“Wow! Wow! Wow!”
Those were the only words one Oshkosh visitor could utter as he stood beside Tom Dinndorf’s elegant Stinson SR-10, an airplane once owned by Shell Oil Co. and flown by Jimmy Doolittle.
The gleaming red and yellow Stinson, correct to the smallest detail of its original 1938 appearance, is a past Vintage Grand Champion at Oshkosh and, as that almost-speechless onlooker might have said last July, no wonder.
The airplane seen at Oshkosh 2007 is a far cry from its appearance in 1971, however. That’s when Dinndorf bought it from crop-duster Luke Youngren, who had spotted it as an abandoned wreck and hauled it to his hangar.
“It was disassembled, a sad-looking thing at the back of a hangar full of spray planes,” Dinndorf said. “Youngren didn’t really intend to restore it. He had bought it to save it. He knew there wouldn’t be much to save if he left it where he found it.”
Youngren also had a Cessna 195 at the back of his hangar, Dinndorf said. “He was asking $6,500 for it. I wish I’d been smart enough to buy it.”
Fortunately, Youngren had recognized the historic significance of the Stinson, which Doolittle had flown for Shell from 1938 to 1940. It had become Doolittle’s favorite when he served as Shell’s aviation products manager, logging nearly 100 flights in it. Dinndorf found Doolittle’s logs at the University of Texas and copied them as part of his massive documentation of the airplane.
“I was incredibly naïve,” Dinndorf said of the Stinson purchase. “I trailered it home, put the fuselage in my shop and the wings in the garage and thought I’d start restoring it. I bought a compressor and a sandblaster and started cleaning. It was a much bigger project than I thought it was, though.”
Dinndorf was living in his native Minnesota at the time but, a pharmacist by training, accepted a job with a pharmaceutical company in Atlanta before the Stinson restoration really got going.
“I trailered the fuselage to Atlanta, but I was so busy I barely touched the airplane there. It was frustrating. I had this historic artifact but I couldn’t do anything with it.”
Then he moved back to Minnesota. The Stinson again moved with him.
“By that time I had owned this airplane for 30 years,” Dinndorf said, gesturing toward the splendid restoration as we sat beside it. “I realized I wasn’t going to get it done in my lifetime and I owed it to history to finish it. That’s when I met Rod and Dottie Roy, who are the reason the airplane is finished and should get all the credit.”
Dinndorf is full of praise for the work done by the Roys, and of humility for his own part in it. “I’m not going to stand in front of this airplane and say ‘Look what I’ve done,'” he stated.
Dindorff spotted a Stinson SR-8, owned by Paul Sensor, at the Oshkosh gathering in 2000. He learned that Rod and Dottie Roy had restored the gorgeous red-and-black airplane for Sensor, and started talking with them. It wasn’t long before his SR-10 was on a trailer (with many of its parts in a Ryder truck) on its way to Grand Marais, Minnesota, where Rod Roy runs the FBO and has his Roy Aero restoration shop.
“It was far from being a basket case, but it was worse than I thought it was initially,” Roy said as we talked at Oshkosh last summer. “It took about a week to figure out what we had and three years to figure out what we didn’t have.”
“Rod built a lot of stuff,” Dinndorf remarked, “including the bump cowl – 18 bumps – which is a masterful job. It cost as much as a compact car but it makes the airplane.”
After trying very hard to find an original SR-10 cowl, they discussed making a replica of fiberglass, knowing that molds are available, but decided that wouldn’t be appropriate. “Going with the smooth cowl you see on all the military Reliants simply wasn’t an option, either,” Dinndorf stated flatly.
“I wanted the airplane to be exactly – exactly – as it was on Aug. 13, 1938, when Doolittle first flew it,” he said with heavy emphasis on “exactly.”
The cowl was no simple fabrication. Not only were its bumps part of the structure, but the cowl design called for it to taper from front to rear. Through another SR-10 owner, Dinndorf found metalsmith Larry Rampic, who made the cowl in sections, using an English wheel. Roy and his crew then built a steel frame on which they fitted the sections, riveted and welded them together, then ground and polished the surface to perfection.
As though the compound curves of the cowl weren’t enough, it turned out that the leading edge of the wing, where it forms the distinctive “gull,” is another complex compound curve, as are the wingtips. Back to the English wheel.
None of the original interior remained, Dinndorf pointed out, nor were the available photographs sufficient for an accurate reconstruction. However, they found a series of contemporary drawings done by William Wylam which, Dinndorf said, were “incredible in their detail and were drawn from Stinsons when they were still in their heyday.” He and the Roys compared Wylam’s drawings of other airplane interiors with photographs that did let them make direct comparisons, concluding that they were just right so it was likely his SR-10 drawings were reliable.
“The back seats were easy to fabricate but the front seats were unique,” Dinndorf said. He discovered that Jerry Arnold, a restorer in Winnipeg, had a hangar full of wrecked Stinson hulks, including a pair of front seats. “They had the original leather on them, so we could do a better job of duplicating the pattern.” Dottie Roy found a supply of hides and started cutting and stitching, guided by the original seat covers and the Wylam drawings. She also did all the rib stitching on the wings and other fabric.
Stinsons were built in a suburb of Detroit, Dinndorf pointed out, which probably is why their interiors resemble automobiles so much. “Eddie Stinson’s idea was to build limousines of the air and, since he was based in Detroit, it’s only natural that they have an automotive flavor,” he said, pointing out the roll-down window cranks, the wood grain instrument panel, the large – and very automobile-like – steering wheels, and many other touches typical of late-1930s cars. Getting all those small details just right was a major research project for Dinndorf and the Roys.
So was the paint, the first thing anyone notices about the airplane.
“We wanted it to be so accurate that Jimmy Doolittle wouldn’t know it wasn’t original,” Dinndorf said. The best way to do that, he figured, was to talk with Doolittle himself, who was still alive at the time. Jimmy Haislip, a friend of Doolittle who had raced with him in the 1930s, gave Dinndorf the telephone number. He called, told Doolittle he had the Shell SR-10, and said he was seeking a way to duplicate the original colors and logos exactly.
Fascinated, Doolittle put Dinndorf in touch with someone at Shell who provided a color chip and, at least equally important, permission to use the proper Shell logo. Dinndorf took the chip to the PPG paint company where it was identified instantly as Shell Yellow. It turned out that PPG had provided the original paint and had the records to duplicate it.
About the only thing that wasn’t restored by Rod Roy and his team was the 300-hp Lycoming R-680 engine. With Oshkosh 2006 coming up, the engine went to Radials Inc. in Oklahoma, where it was finished in time for a flight to AirVenture and the Vintage Grand Champion award.
What’s next for the stunning Stinson?
“I’m 73 years old and have decided to go LSA. I’ve bought an Ercoupe 415-C,” Dinndorf said in a recent telephone conversation.
“The Stinson is for sale. I’d like to see it end up in a museum.”
His asking price is $295,000. Anyone interested can contact him by email via firstname.lastname@example.org.