Starduster Retrospective

The greatest Sunday-fly-to-breakfast airplane ever.


Dave and Dan Baxter’s visually matching Starduster Too’s are fabulous ambassadors of the type. It takes a keen eye to tell them apart, even though Dave’s Too (top) is 360 powered and Dan’s sports a 540. Both started as partially completed projects by others.

On the eve of its 50th birthday the Starduster Too remains one of the most popular biplanes in the world. There is no single reason why, and it wouldn’t be wholly wrong to say it’s been getting by on its good looks all this time. But it’s more correct to recognize the two-seat Starduster as one of the most adaptable homebuilts ever chalked out on a hangar floor.

In 1965 when it first flew, and 1968 when its popularity zoomed after an appearance at the EAA convention and the cover of Sport Aviation, the two-seat Starduster was the right airplane at the right time. Like his customers, designer Lou Stolp was a Greatest Generation mechanic and pilot with WW-II experience and romantic childhood memories of aviation’s golden age. To him a biplane is what popped to mind when someone said “sport plane.” Today stamped-out metal monoplanes and snap-together plastic fantastics headline our personal aviation dreams, but to depression era youth beginning to relax in middle age, wings, wires, and leather helmets simply looked right. And they still do.

Lou Stolp operated out of Compton and Corona airports previously, but privately-owned, charmingly low-rent Flabob is the Starduster Too’s ancestral home because that is where the Too came of age. The company logo is still maintained on the hangar door.

Starduster Development

Not only was the Too a good fit for its age, it was a new concept in sport biplanes. Above all, it was the right size. Pre-war Taperwings and the ubiquitous Stearman were too large and clumsy, the diminutive Pitts Specials and Smith Miniplanes too small and twitchy. Lou Stolp had already built something similar in his single-seat Starduster. The 1959 design had met plans-selling success and set the handsome family traits of elliptical wings and a curved turtledeck. But customers asked for a two-seat version, a plane large and stable enough for cross-country traveling with their spouse, but still nimble enough for a little fun. It’s important to recall that this was a fresh idea in the early ’60s. There were few two-seat biplanes to choose from—the two-hole Pitts was well in the future, as was the Skybolt and Hatz.

How many young men can, like Dan Baxter, say they built their own Too, then took their first solo and private checkrides in it? “A big pussycat,” according to father Dave, the big-block Too was intentionally set-up a touch nose-heavy for a hair more stability.

Aided by a handful of friends and associates of his already established Starduster Corporation, Stolp built most of the prototype Too in the winter of 1963-64 in Corona, California. First flight was in the spring of 1965, and it was only a hop around the patch thanks to miscalculating the weight and balance. Underscoring the casualness of the day, the firewall was moved forward no less than 10-inches(!) to put things right.

Part of the Starduster story is noting the first prototype, N94505, was destroyed in a fatal, pilot-error, low-level aerobatic demonstration after only 17 hours of flight time. While Stolp designed the Too for sport flying, and the plans call for +6/-6g limits at light weights, Stolp always maintained the Too was not an aerobatic machine. This was driven by Stolp’s natural aversion to the carnage resulting from the cavalier attitude toward flat hatting in those days. That said, it’s been comprehensively demonstrated for decades that the Starduster Too is quite capable of gentleman aerobatics and will get you started in IAC competition if the spirit moves you that direction.

Dan Baxter shows how there’s always something to look through or around in a Starduster. Dan finds the David Clark K10 helmet more comfortable than the traditional cloth or leather hats. Working at Oregon Aero, he trimmed the K10 with Oregon’s ZetaLiner (lightly modified) for more comfort and says headset functionality is improved thanks to increased clamping force provided by the helmet.

