CHARLIE AND THAT YANKEE WOMAN
It was late February 2013 when a Stearman buddy, Mike Walton, called to tell me our pal, Tom Weidlich, had sold his beloved ol’ Stearman. I was surprised since Tom and his Stearman had been lovers for more than 30 years. Holy Smokes! Now Anne would be number one in his life!
Tom’s Stearman story began in 1978 when he restored a “basket full of Stearman parts” turning them into a magnificent example of a pristine war bird. Beginning in 1985 Tom and Anne flew it all over the United States. 254 was part of their family. For more than a thousand hours Tom bored holes in the sky with 254.
Boeing built 254, and all the Model 75’s, at the Wichita plant. 254 rolled out in February, 1943 as a Navy N2S-3. The dash 3 meant it was powered by a Continental R670-N engine of 220 horsepower.
The Navy based the airplane in Michigan for a year before moving it to the Glenview Naval Air Station. Along with thousands of war birds, 254 ended up with the War Assets program as surplus. Two years later it was sold to a man from New Mexico for $275.00 which would not be enough money for the tail wheel now!
254 spent 5 years in New Mexico and then began a carrier as an “Aerial
Application” (Duster). From 1952 until 1978, it worked through the entire Southern Region of the U.S. When Tom purchased the airplane, it had to be completely rebuilt.
Tom and Anne’s family treasure their quality time spent in 254. The following story is what Tom’s granddaughter wrote about her flight with “Grandpa.”
“Keeping In Touch With What’s Really Important”
by Emma Satter
I heard about this site because my mother and her friend decided to make it one day. They sit down and work on it together, I help them out sometimes. I think it is a great idea and I have a story that I would like to share.
I am a regular teenage girl, and like many others I have a Facebook, a cell phone, an iPod, and I’m always connected to something. I found out that life’s not about the things you have, the clothes you wear, or how popular you are at school, it’s really about how much time you spend with your family. My story is from a few years back on my birthday. My grandpa has an airplane that he keeps in a hanger, and we sometimes go flying. For my birthday he told me that we were going to go for a ride. So I got ready for a ride and maybe a nice breakfast, I got my phone and everything else I thought I was going to need and went to my grandpa’s house.
As we left the house to go to his hanger, I noticed that he seemed a lot happier than usual, almost as if he knew something that I didn’t. When we got to the hanger we opened the doors and pushed the airplane out. He helped me get buckled in, and we started up the engine and made sure everything was working properly. As we taxied down the runway I concentrated on the stick and the rudder pedals, for I wanted to become a pilot, just like my grandpa. We got to the end of the runway and we lifted off, into the sky we went. We flew around, and I got to fly the plane for a while, then it was time to land. My grandpa took over and got us safely to the ground.
Usually we land at a nice little airport with a little café in it. This time it was a little tiny dirt runway with a few glider planes parked there. The building that was there looked kind of like a shack but bigger. When I took my belts off and got out of the plane, my grandpa started explaining what the little glider planes were and what they did, I learned that they have no engine at all, and you ride the wind currents to stay in the air. I was really interested by this and was wondering what it would be like to fly one, when all of the sudden my grandpa said “how would you like to ride in one of those?”
I was confused and wondered if he was serious or not and as we walked up to the building an instructor came out and shook my hand. My grandpa explained what was going on and he said “happy birthday Emma!” I got to fly the glider, and it was amazing. There are no distractions, no phones, no Facebook, no drama, no nothing. Just you and the instructor having the time of your life. I flew the whole time and I even landed it.
This was kind of a life changing experience for me, because this made me realize that material things aren’t what life’s all about. It’s the family and friends you surround yourself with, so maybe next time you pick up the phone, or go to log in to Facebook, instead maybe read a book or spend time with your family and learn a few things about what’s really important to you.
Thanks for reading (:
Mike Walton had planned on delivering 254 to it’s new owner, Charlie Hammonds, in Houma, Louisiana. Mike discovered he couldn’t go and asked me to do the delivery flight.
