The Allen Airways Flying Museum

Boeing Stearman N3188 PT-17



Steve McQueen's Boeing Stearman N3188 PT-17
Click to enlarge.

This is the late actor Steve McQueen's last owned and flown airplane. The N number 3188 was his reform school number when he was at Boys Republic in Chino, California.

This airplane was built up for him by Mid-Continent Aircraft Corp. in Hayti, Missouri. The airplane paint job was designed by Sammy Mason's son Pete. Sammy Mason was Steve's instructor and very well known in aviation circles. Pete's design called for a silver fuselage and wings with a very dark blue strip and dark blue undersides of the wings. The struts were polished, and the airplane was outfitted with a Continental W670, 220 HP stock engine with a polished Hamilton Standard propeller, and wheel pants.

Steve McQueen soloed in a Stearman (a yellow one he owned that is now in Torrance, California) at Santa Paula Airport. I did not meet Steve but was present when he soloed. I was with Don Dickenson whose father started the airport.

When Steve McQueen died, the airplane passed to movie stunt man and producer, Chuck Bail.  Chuck flew the airplane to the point of nearly wearing it out. When he decided to sell it he sent a sheet describing it to his ex-brother-in-law, John Wadas, then Director of Development at the San Diego Air and Space Museum.  John handed me the flyer on the Stearman and said he thought I might have an interest.

We contacted Chuck Bail and set a time to meet at his hangar in Van Nuys to see the plane.  Claudia and I were driving up to a high school reunion of mine at Dunn School in Los Olivos so the stop was generally on the way.

Here the plane was stored in the hangar with bed sheets over it. We looked and talked and looked some more - Claudia had gone to the car some yards away and I followed. She looked at me and said, "You better buy the airplane now if you want it because it will hit the LA Times tomorrow.”  We made the deal and it included a fresh annual inspection which would be done in another week.

I picked up the plane and flew it to Gillespie Field in San Diego where it quit on landing. I got it restarted and made it to the hangar and it quit and would not re-start. We changed the spark plugs and that did not work so we took the carburetor off and sent it to Aero Engines in Los Angeles. Within an hour of Aero receiving the carburetor Otis called me and told me that there was "no way you flew this airplane from Van Nuys to San Diego with this carburetor!"  I told him I did and he just could not believe it since there was gasket material stuck in the jets.

Aero overhauled the carb and sent it back. The plane fired right up. We flew it for a year after re-inspection and bearing changes by Lonnie Bosselman and Glen Cruz of Blue Max Aviation on Gillespie Field. Retired PSA pilot Richard "Dick" Doll helped me with the carb and spark plugs.  We also had built up and installed a OSMOH Continental motor.

After the year the fabric which was Grade A linen, was starting to not punch. It was then that we decided to tear down the airplane completely and do a full ground up restoration. Wally Dier agreed to manage the project and to re-cover the airplane with Ceconite. After about two years it was ready for paint. The paint was difficult since the painter took some short cuts.  So out of frustration we called Rick Atkins at Ragtime Aero and begged for help. He agreed to help so Claudia and I loaded the airplane in a rental truck and drove it up to Placerville, California.  A few months later, in March, Rick and his late wife Sunny, delivered the airplane to us at the Casa Grande Fly-In. They were frozen upon arrival and glad to be able to thaw out and return in a Howard DGA-15.

I flew the Stearman in a photo shoot for a calendar and then home to San Diego. Since this time we added a great smoke system and have been flying the plane regularly.
It was featured on Antiques Road Show when Mark Walburg and Nico Lowery came to the museum to do a feature on our early flight posters

Comments by Bill Allen.




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