A second prototype, N1300S, was built in a record six months, and this was the airplane that put the Too on the builder’s map. General aviation’s boom days were in full swing and orders flew in to Starduster Corporation, by then located at iconic Flabob Airport in Rubidox (now Jurupa Valley), California. And here we can point out another reason for the Too’s success: well-drawn plans and good builder support. Now, by today’s quick-build kit standards and foot-thick assembly manuals that all but buck the rivets for you, Starduster plans seem, well, sparse. They rely on the builder for basic building skills and leave some things to the imagination—there are no drawings of the engine mount or fuel tank, for example. The latter is part of the type’s adaptability; if Lou Stolp didn’t tell you how to do it, your native intelligence would figure a good solution, and that was just homebuilding reality in 1969. For sure the professionally drafted Starduster prints were definitely ahead of their contemporary competition.

Late spring, grass runway, biplane friends giving rides; Mike Peavy demonstrates how to enjoy Starduster Too flying.

Builder support was also very good because there were enough builders to support Starduster Corporation. Over 3,000 sets of Too plans have been sold and over 650 planes built, with the large majority of these before the 1980s. That meant plenty of business for Starduster, which kept a small group of employees and suppliers busy fulfilling fuselage weldments, fiberglass turtledeck, windshield and other specialty item orders, along with a steady current of basic aviation hardware. Believe it or not, at its height Starduster gave a then younger Aircraft Spruce a run for their AN money.

Eventually Lou Stolp—and we should credit Lou’s open personality and eagerness to help others—moved on to other projects, and Starduster went through several dedicated private owners before being acquired by Aircraft Spruce & Specialty in 2003. And there the type may have understandably languished as a very small part of the company’s greater business, but for yet another reason of its continued popularity: Dave Baxter.

Dave Baxter worked the shop floor at Starduster for Lou Stolp and partnered with Les Homan. His encyclopedic hands-on knowledge has been passed along in The Starduster Magazine he once edited, along with numerous posts on The Biplane and Starduster forums.

Known around the Internet as Starduster History, Dave was an early employee of Lou Stolp’s and later involved when Les Homan owned the business from 1997 to 2003. Now long retired from a fire-fighting career, Baxter packages an irreplaceable first-hand knowledge of all things Starduster with a powerful memory for people, N-numbers, and good stories, plus a drive to keep people safe and the type alive. Combining Baxter’s nuts-and-bolts knowledge with the power of the Internet to connect far-flung enthusiasts on either Aircraft Spruce’s Starduster forum ( or the Biplane Forum (, makes reading between the now somewhat widely spaced lines on Starduster plans as easy as asking. Furthermore, there are enough Stardusters out there to keep life in the forums, thus reassuring prospective builders and restorers that help is available, should they reach a sticky spot.

Stardusters Today

Today, gorgeous spanking-new Too’s emerge occasionally from workshops around the world, but the numerical reality is enough Stardusters were started and not finished in the ’70s and ’80s, or are available as flying aircraft or seldom-flown hangar queens at fire-sale prices, to keep the slender market for new biplanes sated. In short, it doesn’t take much searching to uncover a Too for sale for notably less than the price of materials to build a new one, so taking over an unfinished project, or even a flying airplane and working it to your specification, is a smart way to see the world framed between two wings. Furthermore, enough current ‘duster pilots did not build their planes, but have rebuilding and maintenance experience that combines with the new planes under construction to keep details fresh and design improvements in development.

Asked about the relative merits of current sport biplanes, Reno bipe champion Tom Aberle said, “Generally speaking I’d rather sit in a Starduster for its intrinsic beauty.” Gracefully curved from any angle, the Too looks good from any angle, but the semi-elliptical wings are the type’s visual signature.

It doesn’t hurt that the Too owner-builder is working with a straight-forward rag-and-tube airplane. The fuselage is a 4130 steel-tube truss with stringers to provide the curved belly and aft fuselage shape. The forward fuselage is skinned in simply-curved aluminum sheet, with some builders opting to stop the metal at the front of the front cockpit and others taking it farther aft. Most Too’s employ an aluminum cowling, again built using simple curves, but a handful have had composite engine covers for a more sophisticated rounding shape. There are no castings or intricately machined parts.