“Sure, no problem!” I could do that. It would be just over a two day flight. Eight days later, we met Charlie and, “That Yankee Woman,” Carol, his wife of over 50 years. The flight started off routine. …and became an odyssey!
My wife, Cheryl, and I went to the Carefree Airport so that Tom could point out some differences along with seeing how my handy-dandy iPad would fit. Jon Liebelt, a young man, my son’s age, would be coming along to build-up his flying time and, hopefully, become Stearman acclimated. He had no idea what he’d be getting himself in for…
Jon grew up around aviation. His father was a pilot, and Jon flew with him often. Walking into Jon’s Arizona home it is apparent he has a love of airplanes and airplane people by what you see on his walls.
Jon is an automobile dealer from Aberdeen, South Dakota. He does not like snow and cold weather. For most of the winter months he bases out of his home in Surprise, Arizona on Phoenix’s west side. He volunteers his time at the Commemorative Air Force museum at Falcon Field, Mesa, Arizona where he keeps his old Stinson “Sentinel” L-5 warbird.
Jon and I have become pals and he has endeared himself to the Walker family by honoring my Uncle Jack’s memory putting his name, as pilot, on the side of the L-5.
Uncle Jack (as kids called him “Uncle Barnsmell”) was an Army pilot during WW-2 and flew the ubiquitous L-5 in China-Burma-India. For a while, he was General “Jumpin’ Joe” Stilwell’s personal pilot.
I could almost write a book on Uncle Barnsmell’s escapades before – during – after WWII. He was quite a character.
When we saw Tom and Annie, we knew it would be a tough ‘good-by’ when when 254 departed. Tom, Annie, and 254 were a Ménage à Trois for over three decades!
A check of the Hobbs Meter indicated 536.03 hours since the engine was overhauled. Jon planned to keep a record of our fuel and recorded engine time enroute.
Early Monday Morning, March 4, 2013, we met at Tom’s hangar at the Carefree Airport. We saw where Tom’s pal, Doug James, installed a cigar lighter in both cockpits so we could keep our e-stuff charged-up. We were soon loaded, and the airplane fired up for it’s farewell departure from 18AZ the identifier for the Carefree Airport.
With 254’s engine warmed up and ready, off we went roaring down Carefree’s runway, lifting off and hitting the smoke switch! Not wanting to leave un-noticed, we left a trail of smoke as we came around for a smoke-on departure pass over a tearful Weidlich bunch waving their last goodbye to their family pet.
Jon and I settled in for our first leg to Safford, Arizona 128 nautical miles away. As usual, Safford was windy and cold, but nothing like we’d find further down the trail. Jon had on four layers of clothes including two flight jackets. 254‘s Hobbs Meter showed a total time since engine overhaul of 537.5 hours.
26 gallons of 100 LL(low lead) fuel and we were headed to our next stop. Just 57 miles further was Lordsburg, New Mexico, successfully out-doing Safford in the wind department. Fortunately, it was right down the runway. Unfortunately, it was over 50 miles per hour in velocity. Fortunately, it wasn’t very gusty. Jon guessed 30 to 40 mph, but the airport manager said it was showing a maximum of 57. At a certain point it is just too damn windy! 254 took on 9 gallons fuel. Hobbs: 538.2
Our next stop was to be Santa Teresa – Donna Ana County airport just 25 miles west of El Paso. We never made it!
Whoa! Where did that Haboob come from?
To our left was Deming, New Mexico and, while windy, was suddenly inviting. The nice folks there helped us put ol’ 254 into their hangar, and took us into town for our RON at the No-Tell-Motel that had an amazingly good restaurant.
With some time spent visiting with the forecasters and looking at the weather maps that conflicted with the forecasts, it looked promising to continue our trip the next morning. Off we went, heading for El Paso and points beyond. Top-off took 8.6 gallons.
