What makes this particular airplane special is not just that it is an immaculately restored Grand Champion Award winner or the fact that it was built in 1938 and has survived the decades, but the history of those 76years.
The Stinson is appropriately called the “Shell/Doolittle” Stinson for good reason. This beauty, built for the Shell Oil Company and delivered on August 12, 1938, was flown by none other than aviation great Jimmy Doolittle himself. Doolittle flew hundreds of airplanes during his career, but his connection with NC21104 wasn’t incidental. For nearly 140 flights from 1938 to 1940, the airplane was Doolittle’s preferred form of passenger transport as he scurried about the United States carrying out his duties as Shell Oil’s Aviation Manager. In that amount of time, a pilot leaves something behind in the airplane’s soul. This is even more impacting when reviewing copies of Doolittle’s log books that came with the large box of documentation delivered with the airplane. Tom and Jeff Ferraro who are now the current pilots don’t take the responsibility lightly. Every time they sit in the pilot’s seat and fire up the big Lycoming Radial Engine, they can feel the history. It’s a very humbling and exciting feeling at the same time. After the first few flights as pilot in command, Jeff came back with the statement that he had just flown the “Time Machine”. We can’t think of a better reference. There is no doubt that whoever owns, operates and maintains this airplane is only its keeper. The aircraft will always belong to history!.
So where has NC21104 been since the early 40’s? While working for Shell Oil, Doolittle -- who saw World War II looming -- influenced the company to ramp up production of high octane fuel, something most oil companies were unwilling to produce in great supply on speculation. This effort alone was one of the key success stories of WWII. Doolittle re-entered the Army Air Corps in 1940 and became a WWII hero for his many contributions to the war effort, his most famous assignment being the leader of the Raid on Tokyo. The Stinson spent the next 12 years flying as a civilian airplane in various parts of the country including Kilgore and Graham Texas. The last flight of NC21104 before its complete restoration in 2005 was in 1952. After that, the airplane was used in an aviation mechanics school and ultimately pushed outdoors and abandoned. NC21104 was lucky. Its savior was a crop duster pilot who purchased the airplane strictly to save it. He put it in the back of his hangar to be restored someday. In 1971, a gentleman named Tom Dinndorf purchased the Stinson with the full intention of restoring it back to its original condition. Mr Dinndorf spent years doing the research on the airplane and the Shell/Doolittle history. It was his obsession with these details that is responsible for this legendary aircraft to be telling its story to aviation enthusiasts today.
After several years, it became increasingly obvious that he would not be able to restore this aircraft himself. Thank goodness for Rod and Dottie Roy. Rod and his wife manage the airport in Grand Marias Minnesota and run a professional aircraft restoration service specializing in Stinson’s. They began the restoration of NC21104 in 2000 and completed it in 2005. The original concept of the Stinson airplane factory was that they should be limousines of the air, and since they were based in Detroit, it was natural that they would have a lot of automotive flavor to them.
The structure of the Stinson is steel tubing with wood formers covered by Fabric. The wings are steel and aluminum covered with Fabric. The front cockpit areas and the engine cowling is all aluminum. All aspects of the airplane have been fully restored to its original condition including the same color leather interior, the original carpet and headliner fabric and the Shell Yellow paint scheme complete with the Shell logo painted on the side of the fuselage. They had an artificial wood–grain instrument panel and roll down windows. All of the aircraft features were perfectly re-created as part of this beautiful restoration.
The Ferraro’s purchased the airplane during the winter months of 2010 and had to wait for the weather in Grand Marais (about 20 miles from the Canadian Border on top of Lake Superior) to warm up enough to make the flight down to Texas. It finally arrived on April 26, 2011. (Minnesota has LONG COLD winters!) As one might imagine, Tom and Jeff have spent time learning the various new systems and controls that are totally unique to a vintage airplane. There has been progress in aviation since the 30’s but the design and flight characteristics of the Stinson have proven to very similar to today’s light airplanes. The airplane is extremely graceful and has been a real pleasure to fly. One of the unique components of this airplane is the Radial Engine. Comprised of nine cylinders arranged in a circular pattern, these engines are reserved for the antique, classic and war planes of the past. For airplane enthusiasts, there is nothing better than the sound of a Radial Engine airplane. Getting used to the operation of this type of engine is a different experience for Tom and Jeff. The standard joke was that you check the gas and fill up the oil tank! Turns out it’s not really a joke… the Stinson holds 6 ½ gallons and these engines were designed to use about a gallon of oil every few hours of flying time.
Some additional facts about the airplane are:
42 foot Wingspan
28 foot Length
8’ 7” Height
2772 lbs Empty Weight
4150 lbs Gross Weight (with fuel and passengers etc)
5 Person Seating
9 cylinder 300HP Lycoming R680 Radial Engine
100 Gallon Fuel capacity in 3 separate tanks
Hamilton Standard Constant Speed Propeller
Tail Wheel Landing gear Configuration
Look and listen for the Big Yellow and Red “Gull-wing” Stinson flying over McKinney. For a brief moment, you can let you mind wander back to 1938 and view the true golden years of aviation from you own back yard.
Article written by Tom Ferraro