Bill Lund’s handsome Too is one of a small minority built with ailerons on the lower wing only. Advantages are a bit less construction work, weight, and drag. The downside is somewhat less roll authority, especially at low speeds onto the runway, and a widening of control harmony. If 2-ailerons is all you ever flew, they’re fine; those who have tried both much prefer the 4-ailerons.

The wings are conventional two-spar wood construction. Unlike the built-up ribs in the Pitts, Starduster ribs are routed out of mahogany or birch plywood. There’s little extra effort arriving at the signature elliptical trailing edge. All nose and main ribs are identical, so only the trailing edge ribs are different lengths to provide the elliptical shape. Instead of compression ribs, the Too uses simple, bolt-in 4130 tube Warren truss assemblies. The 24-foot span upper wing is assembled from three panels—two outers and the center cabane section—so bisecting a 30-foot workshop with the upper wing is not necessary.

Back in the 1970s most Starduster builders took about five years to build their planes, but today the average is a few years longer because everyone leads busier lives and the workmanship bar keeps being raised.

Firewall Forward

By now the Too is a well-sorted design, but builders and buyers should be aware of several choices and conditions they’ll eventually need to address, starting with the engine. The basic design is optimized for Lycoming’s 180-hp parallel-valve IO-360 or its 200-hp angle-valve brother, but a fair number have been built with O-320s and even more pack Lycoming 540 or Continental 470 six-cylinders. And that’s not even mentioning the inverted in-line Ranger, about a half-dozen round motors, Franklins, V-6 Chevys and other outliers, all of which have found their way onto Too’s.

Dave Baxter’s O-360-A1A (converted to A2A) sits on a 24-inch mount to balance his medium frame. That yields a middle-of-the-envelope cg for balanced control pressures, plus generous maintenance access, and even room for a storage pouch. Heavy pilots may need a 28-inch mount, the longest normally used. Years ago Dave paid $1,800 for his engine off of a 1959 Beech Travel Air; an early narrow-deck, it boasts a 3-digit serial number and has carried his Too well over 2,500 hours across the U.S.

Sourced from an Aerostar, the 295-hp Lycoming IO-540-G1B5 on Dan’s Too looks perfectly natural under the nearly same length cowling as his dad’s 4-cylinder. During their numerous flights together, Dan runs this engine at 18 inches and 2200 rpm (flight idle) so his dad can keep up.

Much about engine choice is intertwined with the resulting plane’s empty weight and propeller type (fixed-pitch or constant-speed, wood, composite, or metal), but there’s consensus that the 150-hp O-320 is a weak sister unsuitable for high, hot, heavy, or aerobatic operations when mated to this high-drag biplane. That leaves simple cruising over flatlands, but with mediocre climb rate and no real pizzazz—which is sort of missing the point in a sport plane. This is not to dismiss the 150-hp airplanes; built lightly with basic instrumentation, the correct wood prop, and a clean engine installation that doesn’t choke power, an O-320 Too makes a satisfying early-evening stress reliever, but they’re not a first choice for long distance or two-up acro.

Moving to the 180-hp IO-360 adds almost no weight, but considerably more power that really wakes up the Too. The 180–200 hp neighborhood is where the power, weight, fuel economy, and cost curves intersect in a happy cluster. Expect at least a 104 knot cruise and a 10-gph fuel burn. Initial climb rates are about 1,500 fpm with the bigger 4-cylinders, which translates into reasonable time-to-cruise altitude times and enough reserve performance at 10,000 feet to handle the mountains out west. This is also the happy spot financially for buyers and sellers, as the airplane has good utility without the cost of six-cylinders and constant speed props.