Most of us have been in white-outs. Certainly I have, growing up in Wyoming. This would be my first “gold-out!” The morning sun trying to cut thru the dust left over from the Haboob made it impossible to see ahead. We could see straight down, but nothing but mountain ridge-lines were in view ahead of us.
We contacted Albuquerque Center and graciously accepted their flight following along with a hand-off to the El Paso approach radar. We did not see the end of runway 8R until we were over the airport boundary! Too much wind and dust. Time to find a hangar!
Cutter Aviation – ELP soon went to the top of my Christmas card list. Those folks took care of us as though we were flying a $60 million dollar Gulfstream. Jon and I caught a US Airways flight back to Phoenix.
A couple of days later, Thursday, March 7th, we’d catch another flight back to El Paso. We racked out in the pilots lounge at Cutter and off we went with a pre-dawn departure. Hobbs 540.1
he next stop would be Ft. Stockton, Texas arriving at 8:40 AM. Again, it was blowing but not bad. More gas and off we’d go, heading for El Dorado, Texas. Hobbs 542.6
9:15 AM we arrived at El Dorado. Moments after we landed and fueled, the weather dropped
down, and the wind picked up. We tied down 254, put the cover over the cockpits, and started scratchin’ our heads on what the next step might be.
22.2 gallons – Hobbs 544.
There was no one around when, suddenly, an ultra-fancy pick-up roared up with a lady driving. The fellow in the passenger seat looked and sounded just like JR from Dallas, hat, accent, and all. He told us they were happy we stopped by and, while no hangar space was available, we had a choice of two airport cars, and would be welcome to use either one. Well shoot! Now we had one more decision to make!
No hotels available in El Dorado, so we used the very nice Ford Explorer to head 22 miles south to Sonora, Texas, where we found a nice Comfort Inn and a steak house nearby.
The weather rolled-in. We really sweated out the prospects of hail and a downpour which would not please the new owner’s insurance man.
Early the next morning we headed for El Dorado to discover no damage to 254. Not so much as a rain-drop! Lucky! You bet!
123 miles further was Burnet, Texas. Unfortunately, weather was still a factor. It was still cloudy, windy, and very cold. We were able to top the lower cloud deck for some smooth sailing for nearly 100 miles. We descended below the overcast and started looking for landmarks.
Texas businessman and developer, Terry Young and his wife Kim visited King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein castle in Germany. Returning from their trip in 1995 they began a ten-year building project that took us by surprise as we flew by.
The landing at a blustery Burnet wasn’t pretty, but it was a good one if we could walk- away from it, right? We fueled up and borrowed their airport car to get some good ol’ Texas barbecue. Boy, was it good!
However, by the time we returned to the airport, the weather was closing in. Checking the availability of hangars turned out to be another zero! Nothing!
Then we spied a nice-sized CAF hangar, the Highland Lakes Squadron, a wing of the Commemorative Air Force. Thinking we might be in luck, we entered the hangar passing thru an impressive museum area and PX. Shoot! The hangar was full of aircraft. The largest, a C-47, dominated the hangar and was surrounded by their SNJ, a Navion, Fairchild PT-19, and Culver Cadet “Cockroach.”
The next thing we knew Col. Juan Jimenez, the wing maintenance officer, after getting the thumbs-up from wing leader, Jim Hower, pushed the C-47 outside. Next, the aircraft were re-arranged inside; the C-47 pulled back inside, followed by 254! These are really terrific folks! They poured Jon and me a beer before their intrepid wing leader took us to a close-by Comfort Inn which would be home for the next two days waiting for the weather to pass by.
Pass-by, it did! Hail cracked a window in my hotel room. Jon and I were doubly thankful for the Highland Lakes folks. 254 was inside and safe! Hobbs: 546.1
No restaurants close by, so we ordered pizza and stayed out of the rain. The hotel had a good breakfast set-up the next morning, and we made it across the street for a lasagna lunch. It was nice to have an extra day to regroup and warm up.
