By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Gainesville man refurbishes World War II biplane
Boeing-Stearman Kaydet was used to train pilots
0525stearman 1
John Coe stores his 1941 Stearman biplane in a hangar at the Jackson County airport. The “buzz numbers” are Coe’s birth month and year. - photo by NAT GURLEY

John Coe still looks up to the sky when he hears a plane pass overhead.

The 67-year-old Gainesville man has been “consumed” by airplanes since he was a child. His love affair with aviation began after his father, a doctor, took him along on a flight lesson.

“When you’re up there, I’ve always thought the world looked so much more peaceful,” Coe said, looking out to the runway from inside his hangar at the Jackson County Airport. “All the chaos that’s going on down here isn’t going on up there. When you’re looking down, you’ve got a broader view of the world, and it’s a beautiful world. It really is.”

Since he retired as a UPS pilot two years ago, Coe hasn’t been able to fly as much as he’d like. Instead he’s been acting as “caretaker” for a 73-year-old primary training aircraft, a Boeing-Stearman Kaydet. The classic World War II plane has had a long life, and Coe intends for it to fly for many more years to come.

Four years ago, Coe stripped the plane down to its bare bones — a metal, angular fuselage. Coe has slowly been rebuilding the machine piece by piece “so that it will be better than when it rolled out of the factory.”

Coe’s biplane was built in April 1941 in Wichita, Kan., and used as a primary trainer by U.S. Navy and Army Air Corps. The Navy called its plane an N2S while the Air Corps called its a PT-17. Coe previously restored another “Stearman” to the blue Air Corps configuration.

The Kaydet, which Coe is rebuilding, was the first aircraft many students learned on. As pilots progressed in their training, they’d train on more advanced planes.

Would-be pilots flew in the back cockpit while the instructors watched them from the front cockpit through a small round mirror attached to the underside of the upper wings.

The plane is relatively simple to fly with only a few gauges and a compass on the instrument panel. Pilots learned to navigate through the sky with little more than a map.

Coe said pilots flying the plane today most likely would use a GPS, but he doesn’t plan on taking any long cross-country trips. The plane only holds 46 gallons of fuel inside the center section of its upper wing, requiring refueling every couple of hours.

“It was not designed to go from point A to point B,” Coe said. “This was designed to go out for an hour with an instructor and learn how to do basic maneuvers in an airplane, to practice take-offs and landings.”

But the plane’s nostalgia appeals to aircraft enthusiasts.

“You talk to any pilot (who) flew in World War II and maybe some even in the Korean War and they all probably started out in one of these airplanes,” Coe said. “Every time (a veteran pilot) walks through this hangar, they’ve got a story to tell. It just makes people smile.”

Dan Hagedorn, curator and director of collections of The Museum of Flight in Seattle, Wash., said the Kaydets were used by almost every pilot who learned to fly in WWII.

“The idea was to take (pilots) through these three stages of training to prepare them to fly the actual combat aircrafts, the fighters, the bombers, the transports and patrol planes that were in standard use by the services at that time,” Hagedorn said. “It really worked quite well.

“A lot of pilots who were accepted into pilot training and accepted into the primary phase didn’t survive the experience,” said Hagedorn, who has not seen Coe’s plane.

“They just didn’t have the basic hand-eye coordination required to maneuver an aircraft safely. It does take some facility.

“Bear in mind, a lot of these young pilots back in those days most of them had never even driven a car. Some of them might have been driving or had cars, but it was not a very common thing.

“You were basically taking boys off the farm or off the college campuses and trying to turn them into pilots by learning to fly these primary trainers. That’s why they were pretty docile, forgiving aircraft.”

Hagedorn said fewer than 6,000 of the planes were built, but it’s common to come across restored models at air shows and fly-ins.

“For those days that was really quite an extraordinarily large production run,” Hagedorn said.

After the war ended, many planes were sold off as government surplus and began their next incarnation as crop dusters.

“You could buy these things for 200 bucks, sometimes with fuel still in the tanks,” Hagedorn said, chuckling.

“They were snapped up really quickly by surplus dealers who then sold them to all the different agricultural companies, especially in the South where they had all of the cotton crops and rice crops, in Louisiana where they really desperately needed to have a very efficient crop-dusting operation.”

Hagedorn said the planes were perfect for crop dusting and were “the primary crop dusting aircraft in this country” well into the 1980s.

Many of the crop dusters were converted into one-seat planes and the front cockpit was converted into a place to hold chemicals.

When Coe purchased his plane in 1998, its previous owner had restored it from a crop duster to its original U.S. Navy configuration in the 1970s. But years of use had taken a toll.

For the past two years, Coe has spent hours daily inside his hangar in Jefferson meticulously restoring and repainting the individual parts and pieces.

He also has rewired the electrical systems, brake and fuel lines. He’s rebuilt and covered the four wood-frame wings and aluminum “birdcage” surrounding the fuselage.

The plane’s frame is covered in a light, synthetic fabric and several coats of paint.

Coe said he’s almost ready to connect the engine controls and install the landing gear, wings and tail.

“Then I’ll be able to fly,” Coe said, smiling.

Regional events