tanner had bought the aircraft a few months prior. He waited until summer to fly the plane home, but in an open cockpit at 12,000-plus feet, it would still be cold.
Originally used for training military pilots in the 1930s and ’40s, thousands of surplus Stearmans were sold to the civilian market following World War II. Many were converted and used throughout the 1950s and ’60s as the first crop dusters. In more recent decades, they served as stunt planes.
Tanner’s first plane ride - when he was about 12 or 13 years old - was in a converted Stearman, belonging to Logan Ross of Malvern, who was in the crop-dusting business.
“From that day on, I always loved that airplane, and that’s been a lifelong dream of mine to be able to own a Stearman some day,” said Tanner, a husband and father of four.
Tanner spent part of his youth working as a “ flagger”for Ross, who is now deceased.
“They didn’t have all the GPS’s and stuff they have now for crop dusting,” said Tanner, who would carry a cane pole with a flag on it. “They actually had a man on the ground.”
When Ross would come in for an approach, Tanner would lay the flag down and squat on the ground, then walk 16 paces to mark the next pass.
“I looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy a lot of times when the day was over,” he said.
Ross taught him a little bit about piloting, but Tanner didn’t get “really serious about it” until the early 1980s, learning primarily from instructor Ray Otts, also of Malvern.
“It was just a love of aviation,” Tanner said. “I had a real strong interest in it.”
He became a licensed commercial pilot and has done a variety of contract work over the years, in addition to running his wrecker business, Tanner’s Towing & Crain Service, which he opened in 1979.
Tanner, who mostly flies for fun now, is also part owner of Bulldog Helicopters, a helicopter-training facility in Searcy, and serves as chairman of the board for the Malvern Municipal Airport.
For years, he had been looking for a Stearman to add to his small collection of aircraft, which also includes a 1978 Cessna Skymaster, a rare twin-engine airplane.
Today, Tanner said, there are fewer than 800 registered Stearmans in flight.
“I’ve been looking for one for a long time,” he said. “I’ve flown different ones, standards and everything. But I wanted one that had been fully modified with a big engine and all that.”
He traveled to Oregon about five months ago to take a look at one for sale there and bought it, though he waited until last month to fly it home.
The plane is not only fully modified but has a unique history.
Tanner said the plane’s journey began in Memphis, where it was used as a primary trainer for the military. The plane was later sold and converted into an agriculture plane and was used in Arkansas and Guatemala.
The plane passed hands a couple more times, sitting for a while in Texas under one owner before being purchased at an estate auction by A.J. Foyt Enterprises. Foyt, a retired race-car drive, holds various records and has been inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and other motorsports halls of fame.
Under Foyt, who purchased the aircraft with his brother-in-law, it went through a major rebuilding and modification program and was later used in some air shows, Tanner said.
After owning the Stearman for a few years, the brothers traded it for a jet-propelled boat, belonging to the aircraft’s most recent owner, who had it for about 12 years before selling it to Tanner.
As a result of its modification, the Stearman has a large engine on it and does not get good mileage, Tanner said. He had to plan his trip on 100-mile legs, making 25 stops to refuel along the way.
“I could not stretch it much more than 100 miles because I ended up getting in a real strong headwind situation coming back, and it wouldn’t allow me to really go much more than 100 miles with any safety margin,” he said. “So that made it really tough, trying to plan runways all the way across.”
Throughout the flight, there were times of “absolute joy and pure terror,” he said.
“Part of the time it was fine, but then I ended up down in Buck Springs, Wyo., and these airplanes were not designed for a lot of crosswind performance.”
It was blowing 38 knots across the runway, and Tanner said he had a tough time getting the plane on the ground.
“It took me a couple of tries, and I was running low on fuel. That got a little bit hairy, but that was the worst of it.”
His flight path also took him over the Rocky Mountains, where he reached his peak elevation of 12,500 feet.
“It was freezing cold up there,” he said. “There was still ice and snow all over the mountaintops.”
As he crossed over mountains, he spotted mountain lions and other wildlife, and spent a lot of time thinking about Charles Lindbergh, who made the first solo, nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927.
“Going across the top of those isolated mountains, with just many, many miles of nothing and no chance of a landing there, I thought about Lindbergh a lot,” Tanner said. “And I thought about all of the old guys who used to fly this type of airplane across the country with nothing more than a compass. I had some pretty sophisticated navigational equipment in this thing, and it was still challenging.”
In some areas, he could not fly over the mountains without oxygen and instead had to fly through the canyons.
“It was a pretty adventurous flight,” he said, “but going over the Rockies was the biggest part of it.”
Despite a variety of elements - which also included smoke from fires out West - Tanner made it home safely, his plane now parked in a large storage shed, ready for a good cleaning.