A Norman man takes to the skies in a biplane 

The word "biplane" likely conjures a variety of images " maybe the Wright brothers launching prototype kites into the air in hopes of finding the perfect sky-safe design. Or perhaps legendary World War I pilots like Manfred von Richthofen " "Diable Rouge" to the French, The Red Baron to us.

But what's a biplane's place in the 21st century? In Oklahoma City, the classic Stearman is alive and airborne, thanks to Robert Ragozzino.

"I grew up an airport kid," the San Diego native said. "I grew up not on a playground, but on an airport."

In 1966, the Ragozzino family moved to the Max Westheimer Airport in Norman, where Robert's father worked as a flight instructor. He said he remembers his father sneaking him and his brother onto university airplanes and teaching them how to fly at age 7.

After opening a glider school in Norman, Ragozzino started a professional career as a corporate pilot for the now-defunct Harold's clothing store.

"Like all corporate pilots, you start out on smaller engine planes " single-engine, double-engine, twin turboprop " and slowly graduate," he said. "I went through most of the early planes working at Harold's. Now, I fly two different jets for a real estate developer in Oklahoma City," where he transports executives and family members.

Ragozzino, 51, has flown professionally for more than 20 years and logged more than 8,000 hours " almost an entire year, total " in the air.

One could say he knows his way around a plane or two.  

Back in 1993, Ragozzino bought a Stearman, a World War II-era biplane, in poor condition. He figured he could have it running and ready to tackle the world record for an open-cockpit, solo circumnavigation in six-and-a-half months, but the restoration/upgrade project took six-and-a-half years. While working on the biplane, he founded the Stearman World Flight project, which serves as his base of operations.  

On June 1, 2000, he began the journey, traveling through the Northern Hemisphere from the U.S. to Canada, through central Europe, the Middle East, Eurasia and eventually back through the U.S. to Oklahoma City 176 days later. Ragozzino and his crew, with years of experience flying, maintaining and rebuilding biplanes, orchestrated the 22,500-mile trip.

By the way, the rebuilt Stearman sports two fuel tanks for four times the capacity of a stock Stearman, plus twice the horsepower and onboard systems comparable to a modern jet. Ragozzino said it's the most capable biplane in aviation history.

But let's take a look back in history and uncover the roots of his endeavor. It's the early 1920s, the era of Art Deco, a budding jazz scene and a turning point in aviation technology. The world is enraptured with the race to fly around the world. At the front of the race is The Douglas Aircraft Company, which in 1923 built five planes to be flown around the world. Two returned to the U.S. the next year and set the world record of circumnavigating the globe in 175 days.

From 1990 through 1993, four pilots set out to conquer the record, but each met an unfortunate snag that caused each to cancel the attempt. So Ragozzino and company embarked on a mission to break the solo circumnavigation record, where it stands today at 176 days.

With the record behind him, he is focusing on two projects: another world record attempt and a re-enactment of Charles Lindbergh's solo cross-Atlantic flight in 1927.

"Now we're in California to promote our Spirit of St. Louis 2 project with a professional wing-walker from Tulsa," he said.

He's talking about Ashley Battles, an Oklahoma State University grad with a degree in aviation and a pilot since 2000. The definition of a wing-walker is precisely what it sounds like " popular at the birth of the biplane, crazy guys and gals would stand on the wings of an airborne plane and walk around. It goes without saying that it's incredibly dangerous and a supremely exhilarating sight.

But Ragozzino and Battles aren't just promoting the re-enactment " that's not enough. They're also out to break the world record for endurance wing-walking, currently flying high at three hours and 23 minutes. The duo's shooting for five hours, and plan on attempting the record over Father's Day weekend.

"A five-hour flight for me is fairly uneventful," Ragozzino said, laughing. "She's going to do the hard work."

Back to the Spirit of St. Louis project. Named after the plane Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, the project will eventually send him from New York to Paris.

"I decided to re-enact the Lindbergh project because it's the greatest feat in aviation history," he said. "Easily the single most magnificent endeavor ever."

Ragozzino found a partially built Stearman in Texas and brought it to Oklahoma in hopes of renovating it for the Lindbergh flight, but takeoff likely won't happen for a year or two.

So what drives him to fly all over the place?

"I've flown planes around the U.S., but I decided I wanted to go around the entire world," he said. "I've seen everything and every place from a bird's-eye view. I couldn't take it in as quickly as it came to me. It's an unparalleled experience. People travel, but no one travels by biplane except me!"

As for the future of Stearman World Flight project, Ragozzino is looking for someone " well, a woman, specifically " to break another record.

"No woman has ever circumnavigated the world, solo, in an open-cockpit airplane," he said. "I made a commitment to keep the Stearman doing what it does best " setting world records. So the next natural step would be to see it through another world flight with a woman."

He added that his passion " and a large part of his money " fuels his projects.

"I don't do this for self-promo; I do it for love of adventure. I'm always looking hard for a visionary or a group of sponsors to help fund projects."

And, completely unrelated to his search for a female record-setter: "I'm single," he said, "and handsome." "Jake Dalton

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Jake Dalton

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