Biplane pilot flying torch of era past

The hum of the Boeing Stearman’s finely tuned Pratt & Whitney engine grows to a ear-rattling roar as the biplane emerges from a dot on the horizon to become a shiny, twin-winged blur swinging out toward the Bookcliffs.

The Stearman is the pride of Randy Miller, who flies regularly over the Grand Valley, occasionally trailing a bit of smoke — intentionally — from the Stearman.

Miller, 40, sells tours of the Grand Valley in the Stearman. Passengers ride one at a time in the front seat and get the full brunt of the propwash as he tools them along the pale Bookcliffs and the red sandstone of Colorado National Monument.

“I will never be able to retire with the minimal income that I make from rides, but my reward is that I am carrying the torch of an era of flight that is all too soon passing into obscurity,” Miller wrote in an explanation of his flying passion.

He earned his private flying license at 17, and in 1999 Miller bought the Stearman and founded his company, Vintage Aviation Ltd.,

Miller’s plane is one of fewer than 2,000 still active from the 10,000 military trainers built between 1941 and 1945.

Fewer than 20 are available for rides such as the ones he offers.

2009 is the first full year that Miller is flying the trainer. He rebuilt and restored the plane after a microburst windstorm damaged it.

In all, Miller invested more than 4,000 hours and $100,000 to rebuild the craft and emblazon U.S. Navy markings in tribute to the biplane’s history.

One of them, the logo of a smiling Felix the Cat toting a lit bomb, harks back to the U.S. Navy’s Bombing Squadron Two, which decorated its planes with Felix in World War II.

After the war, a U.S. Navy fighter squadron currently designated VFA-31 replaced its winged meat-cleaver logo with the bomb-bearing cat after the original Felix squadron was disbanded.

Miller flew first with his father when he was 3 and has been piloting since he was 15.

Miller frequently flies the Stearman to air shows across the country, something he fears could become prohibitively expensive or practically and legally difficult.

“We need to collectively stand up against this unconstitutional onslaught of legislation before it is too late,” he wrote.

“ I’ve often said that these little encroachments into our aviation lives will be just the camel’s nose under the tent if they are not stopped immediately. My life has been blessed with these experiences, and I pray that I will still be able to share this gift of flight with future generations.”


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