The Famous Florence Flyer
By Nathan Howard
for Passport Magazine
The first thing that you’ll notice is the smell. Flying low over the valleys, rivers and beaches of Florence in the 1944 open-cockpit Stearman Biplane you can smell everything. The pine trees, close enough you could grab a branch, the waves lapping against the coastal dunes, even a hint of a summer barbeque somewhere in downtown Florence.
This tour is unlike anything you’ve been on before, you’ll feel the performance deep within this World War II machine. You won’t circle Florence in high, slow circles. Instead prepare for tight turns, low passes and a fair share of stomach churning maneuvers.
It’s not all daredevil antics though, the feeling of ocean air rushing against your face as you pass by the Heceta Head Light House at eye level is unlike anything else you’ll experience during your visit to Florence. Soaring in Florence’s famous Biplane is also like taking part in the city’s own history.
The Biplane is a Florence institution. Residents have become accustomed to the muffled whirr of the old plane’s engine and its bright blue and yellow paint job passing overhead. They look skyward hoping to catch a glimpse of this airborne relic from another time. And a lot of them make their way to the Florence Municipal Airport to take a trip skyward in the colorful biplane that was built in 1944.
Owned and operate by Florence local Sam Spayd for more than 20 years, the iconic air craft recently changed hands when Spayd decided it was time to buy something new to fly over the coast.
Spayd’s decision to find a new plane came at a good time for recent retirees Terry and Winette. The Tomenys had been looking for a place on a lake with a nearby airport and they heard about Florence. Terry came for a visit and realized this was the perfect spot. They relocated, moved the piper cub they owned to the airport and started getting to know their hanger neighbors, which included Spayd.
“About a year ago, a friend of ours mentioned to us that Sam was thinking of selling the Stearman, and so we talked to Sam. He said he was interested in selling the plane,” Terry said. “And I asked him, do you make any money doing this? And he said no. Then I asked him, do you lose any money doing this? And he said no. And then I said perfect!”
Tomeny recently retired from a long career flying F-16s in the Air Force and as a test pilot for Lockheed Martin.
“Sam and I have very similar backgrounds. We are both career Air Force guys that continued to fly afterwards. And one of the main things that connected the two of us is, we both have a real love for aviation. And we have both flown all kinds of stuff. Sam flew the big airliners and I flew the fast jets, but we both just love to fly,” Terry said.
During your flight, the Stearman will cruise at about 70 mph which is slower than a typical tour aircraft, but without windows the tour seems faster than anything you’ve flown before. Because of Tomeny’s and the plane’s long history as performance fliers, the tour is able to take you deep into the lush valleys and hills that surround Florence.
The Stearman is not only a beautiful plane to look at, but it also holds a prestigious place in aviation history. The Stearman series were the primary planes used to train pilots from the U.S. Navy and Air Force prior to World War II. There were more than 10,000 in use during this time, but after the war they were considered obsolete and thousands were sold to the public.
The Stearmans were easily converted to commercial use with minor adaptations and they became a valued element of farm life across America. Most were used as crop dusters. That was until Director Alfred Hitchcock used one to chase Cary Grant through a cornfield in his film, “North by Northwest.”
Hitchcock reportedly used the plane because of its distinctive paint job, classic design and its recognizability among the public. This high profile turn on the big screen sparked renewed interest in the Stearman and led to the plane becoming a collector’s item.
Today very few remain available for public use. Swing through Florence on your coastal visit to take part in this plane’s historic journey.