Barnstorming in the Blood

One of the world’s most inventive pilots makes everything old look new again.

John Mohr shows what sets him apart from the rest. (Max Haynes)
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The best place to watch John Mohr fly his Stearman would have been up against the airshow fence, where I could have heard the crowd’s gasps when the airplane, which had disappeared behind trees, suddenly reappeared in a vertical climb.

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Instead, I was taxiing across the ramp because my performance was after his, but I did put on the brakes when an excruciatingly slow roll near the ground caused his engine to quit and flames to shoot out of his exhaust stack and down the side of his fabric fuselage. Even though I knew it was all part of the act, I still held my breath.

I was amazed by how Mohr could squeeze square loops and double snap rolls out of an underpowered, drag-ridden, 2,400-pound biplane at an airport with an elevation above 3,000 feet. The Stearman seemed to defy the aerodynamic laws of drag and air density as it flowed from one maneuver to another without the panting you’d expect from a heavy airplane on a hot August day.

The 220-horsepower PT-17 Kaydet, a classic that Boeing manufactured between 1940 and 1944 (Mohr’s was built in 1943), was designed as a primary military trainer for the basics: takeoffs, landings, climbs, glides, and elementary aerobatics. That is what a Stearman, ordinarily, still does: the basics. However, watching Mohr, I could see a flying dimension beyond the world where most pilots fly. It is a world in which finesse, intuition, and daring allow the more gifted pilots to do seemingly impossible things with an airplane like a stock Stearman. On its last pass the airplane looked like a cock-eyed crab, scooting sideways down the show line in the direction of its lowered left wingtip. Jerry Van Kempen, of Alexandria, Minnesota, knows Stearmans and the pilots who fly them, having spent 18 years as the Red Baron Stearman squadron’s announcer. He says, “John Mohr is the best Stearman driver in the world.”

Mohr was born into a flying family and lived on Crane Lake at the northern Minnesota border. He grew up in the family airplanes, on floats and skis. His first solo flight was in their float-equipped J-3 Cub. As he heard the echo of his father’s floatplane taking off each morning loaded with campers, hunters, or fishermen bound for nearby canoe and wilderness areas, his grandfather told him flying stories: about the SPAD he brought back in a crate from France and transformed into a parasol-style monoplane, about the Curtiss Jenny he learned to fly after World War I, and about barnstorming southern Minnesota and Iowa with a Waco 10.

When Mohr was 17, he built his first of three kit helicopters, a single-seat Scorpion. It came with flying instructions, and following them, he taught himself to fly it. When he was 19 or 20, he bought a 145-hp Cessna 172 and converted it to a floatplane, but the black-and-white photos of biplanes on his grandfather’s walls called him back to the Golden Age. So three years later, in 1975, he bought a Stearman and restored it to its original Army Air Corps yellow and blue.

“At Oshkosh I had seen the guys in the big biplanes with all their noise and smoke. Walt Pierce, Jimmy Franklin, and Bob Lyjak with his taper-wing Waco and his double snap, right on takeoff. They really impressed me,” says Mohr. “I wanted a big biplane and I wanted to fly like they did.”

With the Stearman, he was ready to begin his own brand of barnstorming.

A close friend scoped out fairs, festivals, and farmers’ pastures in northeastern Minnesota where Mohr could sell rides on the weekends. “He’d get the people in and I’d climb up to a couple thousand feet,” Mohr says. “I would do a loop, barrel roll, hammerhead, and snap roll, then would spin back down on a ride that lasted all of three minutes or so. Everybody would get out smiling, cheering, and laughing, and the next one would be ready to jump in. Nobody wanted a straight-and-level ride once the fun started. That is how I got good at acro.” He was having fun, and making more money than he earned in the flight operation he had back in Orr, Minnesota, where he also had a wife and a new baby. “During the week I was starving,” Mohr recalls, “doing flight instruction, generating charter business, and trying to get hired by the airlines.” By the time he landed a job at North Central Airlines, he had gained local fame and teamed up with nearby pilots to fly airshows. Today he is a captain for a major airline, but ever since those days of selling hops in his Stearman, Mohr has been a steady airshow performer.

“Once, at a show up in Longville,” recalls Jerry Van Kempen, “the clouds were so low the ducks were walking and people were ready to leave, but after a while we heard the blub, blub, blub of John’s 220 [horsepower engine] headed our way. He has never missed an airshow.”

About Debbie Gary

Freelance writer Debbie Gary is a former Bede Jet Team pilot who still gets a thrill out of airshows.

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