Early Sunday morning one of the members, Henry, picked us up and opened the hangar for us. It wasn’t long before we were chilled to the bone heading east towards our next fuel-stop, Jasper, Texas.
It didn’t take long before we were freezing, and we were only half-way there. We dropped into Hearn, Texas which looked promising from the air. Nope! Nobody there except a fellow inspecting their fuel farm. Soon he departed, and we had nary a rattlesnake or jack rabbit to share the place with.
Off we went into 34° with what seemed a minus 100o chill factor, finally reaching Jasper County Airport at 2:57 PM where we were greeted by Mayor Mike Louts who presented us with a key to the city, a highlight of the trip that would soon be even more so!
Mayor Louts is a bit overdressed in the photo below. The airport ladies said that it was good that it was cold out; otherwise, he’d be shirtless.
The Jasper paper had us on the front page the next day and on their website telling about a fabulous WWII trainer that stopped at their airport enroute from Arizona to Louisiana. Southern hospitality is for real!
We took on 33.3 gallons of 100 LL fuel. Hobbs: 548.7.
Ready to go, and we discover a rough running engine. Normally, you lean out the mixture and it clears up the oil-fouled spark plugs. …didn’t work this time!
We called “Swamp” Smith who was scheduled to be our host for the next R.O.N. at his private strip located on his ranch southeast of DeRidder, Louisiana. Swamp grabbed his neighbor, Billy Gothreaux, a Stearman pilot/mechanic; hopped in an L-19 “Birddog” and flew over to help us solve our new-found maintenance problem.
There was a nice young fellow and his wife who did aircraft maintenance at Jasper. He pulled the plugs, checked and cleaned them. But we still had the problem with a rough running engine. They ended up replacing four of the spark plugs.
Soon we were in formation with Swamp’s L-19, a beautiful Air Repair restoration that looked incredibly good by comparison to the ones I saw during the South East Asia War Games in 1971-1972.
Before we departed Jasper and our new friends there, Swamp asked if we’d ever had a “fold-over?” Jon and I looked at one-another totally unable to imagine what a “fold- over” could be. Swamp said, “Foller me, boys!” Off we went into the, finally, wild-blue-yonder heading east towards DeRidder, Louisiana. Swamp’s private airstrip.
Swamp and Billy landed first. Then Jon and I were next to drop down over the tall trees at the end of his nice grass runway, my first grass runway landing in a Stearman. Hopefully, it won’t be my last. Grass is simply a marvelous runway surface, especially, for an old bi-plane.
Jon and I were signaled into a parking spot between Swamp’s sprawling ranch house and his two large hangars. Next, we were introduced to “Whoopi Goldberg Smith,” Swamp’s Rottweiler, and his pet rooster.
Whoopi proved to be a sweet thing albeit in trouble with a cancer that has her on a short leash. Next, Swamp handed Billy, Jon, and me a fold-over!
Fold-over’s are large bratwurst-type concoctions of pork and venison. You lay one of these monsters on a plain piece of bread, squirt some mustard and, WOW, are they delicious! Swamp’s “fold over’s” were better than promised. Very tasty! We had a few of those along with cocktails and a tour of Swamp’s hangar/museum replete with planes, WW II full wall murals, and assorted memorabilia that Swamp had collected over his years of world travel on all but one continent.
The wall-to-wall/floor-to-ceiling mural was beyond impressive. The art work was beautiful and told the story of WWII in aircraft. After the tour, Swamp insisted that we get some real Cajun food at a local establishment.
Swamp and Billy loaded us in the Lincoln for a short ride to town. DeRidder, LA is a hamlet of some 10,000 in the Beauregard Parrish. Nice place, and the Cajun cuisine is mouth-watering. The shrimp Étouffée proved an excellent choice for me.
