January 2010

Let’s Go Fly

Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: Mark Staff

You may have seen it in the skies over Hilton Head, its bright yellow wings and fuselage against the blue backdrop of a clear, Lowcountry sky. Or maybe you heard the distinctive sound of the 450 horsepower Pratt and Whitney radial engine as it pulled the one time, open cockpit U.S. Army Air Force trainer through humid ocean air.

“The jet is the science of flying. The Stearman is the art of flying,” said the biplane’s owner, Scott Martin. Martin also happens to fly jets, something he’s been doing for a long time. He is a test pilot for Gulfstream Aerospace and a resident of Indigo Run. He was with the U.S. Air Force for 20 years, flying an F-16 the entire time and zooming around, checking out the supersonic, stealth F-22 as an Air Force test pilot.

The reason he as at Indigo run? “I had to be close to the airplane,” Martin said, who keeps the plane at a hanger on the general aviation side of the Hilton Head airport. Talking about his plane draws an easy smile from the test pilot. He outlined its history.

“Before the start of World War II, the Army Air Force had Boeing build 10,000 Stearmans in (Wichita) Kansas. The one I ended up with, kind of middle of the pack, was built in 1943. It ended up in Phoenix, AZ at Luke Air Force Base. Left there in 1951, was a crop duster to ’81. There are still 2,500 registered. They had a viable economic use after war. It’s a 75-year-old design, yet there’s not a part on that airplane that is not still being manufactured,” Martin explained.

Because of its crop duster background, Martin’s plane has a 450-hp Pratt & Whitney engine, much more powerful than the 220-hp Continental the original training planes had. “A typical Stearman climbs at 400 feet a minute. Mine does 2,000 feet a minute,” said Martin. But it wasn’t the power that first caught Martin’s attention. “What first drew me to it was the sound. When that thing is in flight, it’s not that little whiney ‘buzz’ sound you get from a Continental. Some people like the sound of a Harley driving by. Well, this is the whole biker gang. It’s not too loud. It’s perfect.” Martin said, grinning.

Martin’s father was a test pilot for NASA for 30 years. “He didn’t bring his work home with him a lot, but I saw it,” said Martin. When he was about 12 years old, a family friend, who happened to be the lead test pilot for the F-16, took Martin out to a hanger and sat him down in the cockpit of the brand new aircraft. He fondly remembered the occasion. “There were only six (F-16s) in the whole world back then, and they were all at Edwards (AFB). I said to myself that I think I want to do this when I grow up.”

But Martin didn’t start to fly until he was 19 and a student at the Air Force Academy with the ambition to become a fighter pilot. “I had help doing this. I had to forgo a lot of the typical teenager, early 20s type of things because it’s nothing but work and competition to get into. I had a lot of good guidance,” Martin said. “I was one of those people who, at a fairly young age, figured out what I enjoyed doing. I just knew that’s what I wanted to do. If I wasn’t flying professionally, it would be my hobby,” he said.

Getting to fly the F-16 was a big step in Martin’s career. There were over 4,000 made with about 2,500 in the U.S. Airforc. But becoming a test pilot was huge. Martin explained that there are fewer than 1,000 in the world. Even though test pilots still can’t buy life insurance, the job of test pilot today is much different than when Chuck Yeager and Neil Armstrong (Martin met both men) were seeing if a new plane could actually fly. “They took a lot more risks. It used to be kick the tires, light the fires. If you came back and gave it a thumbs-up, to the war it went. Nowadays, it’s much more risk adverse,” explained Martin.

The first time a Stearman entered Martin’s life was simply happenstance. When he was at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, they had an open house and invited owners of both civilian and vintage military planes for a show. “One of them was a Stearman. “I was one of the organizers of the air show, and my boss said to pick one of the airplanes. He said, ‘I’ll buy the gas for it; see if one of them will give you a ride. I wanted to fly that Stearman. I wanted to fly in that open cockpit. So this guy from Ocala threw me in the seat of his Stearman. We were in that plane for about 20 minutes, but it felt like five seconds. It was the best time I’ve ever had in an airplane. I said I’ve got to have one of these,” Martin said.

That was in 1999. In 2002, he found himself in Dayton, Ohio, working on the business side of the F-22 program. “My job was to apply real world flight test expertise to the program. Decisions were made that made absolutely no sense in the field. It was my job to kind of be a filter. “I started flying when I was 19 and here I was, 36 years old, and for the first time in my life I’m not flying. It seemed like I was the only test pilot who didn’t get to fly,” Martin said with a laugh.

So he started looking for a Stearman and found one in southern California. “It was located near Salinas and Monterey, John Steinbeck country, right where I grew up, at the Flabob Airport in Riverside,” Martin said. He only had one small problem: He had never flown a Stearman. His good fortune held. Just a short hop south of Dayton is the Red Stewart Airfield outside of Waynesville, Ohio. It is a family-owned grass field, run by the founder’s son, “Cub” Stewart and his son, Emerson. Not only were they flight instructors, they owned a Stearman. “I went down there and told them, “There’s this airplane out in California I want to buy and I have no idea how to fly it, and I’m about to fly it 1,500 across the country. Can you guys help me out here? They got me really comfortable. I put in 12-13 hours in a Stearman. I owe Cub and Emerson. They taught me the real way to fly a Stearman,” said Martin. It was then, Martin suggested, he became an artist.

(Author’s note: At the end of our interview, Scott Martin finished up his
Starbuck’s coffee, looked me square in the eyes and said, “Let’s go fly.” And
we did.)

  1. Thanks for the article. When I was 16 around the end of the war, you could buy the Stearmans from the gov’t. for $350 except that I didn’t have the 350. We called the ones with the PW engines “Bull Stearmans” One of the local farmers bought one and it probably is still in his barn on L.I. Spent most of my life designing engines for P&W.

    — stan leavitt    Dec 31, 03:40 pm   

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