Stearman ZU-IES reborn

Willie Bodenstein's picture

If ever there was proof of the saying ‘where there is a will there is a way,’ Ivan and Sonica van der Schaar have certainly proved that they are eternal optimists.
Ivan grew up in Nelspruit. His father was a pilot and Ivan always knew that he too wanted to fly. However, money was tight and even in those days flight training was relatively expensive. So, every weekend Ivan would peddle his bicycle to the airfield and hang around the aircraft on the airfield. Eventually the Club took pity on him and a deal was struck; he would wash aircraft every weekend and for every three weeks washing he would earn one hour’s worth of flight training. On 9 February 1996, Fritz van der Westhuyzen of the Lowveld Aero Club signed him out. Ivan was 17 years old, still in school and was not legally allowed to drive a car.
By the time he was 20, Ivan had his commercial licence and twin rating and he was working for LeoAir in Nelspruit. In 2001 he started with Nelair Charters flying Dakotas, Caravans and King Airs on charters all over southern Africa. Ivan stayed with Nelair until 2006.

In 2004, Ivan and Sonica were married. Sonica is employed in the administrative department of a large salt distribution company and, although not a pilot, shares Ivan’s passion for flying. In 2007, Ivan joined Aquarius flying Fokker 28s in Iraq. In 2008 he joined Comair as a first officer on its Boeing 737s. Ivan has accumulated more than 12,000 flying hours with 65 types on his licence, and is currently busy with his command assessment. Ivan is also the operational officer of the Harvard Club of South Africa and a ferry pilot for the Eqstra Flying Lions.

Four years ago Ivan and Sonica started looking for a warbird project and initially became involved in the restoration of a Harvard. That unfortunately did not work out, but when Jack Onderstal’s Stearman project came onto the market they made him an offer that was accepted in January 2012. At 03h00 one morning they left Kempton Park for Bloemfontein to collect what was to become a three year and one month project of blood, sweat and tears.

The Stearman military trainer had its first flight in 1934 and was a design of Lloyd Stearman. At least 10,626 were built in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. After World War II, thousands of Stearmans were auctioned off to civilians and former military pilots.

ZU-IES started life in 1941 as a PT17 and was delivered to the US Army to train pilots at Devon Base in Florida. She shared the field with B17s, B25s and Mustangs. Her role was to train new recruits and prepare them to be ready for active duty on bigger and more sophisticated war planes. According to the aircraft’s records she had three landing incidents during her role as a trainer.

In 1945, the Second World War was over and the necessity for training and trained pilots was reduced dramatically. Thousands of Stearmans and pilots were now suddenly surplus to the US Army’s requirements The aircraft were offered to the public for sale and many crop dusting operators snapped up these sturdy bi-planes to convert them to crop dusters. ZU-IES, with a grand total of 1,500 hours, followed suit. Her 220hp motor was removed and replaced with a 450hp Pratt & Whitney. The front cockpit was converted to carry a hopper and the main gear was converted to T6 brakes and wheels to carry the 2200lbs that was to be loaded in the hopper.
The Stearman continued service right up until 1970 when disaster struck. She was involved in a take-off accident whereby directional control was lost, and she ended up going through a ditch and ended up in some trees. In 2000, the remains were purchased by Jack Onderstal and imported to Bloemfontein. Much work was undertaken including removing corrosion from the fuselage, but a huge amount remained to be done to get her flying.

Ivan and Sonica spent every single free moment working in their hangar at Petit Airfield. Sonica taught herself the art of fabric covering and covered the fuselage and empennage in the hangar. The four wings were taken home in turn so that she could work on them in their garage. In total 1,045 stitches were required to join the covering and reinforcing strips to the ribs. Sonica’s job did not end there. She ironed the covering at least three times and sprayed a total of 17 layers of nitrate and butrate onto the covering before the aircraft was ready for the final spray painting.

Ivan did all the sheet metal work, fabricating the windscreens, undercarriage, wing root, wingtips and other fairings. He fitted all the control rods, controls, seats and the instrument panel, and did the final tensioning of the bracing wires. Helm van Rensburg assisted with the engine and other technical aspects, whilst Johan Franzsen did the electrical installation. Only the welding was out sourced and Mike Spence signed out the re-constructed Stearman. The Authority to Fly was issued three years and one month later, on Thursday afternoon 19 March 2015, and she took to the skies again. The test flight was uneventful and she continues to grace the South African skies.