Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Pittsburgh-area aviators to fly a Stearman biplane to D.C. for documentary premiere

*This story was published on Page A-1 of the Tuesday, June 1 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010
By Anthony Fenech, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Jack Roethlisberger sits inside a muggy hangar at Beaver County Airport, leans back on a folding chair with his legs stretching forward, crosses and rests them on a bucket.

To his right is an old Stearman airplane fuselage, the core of what hundreds of working hours later will end up as another one of his refurbished airplanes.

"There's just something about taking a pile of parts," he said while cracking open a beer, "and making it into something that looks pretty."

A week from today, Mr. Roethlisberger will climb into another Stearman biplane that he refurbished and will fly with four other Pittsburgh pilots to Washington, D.C., for the premiere of "Legends of Flight," a 3-D IMAX film. The documentary details the history of flight and the many technological advances that have led to modern airplane design. The two-seater Stearman is among the planes that are featured in the movie.

Sheets of metal and fabric outline Mr. Roethlisberger's work area, littered with tools, parts and a stray engine mount. High above, unfinished wooden airplane wings hang above a workbench.

The first time Mr. Roethlisberger saw one particular pile of parts, it wasn't pretty.

It was a crippled airplane lying in a Lock Haven riverbed, surrounded by crashed wings, burned wood and a propeller somewhere off in the distance.

Whereas most would see the death of a plane, Mr. Roethlisberger saw a project.

"If you have one piece, enough ambition and enough time, you can make an airplane out of it," he said.

And so, Mr. Roethlisberger -- no relation to the Steelers quarterback -- rented a truck, drove northeast to Lock Haven from Beaver and picked up the only piece he needed, the fuselage.

That was in 2000. A decade later, he will fly that same 1941 Navy Stearman to Ronald Reagan National Airport, accompanied by four Stearman enthusiasts.

Ron Gorr of Mt. Lebanon will lead the group of retired military aviators and commercial pilots to the nation's capital June 7 and will fly his World War II Stearman, a plane that was primarily used as a military trainer for Army and Navy pilots.

"I didn't think we'd get permission from Homeland Security to fly these little planes into Reagan," he said. "But we did and they're shutting the whole airport down for us to fly in. It's exciting and quite the honor."

Mr. Gorr's Stearman was built in 1942 and delivered to the Army in December 1943. Nicknamed the "Yellow Peril" for its tricky ground-handling characteristics, the open cockpit biplane was known for its simple construction and durability.

Mr. Gorr's Stearman, its blue-and-yellow paint scheme glistening in the sunlight, shows no signs of a 68-year-old history, complete with training stops in California and Alabama.

"These [airplanes] are brand new," he said. "Everything's new, the wood, the paint and the fabrics. They're finished products."

Mr. Roethlisberger, 61, of Beaver, acquires the planes as scrap, or buys them from other people who don't have the time or energy to finish the project.

"All of these have crashed at one point or another," he said. "And that's the fun of it, taking a pile of junk that everyone looks at and tells you can't be fixed. You put it together and there's no better feeling than that."

The planes take anywhere from three to four years to rebuild and cost between $50,000 and $70,000 plus a lot of labor, depending on how many parts are needed. Mr. Gorr guesses the finished product could sell for up to $150,000.

Only a few Stearman parts manufacturers remain. "They're rather expensive," Mr. Roethlisberger said, "so we try to make as many parts as we can."

Currently, he's working on two different frames and equips them with new nuts, bolts and hardware. After the fuselage is completed, the home-made wings are attached and finally, a fabric is stretched around the frames before being painted and hardened.

"It's basically like building a new airplane," he said.

Mr. Roethlisberger has worked on airplanes since his 20s, and has been making parts since fixing cars during his teenage years.

The "Beaver Boys," as Mr. Gorr likes to call the group, consist of five current or retired US Airways pilots: Mr. Gorr, Mr. Roethlisberger, John Lebbon of Greenville, Cam Youree of Hookstown and Charlie Lines of Canfield, Ohio.

The group has flown together for more than a decade. Some of their friendships go back a quarter century, to the former Allegheny Airlines that rebranded itself twice before becoming US Airways.

"We fly around quite a bit together," Mr. Gorr said. "We love it. This is what we do."

They fly in pairs, trios, and on occasion, all five together, to different airports, to the National Stearman Fly-In each year and even to a restaurant in Salem, Ohio, from time to time for the "$100 hamburger," given its nickname for the $99 in gas spent flying to Salem and back, and the dollar for the burger.

A week from now, they'll depart from Beaver for a 21/2 hour flight to Manassas, Va., where they'll stay overnight and meet with four Stearman pilots from Virginia before flying about 25 miles to Washington the next day.

With his impending retirement just a month away -- "29 days to be exact," he says -- Mr. Roethlisberger will have more time to spend with the wind piercing his thinned-out, gray head of hair, and most importantly, with his grandson, Jack, a flying maniac at the ripe age of 8.

"He'll probably be soloing by the age of 12," he says, smiling.

But for the moment, Mr. Roethlisberger, who flies a Boeing 767 for US Airways, is excited about the upcoming trip to Washington for the movie premiere.

"It's fun to go to D.C.," he says. "I've flown a lot of bigger airplanes there, but not a small one. There's about a 30,000 feet difference between the two."

But the biggest difference?

"That's work," he says. "This is flying."

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