By Emily Sorensen
A love of biplanes has led longtime Poway resident Wally Dier to make restoring World War II-era Stearman biplanes both a hobby and a passion.
On Oct. 13, while tens of thousands of San Diegans were gathered to watch the Miramar Air Show, Dier had a small air show of his own, flying his third Stearman biplane for the first time at Gillespie Air Field, with pilot Don Crim. His audience was made up of friends and neighbors.
It was 20 years ago that Dier first discovered biplanes. While working for Hawthorne Machinery, a company he was part of for over 40 years, Dier met Bill Allen, who had a blue-and-yellow biplane. Allen gave Dier his first ride in a biplane, and Dier was hooked. “It was instant addiction,” said Dier, who is now 83 years old and retired.
Dier wanted a biplane of his own, but couldn’t afford the $30,000 it cost to purchase a new one. “I didn’t pay $30,000 for my house,” said Dier. Instead, Dier decided to restore an older biplane for his own use. “I’m a hands-on kind of guy,” said Dier.
Dier found his first project in his hometown of Brawley and began working on it. Each biplane Dier has rebuilt has taken about seven years to finish, though he said his latest plane took less time. As he worked on his first plane, Dier also began collecting “junk airplane parts,” as he called them. “They were cheap to buy, so I gathered them,” said Dier.
He sold his first plane 10 years ago, and it now resides in Spokane, Wash. His second plane, which he sold a year ago, is now in Norway. Though he only recently finished his third Stearman, Dier said he has already begun restoration on a fourth plane. “It’s an addiction. It’s a great old airplane with a great history,” said Dier. As it takes so long to finish restoration, Dier said he won’t sell his third plane for probably five or 10 years, allowing him to enjoy flying it while he builds his fourth.
The Stearman (Boeing) Model 75 is a small biplane which had more than 8,500 built in the United States during the 1930s and ‘40s for use in military training. After World War II ended, many ended up being sold for use as crop dusters, sport planes and for aerobatics and wing walking in air shows. Popular with restorers, there is even a Stearman’s Restorer Association, which Dier is a member of. “There’s about 5,000 members worldwide,” said Dier.
Dier restores his planes to how they looked in World War II. “I take high pains with it. The colors are the same,” said Dier. Though, Dier said, his hand-built care has led to a few difference. “I make mine better than they did for the military,” said Dier.
Though he formerly held a pilot’s license and flew his planes himself, a small stroke ended that. “When you get older, you lose a little of your faculties,” said Dier. Luckily for Dier, his friend Don Crim is a pilot.
“He’s a great Stearman pilot,” said Dier, “who takes me anytime I want to go and he’s available.”