Then again, hanging 260 to 300+ hp on the front of a Starduster Too transforms it into a new league. There’s no way to get around the drag of all those wires, struts, and open cockpits, but putting what big block kind of guys consider “adequate” horsepower under the cowling yields skyrocket climb rates, reassuring altitude performance, and via the application of 100LL into brute force, remarkable cruise speeds. It will also loop out of level cruise flight and easily roll on the upline into a hammerhead. This is not an inexpensive solution, but every time you blast out of town at over 2,500 fpm, sprint up to 7,000 feet, and set a low-power, lean-of-peak cruise at 130 knots and 11 gph, you’ll wonder how everyone else enjoys life.

Curiously, while designed for 4-cylinder power, the 6-cylinders mate to the Too airframe like ducks slipping into a pond. The four-bangers can struggle with aft cg issues and can need Pinocchio-long engine mounts if built with heavy pilots in mind, while six cylinders employ more standard-length mounts and balance easily, unless you hang a three-blade constant speed out front. Then, like the round motors installations, they go nose heavy.

Paul Schafer rumbles out of Flabob behind his blunt-nosed 220 Continental Too. Various round motors have been fitted to the big Starduster for an extra dose of nostalgia and anchor-like front-end weight. A 200-hp Warner would be the best of these, but they’re impossibly rare.

Other Considerations

While we mentally have the scales out, we need to review landing gear placement. The earliest plans called for the landing gear axle directly under the firewall, but within a couple of years, the plans were modified several times to eventually place the axle centerline eight inches aft of the datum (firewall) to reduce tailwheel weight. This helped to significantly tame the landing rollout and is considered a mandatory improvement these days. Apparently there aren’t many early, forward-gear Too’s running around anymore, but if you test fly a ground squirrel of a Starduster, the first thing to check is the axle placement (in level flight attitude) and tailwheel weight (60 to 80 pounds on the tailwheel in level flight attitude), along with generally making sure nothing is toeing out.

Open cockpits and cross-country are a special sort of fun. A small electronic navigator (lower right) is the answer to one-handing paper charts in a hurricane; multiple cubbies and bags keep essentials at hand and not vacuumed overboard.

When it comes to style, the cognoscenti will chime in on turtledeck shape, gear leg fairings, and interplane struts. The standard fiberglass turtledeck features the Starduster’s signature curved headrest, but it’s not uncommon to see smaller, more cone-like headrests, or a simple domed shape à la Pitts. The latter offers more storage space and, crucially for those in colder climes, a workable way to seal a canopy at its trailing edge. Purists, of course, favor curves and sit outside no matter how cold it gets.

Also Starduster-specific are the bell-bottomed flared gear leg fairings. Heretics forego these in favor of wrapping the front and rear gear legs in fabric for a more 1930s look. The same goes for substituting N- for I-interplane struts; it’s simply visual preference.

Another mainly visual choice is either flat, wrap-around windscreens or blown bubbles. No one has found a meaningful speed or turbulence advantage to either style; the flat wraps are what Lou Stolp used.

Definitely more than a visual choice, but something of a no-brainer, is whether to fit an auxiliary fuel tank to the upper wing center section. The main fuselage tank holds up to 27.5 gallons (your tankage may vary), which is adequate for an O-320 putt-putt, but more of an appetizer for a 540. Then an additional 17 gallons in the wing gives good peace of mind should the weather close in or you can take more than two-hour legs.

Front seat of the Starduster Too is not for the long-legged, but is wider. That helps when talking your passenger into holding your clothes in their lap.

Flying the Too

Recalling the type’s adaptability, it’s smart to keep comments on the big Starduster’s flying qualities general because there is so much variance among individual examples. A small-engined, wooden-prop Too with no interior and minimal instruments likes airspeeds and control pressures that are different from a 20% heavier six-cylinder cruiser with a massive constant speed, stuffed panel and upholstered interior.

That noted, the family traits are benign, but definitely not boring. The ailerons have some weight to them but are nicely responsive. Elevator pressure is a half notch lighter than the ailerons, and that big rudder is well-matched to the elevators: quick-acting to light pressure all the way down to the runway. Overall the Starduster has a reassuring, stable undercurrent devoid of the two-finger twitch of tiddlywinks such as the Pitts or the featherweight caress lightly-wing-loaded sorts such as the Rans S7 respond to.

