Biplane Flight: Like Riding a Harley in the Sky

Matt Muller

by Matt Muller

On my return to Smethport from a year-long teaching assignment at a university in China, I was told of a biplane ride that operated out of Bradford Regional Airport. Would I be interested?

Picturing a rickety crate that would wobble down the runway before risking a tepid leap into the air, it was easy to dismiss the idea. After all, I could quench my thirst for adventure in a variety of other ways — without having to entrust my soul to a patchwork machine ushered back into service with long forgotten parts exhumed from a scrap heap.

After further discussion, more informed opinions prevailed and I allowed myself to be whisked away to the airport, where I was assured a unique experience awaited me in the open cockpit of a Boeing Stearman biplane from 1943.

There, I was greeted by Bruce Klein of Port Allegany who has been flying for over 45 years. He also operates a small business from his hangar, Klein Aircraft Services, where he provides certified mechanical services for light aircraft. Of the 67 planes he has owned over the years, the restored Boeing Stearman is his favorite. “I’m living my dream,” he said, while pointing out the plane’s features.

Watch the video of my flight on YouTube.

Pilot Bruce Klein

Pilot Bruce Klein with his restored 1943 Boeing Stearman

As I surveyed the plane, I was struck by its bulldog stance and solid feel, or as Bruce put it, “structural integrity.” Definitely not the rickety crate I had imagined.

According to Bruce, today’s planes are held together by their skins. If the skin somehow gets damaged, the structure could “lose integrity”. Pondering whether this was just the aviator’s euphemism for “falling apart in mid-air,” I decided to squelch the urge for clarification.

The Boeing Stearman, on the other hand, does not rely so much on the skin as it does on the strength of the internal framework comprised of metal castings. In a loop maneuver, this enables the plane to withstand vertical g-forces of up to 12 positive and 9 negative, which made the plane well suited as a military trainer during World War II and why it became a popular aerobatic craft later.

Impressed with the biplane’s structural integrity and performance capabilities, as well as Bruce’s knowledge and enthusiasm, I was eager to fly.

After adjusting my head gear, I settled into the snug cockpit.

After adjusting my head gear, I settled into the snug cockpit.

Stepping up to the cockpit, I took the front seat and put on headgear which included goggles and a microphone connection to Bruce in the back seat. In front of me was a panel of fully operational instruments, which I trusted Bruce would monitor while I worked my camera and video equipment.

As Bruce Klein took the back seat controls, I gave him the "go" sign.

As Bruce Klein took the back seat controls, I gave him the "go" sign.

The 67 refers to the number of planes Bruce has owned.  I preferred to think of it as my high school football number.

The 67 refers to the number of planes Bruce has owned. I preferred to think of it as my high school football number.

As the plane sauntered from the hangar area to the runway, my mind became clouded with doubt. Sure, there was a lot of adrenalin-producing noise and vibration, but there didn’t seem to be enough power for takeoff. The propeller sputtered too anemically for my taste.

Those concerns evaporated immediately when Bruce reached the head of the runway and put the 220 horsepower Continental Motors engine into full rev. Before my brain could recalibrate, we were off the ground and making a U-turn for Kinzua Gorge, then on to Smethport. The average altitude for the entire flight was 700 feet.

At only 700 feet, the Boeing Stearman still looked like a speck in the sky.

At only 700 feet, the Boeing Stearman still looked like a speck in the sky.

Because we were flying during a hot August afternoon, the flight was bumpy due to “thermals”. This is a condition whereby columns of rising air push the plane up suddenly; when the plane clears the column, it goes back down just as suddenly. For those who prefer a smoother flight, Bruce recommends scheduling rides for morning or late afternoon when the air is cooler.

Even with buffeting thermals, the experience is exhilarating, like getting on a freeway and bringing a Harley motorcycle up to 90 mph cruising speed as fast as you can.

The view over Smethport, Pennsylvania.

The view over Smethport, Pennsylvania.

Speaking of exhilaration, Bruce eventually wants to do some aerobatic flying, possibly attracting a whole new clientele interested in extreme flying. Before he does that, however, he wants the new engine to have more flight time.

Since offering biplane rides a few months ago, Bruce has taken up dozens of customers, some of them repeat riders. The experience can even be addicting, as in one case where a customer just wanted to stay up for an hour, telling Bruce to “go anywhere”.

Rides of 20 minutes are $80 per person, enough time to enjoy the spectacular scenery of Kinzua Gorge near Mount Jewett. For a whole hour, the rate is $240, which can take you over Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny Reservoir.

You can book your flights by calling Bruce at 814-642-9486 or 814-558-5376. Group rates and gift certificates are available.

The experience is one of a kind and well worth it. Bragging rights… Priceless!

Watch the video of my flight on YouTube.