Lumbering along at 105 mph, Nancy Ginesi-Hill’s 1940 PT-17 Stearman biplane may not have the speed of its glamorous contemporaries, but it was no less crucial to America’s victory in World War II.
Between 60 and 70 percent of all American pilots who took to the skies in World War II learned to fly in the venerable PT-17 and its variants, according to Ken Miles, director of operations for the Collings Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving aviation history.
“The first time I saw (a Stearman), I fell in love and knew I had to own one,” Ginesi-Hill said. “It took me 20 years to get, but here it is.”
Ginesi-Hill, a Roseville resident, keeps her restored Stearman in top condition in a hangar at the Lincoln Regional Airport, accompanied by artifacts from World War II in display cases.
Looking over her Stearman’s records, Ginesi-Hill discovered that her plane had been based at Eagle Field, near Los Banos, from March of 1944 through the end of the war in 1945. It was sold as military surplus in 1946 to a man who kept it in Santa Rosa.
That bears significance to Ginesi-Hill, who learned to fly in Santa Rosa while the plane was stored there.
Ginesi-Hill also has connections with Eagle Field, as she and her son used to spend weekends helping restore the airfield and preserve its rich history as she managed flight schools in Northern California.
June 13, Ginesi-Hill returned her Stearman to Eagle Field for the 25th annual fly-in to commemorate the base’s World War II history.
A B-25 bomber and five Stearman biplanes were present, as sounds of big bands filtered through the air during the dinner and dance and vintage uniforms completed the living history experience, Hill said.
Honored guests at the event included many of the cadets who learned to fly at Eagle Field during the war.
Regardless of where they trained, the majority of pilots from the Second World War remember the biplanes, made of wood and steel frames with cloth making up the skin.
Lincoln resident George Kresa flew B-24 Liberator bombers from India to China over “The Hump” –pilot slang for the Himalayas – during the latter phases of the war. Kresa has fond memories of the biplane to this day.
“It was the first one I ever flew in,” Kresa said. “It took me about six hours to solo. If you went over seven or eight, you washed out.”
Kresa said a large number of prospective pilots “washed out,” and that the training officers “didn’t mess around” because pilots were so badly needed.
After completing six weeks of training on the biplane, Kresa flew advanced trainers before graduating to the four-engine B-24, with a crew of 10.
“I hated to get out of (training) because I liked flying (the Stearman) so much,” Kresa said. “It was a wonderful airplane. You could really do a lot of aerobatics in it.”
Ginesi-Hill enjoys doing aerobatics in her Stearman as much as the young pilots did in the war.
When flying her plane – which she does two to three times per week – Ginesi-Hill enjoys doing rolls, loops and more.
“Spins are probably my favorite,” Ginesi-Hill said. “I also like to stall it, then kick the rudder over and pull out of it.”
When she flies, Ginesi-Hill wears a leather flight helmet and goggles. Painted just forward of the cockpit is the insignia of the Women’s Army Service Pilots – WASPs.
The painting – originally drawn up by Walt Disney – is to commemorate the approximately 1,100 women pilots who ferried thousands of aircraft from the United States to their bases in the war zones, freeing up valuable male pilots to fly the combat missions women weren’t allowed to.
The “99” painted on Genesi-Hill’s plane is an homage to the nonprofit 99s Association, which promotes flying among women and of which Ginesi-Hill is a member.
When Ginesi-Hill isn’t flying, she works as an accountant at her husband’s tattoo business, Wild Bill Tattoo in Roseville.
“He’s always behind me,” Ginesi-Hill said. “He encourages me in my flying and helped me buy my airplane.”
Of the more than 10,000 Stearman biplanes built, about 1,000 are currently airworthy.
In World War II, the planes cost the U.S. government $9,819, which equals $154,273 in 2008 dollars, according to Ginesi-Hill.
Ginesi-Hill flies her Stearman to air shows and puts it on display for all to see to help keep the history alive.
“There’s only maybe a handful of women flying this plane,” Ginesi-Hill said. “We’re pretty rare.”
Brandon Darnell can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
Return to Articles