We stayed in Swamp’s “barn” completely stocked including a much needed washer and dryer that was put to good use. We packed for an expected 2 maybe 3 day delivery that ended up being more than a week! Swamp’s “barn bed rest” was the best sleep we’d had on the trip.” …better’n a five star hotel!
Tues. 3-12-13 Jon and I “stole” one of Swamp’s Lincolns and ate breakfast downtown. Swamp got back from visiting his doctor and gave us a tour of his Stearman parts stash.
549.2 Hobbs 11:30 a.m. Our last leg to deliver Charlie Hammond’s new toy.
It was sunny and warm for our late morning departure. We had planned it that way as we both were hopeful of avoiding more pre-hypothermia. The rooster Swamp keeps at his place was happy to see us go as he is quite territorial.
Below: Jennings, LA. Our final fuel stop. Hobbs: 549.8
We departed Jennings with a 12:28 lift off.
After flying over countless swamps and alligators, FINALLY Houma is in view! We call the Houma tower. They are expecting us. They are expecting us to leave tire marks on Charlie’s hangar roof! We used up the rest of our smoke oil greeting Charlie and half of Houma there to “inspect” Charlie and “That Yankee Woman’s” new toy. Even the tower folks came by. Houma is a great place for aviation minded folks.
Hobbs 551.3. 3:12 p.m. 14 hours flying time took us nearly eight days!
We discovered it sunny and warm on the ground at Houma. It was bittersweet, but we were relieved to be down for good. Jon and I were pretty spent fighting the bitter cold, the rough air, and the quirky weather along the way.
Jon and I became fast friends with Charlie and Carol Hammonds. Immediately, we were aware that Charlie enjoys the love and respect of everyone we met.
Charlie has a pristine hangar/business and museum that is as good as I’ve seen for a private museum. The Hammonds have assembled an impressive aviators memorabilia and autograph collection.
Charlie is named after Charles Lindbergh which is appropriate considering his numerous flying achievements. We received a warm welcome from all of Charlie’s friends that were on hand and stopped by to see Charlie’s “Big Yellow Bird.”
Charlie and his “That Yankee Woman” wife, Carol, took us out to eat at “1921,” a seafood establishment that was to-die-for-good. This happy stop was followed by a tour of the city and back to the hangar for more stories and evening pics of the “Big Yella Bird” in his hangar.
The Hammonds are confirmed animal lovers. They have a squadron of “Yorkies” running around their home and even an animal cemetery next to the hangar.
Additionally, they have more than their share of wild birds and animals that abound the Hammonds’ Hangar. Huge brown Nutria rodents native to South America, but invasive to USA, are all around Houma.
Charlie put us up in a hotel for the night. The next morning he picked us up, and we had grits at the Waffle House…yep, grits at the Waffle House in Houma LA. Later in the day Charlie and a pipeline inspector took Jon along in Charlie’s 172 Cessna to check the pipelines for leaks out in the gulf from drilling rig platforms and in the Mississippi river delta as well as the swamps and bayou’s of LA.
A little known fact is that Houma and the surrounding area are the setting for “The Swamp Thing” comic books. That’ll give you an idea of the topography of Houma along with the fact that “KHUM,” aka Houma airport, is 10 ft above sea level, not a great place to try and find a suitable “dry” emergency landing place should the need arise.
Later in the afternoon we decided to go to New Orleans and check out the national WW II museum to see if it was as good as advertised. Charlie took us to New Orleans or “The Big Easy” as is it sometimes referred to by jazz musicians as it is easy to find a jazz gig there.
We checked into a motel and promptly looked into getting a bite to eat. The “all- knowing” locals at the front desk shared their insight and advice on the museum idea and local do-not-miss locations. We were told in no uncertain terms that we must go to check out the WW II museum…this advice coming from a 22 year old girl whose interest in WW II history took us by surprise. Following her advice, the next morning, we cabbed it to the museum.
