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Local Stearman pilots win top honors at Illinois contest

Harold “Buzz” Bryant looked out the window of the Skyway Café at Felts Field on Wednesday and watched his past fly by – twice.

Then the four Stearman planes he had been looking at landed and taxied right up to the airport offices where Bryant, a decorated World War II fighter pilot, was having lunch with a buddy.

Bryant, 88, who once trained in Stearmans at Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida, just had to come outside for a closer look.

The four Stearman pilots – Jeff Hamilton, Dave Holmes, Larry Tobin and James Love – climbed out and started taking questions from the media assembled there to greet them.

They just returned from Galesburg, Ill., where they won the “four-ship” formation flying competition at the 39th annual National Stearman Fly-in.

Anyone who has been in Spokane any time at all has seen these mostly yellow and blue biplanes. They have flown in formation over the Lilac Parade, Skyfest and the Veterans Cemetery dedication.

More than 8,000 Stearman biplanes were manufactured in Kansas from 1935 to 1945. They were the basic trainer for both the Army and the Navy. There are quite a few of them remaining today, including 10 at Felts Field, partly because they made a good crop-duster after the war.

It took Hamilton, Holmes, Tobin and Love four days to fly back from Illinois at 100 miles per hour.

“There are no instruments. You have to wait until it’s nice,” Hamilton said, adding that they ran into a little weather over the Midwest.

Holmes’ engine kept fouling spark plugs, which he had to change every time he landed. He figures he went through about 30 plugs on the trip home.

The Stearman engine makes a distinctive sound when it’s missing on one of its seven cylinders, the kind of sound that makes you want to find an airport quickly, Holmes said.

If you’ve ever flown a Stearman, like Bryant, you won’t forget it, even if you live to be 88.