Starduster Too’s make wonderful single-seaters, and if the front windshield is removable it transforms the plane. Cruise speed rises at least 5 mph in slow birds to over 10 mph in 6-cylinder ships. The reduction in rear cockpit turbulence and warmth in winter is fundamental.

Built square and correctly rigged, a Too will fly hands off, although it takes dead-smooth air to utilize it. Bumping through the usual summer heat risers is mainly a wing-rocking affair with correspondingly little upset in pitch.

With the flat M6 airfoil, the Too is certainly not an inverted specialist, but the usual positive-g stuff flows nicely (horsepower helps). Spins are fun with a knife-edge drop through the horizon on entry and very positive recovery thanks to the large vertical tail surfaces.

Storage room is always at a premium in the cross-country Too. Most are built with lockers in the headrest and behind the pilot’s seat, and the front seat makes a fine baggage compartment if flying solo. But Oscar Bayer one-upped everybody with his fiberglass belly tank storage locker. Extended exhaust pipes are required!

It’s possible for Starduster ailerons to lock over-center in tailslides (hardly a recommended maneuver in these airplanes), so travel limiting brackets have been a recent development. They’re smart in case of inadvertently falling out of a vertical maneuver.

Most importantly for a going-places biplane that could see many unfamiliar airports, the Too is an honest-landing sort. Like all biplanes it has the glide path of a well-thrown sewer cover, and in the flare all those wings and wires make the softest-yet-effective aerodynamic arresting hook imaginable. Pull back into a three point and the speed simply evaporates. This is a big plus when operating uptown with speedy commercial traffic; you can hot dog the approach and pull up short on the runway as a matter of course. With experience many Starduster pilots adopt a tail-low approach to a wheel landing for more authoritative crosswind control, and better visibility on rollout.

On the runway the Too is pleasantly responsive, but it doesn’t have a mind of its own. The biggest challenge is learning to lighten up on the rudder pedals; short little dabs with absolutely no brake are what’s needed early in the landing. Most consider it one full beat livelier than a Decathlon.

Visibility is a bare step above Braille. From the pilot’s eyes to the spinner bulkhead is nine feet of ever-broadening cowling. Keeping the pattern tight, a touch steep, and slipping from the base-to-final turn until the flare is how to keep the airport in sight, but once in the flare it’s all peripheral vision.

It’s easy to hide small aircraft and fuel trucks behind the long Starduster nose, but easy ground handling makes the required S-turns second nature.

A plansbuilt plane, there are no Starduster finishing kits from Aircraft Spruce. All small details are up to the builder, which is much of the fun. The Baxters fly their Too’s at night, hence the landing/recognition light.

In flight the view up, hard to each side, and if you’re not staring at the back of a passenger’s head, a boxed-in view of the world dead ahead of the cabane struts, is good. But the lower wing is almost always where you’re searching for the windsock or checkpoint, so steep clearing turns are a major ground reference aid and smart for clearing crowded airspace. That also helps clear traffic hiding behind the upper wing.

If test flying a Too from the front seat, remember the guy in front is always in the shade and warmed by engine heat, the guy in back always in the sun and well-chilled by incoming air (which exits out the front cockpit; the rear cockpit is definitely colder). Visibility is better from the backseat—the solo seat—with the wings providing lateral reference the front seater doesn’t get.

The Take Away

There’re always good reasons why a design remains popular for 50 years. The Starduster Too’s talent is pleasing a large number of people in a wide variety of tasks. It’s easy on the eyes, large enough to fit into, playful when you are, and willing to take you and a friend on excellent adventures far over the horizon. If you want some romance in your flying, the Starduster Too will deliver.

Like most experienced Starduster pilots, Cliff Mee opts for tail-high takeoffs and landings to see around the long Too nose. Flying tight patterns, not giving up power until the runway is assured, and squaring pattern turns for traffic checks are important Too flying tips.


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