Walking up the steps inside the door of the main building, you’re eyes are drawn upwards to a British Spitfire and an American C-47 suspended from the ceiling 3 stories up. This should give a mental picture as to the size of this building’s entrance/lobby.
The WWII museum is all that it is advertised to be and more. It was founded by the late great author Stephen Ambrose. The museum was crowded with people on a Thursday! I cannot imagine how busy it is on weekends.
The previous day set an attendance record. More than 3,000 people came through the doors. We spent 6 hours in the museum and still did not visit all the buildings.
The museum’s movie narrated by Tom Hanks is worth a trip to New Orleans by itself! The seating is the most comfortable I’ve experienced. The visual and sound systems are better than anything I’ve seen and heard. All three senses are involved with the movie!
A B-17 nose descends out of the ceiling and superimposes on the nose of the lead B-17 in the movie. Somehow a computer keeps the nose in position as the airplane is knocked around from anti-aircraft explosions and turbulence.
When a tank rumbles onto the scene, you actually “feel” the vibration of the tank tracks and are left with the feeling you are part of the scene. When there is an explosion, of which there are many, you smell the cordite!
In a word, unbelievable!
With limited time in New Orleans we found a bicycle taxi to take us downtown to see the Cathedral and the French quarter. Having “not” had New Orleans on his bucket list Jon was pleasantly surprised by what it had to offer in terms of beauty, history, and an atmosphere of happiness and freedom from the cares of the rest of the world.
As directed by my wife, Cheryl, we had a Boulettes (“little balls”) which are little breaded and fried balls of meat and seafood dressing. They make a scrumptious snack. They were as good or better than advertised, along with a popular local drink known as a “Hurricane.” We renamed that drink “Stall-Spin-Crash!”
A side note is that I finally got a taker on the back rub that I request when a waitress asks if “there is anything else I can do for you.” Perhaps it was the “Hurricane’s” medicinal effects enhancing the experience?
After lunch began, we enjoyed a walking tour of the downtown area. And eventually settled down to listen to some New Orleans jazz played by a bar band that were as talented and entertaining as you could ask for in the New Orleans jazz style‘’
Our trip or “odyssey” as it became, was one to remember for sure. Likely, I neglected a few things worthy of mention. It will take a while to erase the unpleasantness of the cold bumpy flying conditions and the carburetor icing and the subsequent “Continental cough” at 7500 ft. while crossing a mountain range with no smooth landing areas in range or in view.
The Haboob, the 50 mile per hour winds, the sudden and frequent rises and drops in altitude, Jon’s gloves being sucked out of the cockpit and subsequently lost to the swamps of Louisiana. Then there was the floating GPS in negative g’s and impromptu dog fights with local hawks and turkey vultures. These things were all inclusive in a trip that would not have been possible without the colorful cast of characters including one very nice Stearman with Felix the cat, flipping someone the bird, painted on the tail.
Small world too. I ran into an old college chum, Barry Goldwater, Jr., on the flight from Charlotte enroute to Phoenix. Amazing how much he looks like his father.
My co-pilot, and now good friend, Jon Liebelt, became an indispensable asset relieving me on the controls and navigating over some rough terrain. There is a lot of interesting country, between Carefree, Arizona and Houma, Louisiana.
All but a couple of the photos herein are Jon’s, and a lot of the story has been cleaved from his copious notes. Sir Jon took more than a thousand photos on this trip! He is a fine young man and made our trip a memorable one.
My new buddy, Charlie Hammond, is now enjoying the 30 plus years of caring Tom and Annie Weidlich put into Stearman 254. I was privileged to deliver that magnificent old bi-plane from one good guy to another. That old Stearman is a lucky bird to have the kind of folks it has had and still has as caretakers.
“That Yankee Woman” will, no doubt, soon clamber aboard 254 for a flight up to 34LA for some of Swamp Smith’s fold-overs… I hope Whoopee Goldberg Smith will still be there to greet them.
Blue Skies & Tailwinds…