A Stinson in the Sticks by Dennis McGee

Byers, Colorado, a dusty hamlet 40 miles east of Denver, is an unlikely site for a miracle. Hard by Interstate 70 and with only 1,400 souls, the tiny town has no distinguishing features, no historic sites, and is home to no famous person. But Byers, Colorado, was the site of a miracle, or at least as near to a miracle as Steve Kirkner would get. It happened back in 1987 when Kirkner was in Denver for business and was wasting a Friday afternoon scanning the local newspaper when he spotted an ad for a farm auction in Byers. One of the items listed for sale was a “Stinson aircraft,” so he called the real estate agent and learned that the aircraft was the “Reliant” model. Kirkner couldn’t believe his good luck; he and his wife had fallen in love with Reliants several years earlier, so he thought it would nice to attend the auction and get some picture of this one.

Briefly, he toyed with the idea of buying it but scuttled the thought because prices for the 1930s classic started normally in the low $30,000-range for the ramp hogs and escalated quickly to the six-figure range for the show-stoppers. He called his wife and told her of the next day’s photo trip and jokingly mentioned buying the plane. His wife’s enthusiasm was less than overwhelming and she nixed the sale. He called a friend to work out a partnership, but the friend declined. Satisfied he could not afford the plane, Kirkner headed to Byers anyway just to look and take pictures. Once there his pessimism was reinforced when he noticed that several light airplanes had landed at the auction site carrying “airline pilots, Civil Air Patrols guys, and Yuppies,” any one of whom could easily outbid a U.S. Postal Service computer systems analyst from Beverley Beach, Maryland.

Yet, it is now late afternoon and Kirkner is nearly petrified. The auctioneer’s gavel has just fallen and his bid of $23,500 has made him the proud owner of a 1936 SR-8A Stinson Reliant. “Oh, no, what have I done?” Kirkner remembers thinking. He admits he had no intention to bid on the airplane and did so only when the auctioneer opened bidding at $23,000 — an exceptionally low price. Shocked, he immediately bumped it $500!

“I was amazed, no one else bid,” he said. The airplane pilots, Civil Air Patrol guys, and Yuppies were there only to watch, it seems. Having won the bid, he now faced an even larger hurdle. “I told the auctioneer, ‘I’ve got a small problem. I don’t have any money’. I was running on empty,” he admitted.

Well, not exactly. True, he didn’t have his check book, but he did have $52 in cash that was to pay his parking fees back home at Dullas International Airport. But Kirkner’s luck was running hot that April afternoon in 1987, and after the owner and auctioneer huddled for a minute they gave him seven days to come up with the money. The entire episode, Kirkner believes, was one of those “meant-to-be things.” First he had to see the ad, then he had to “outbid” the opposition, and lastly he was given seven days grace to come up the money.

“When I tell people the story, they tell me I was meant to own this airplane. Everything worked out perfectly,” Kirkner said. But everything was even more perfect than Kirkner could ever imagine. A check of the 51-year-old airplane’s logs revealed it had been flown only about 2,200 hours; the engine was nearly new with just four or five hours of fight time on it. In fact, in the 30 years prior to Kirkner’s buying it, the airplane logged just 17 hours of flight. The airplane was practically new in term of its past use.

But to really appreciate Kirkner’s good luck, it helps to understand one of aviation’s most enduring and endearing myths, the “Jenny-in-the-barn” story.

During World War One, the United States did not produce any indigenously designed and manufactured combat aircraft. Our greatest contribution, aviation-wise, was the popular JN-4, a solid but lumbering trainer built by the Glenn Curtiss Company. Its designation, “JN,” encouraged the nickname “Jenny” and it was built by the thousands. When the war ended in 1918 the government sold surplus Jennies for as little as $50, and pilots scarfed them up for use in barnstorming and other less dangerous, but equally demanding pursuits. The Curtiss Jenny quickly became the Ford Model T of the aviation world — rugged, inexpensive, and ubiquitous.

But exactly because they were so plentiful and cheap they were often used, abused and then discarded. Consequently, they quickly disappeared, and by the late-30’s Jennies were a rare but popular nostalgia piece at local fairs and air shows. From this scarcity came numerous Jenny-in-the-barn stories of people discovering an intact, undamaged, low-time JN-4 in a barn and buying it for a song. Of course, none of the stories were ever substantiated, but to this day they continue to circulate and have become legend within the aviation community. And while Kirkner’s good luck was not exactly a Jenny-in-the barn tale, it certainly qualified as a Stinson-in-the-sticks story. Paralleling the disappearance of the Jenny was the ascendancy of the Stinson. If the Jenny was the Model T of aviation, the Stinson was to be the Cadillac.

Between 1925 and 1949, the Stinson Aircraft Company produced nearly 13,000 aircraft, 1,327 of which were the Reliant model, produced from 1933 up through World War Two. The Stinson Reliant — SR — was built in many variants, 125 of which were the SR-8 like Kirkner’s. The airplane, as was common in the early days of aviation, is a “taildragger,” meaning it lacks a nosewheel so when it taxis on the ground it appears to be dragging its tail. Depending on the variant, the Reliant is capable of carrying a pilot and three or four passengers up to 815 miles at speeds approaching 165 miles-per-hour. New, they cost between $10,000 and $18,000.

Because of its high price, the Reliant was never popular among average fliers, but its speed and comfort quickly turned it into corporate America’s favorite mode of executive transportation — the Learjet of its day. Gulf Oil, Fuller Brush Company, Shell Oil, and Pepsi Cola, and others, used Reliants to carry their management teams around the country. It was also the favorite of the wealthy, owned by actors Wallace Berry and Charlie Correll, “Andy” of the famous “Amos ‘n Andy” radio comedy show. President, then-lieutenant colonel, Dwight D. Eisenhower flew an SR-9 Reliant when organizing the Philippine Army Air Corps in the 1930s, as did general, then-major, Jimmy Doolittle.

Like most Stinsons, the Reliant was the product of superb engineering, flawless workmanship, and elegant styling. It was fast, comfortable, luxurious, and safe, and its classic styling gave it an almost regal attitude. In later versions, it was a true aristocrat. When someone arrived in a Stinson Reliant, they had arrived. But the Reliant was also a hard worker. Its sturdiness and durability lent itself well to bush flying, target towing, charter work, and serving as a commuter airliner. But most of all it was a pilot’s airplane, predictable, safe, and easy to handle.

“It was the Reliant’s amiable and forgiving disposition, rather than its performance, that endeared it to airmen the world over,” according to author John Underwood in his book, “The Stinsons.”

The long and honorable history of Stinson was unknown to Steve Kirkner growing up in the 1960s in Pulaski, Virginia. While other youths were “wasting their time and money on girls,” Kirkner was spending his time at the local airport, a “ramp rat” in aviation parlance. He soloed in his senior year of high school with only seven hours of instruction and eventually amassed more than 300 hours of flight time. By the mid-1980s he was a one-third owner of a 1947 Stinson Voyager Flying Stationwagon. The more he flew the Voyager, the more he appreciated Stinson’s workmanship and handling, so he began reading more about them. Two years later, Kirkner and his wife saw their first Stinson Reliant in a hanger in Virginia. It was love at first sight, and his wife immediately let it be known “if we could ever own an airplane, this is the one.” And in the spring of 1987, in a dusty little crossroads 40 miles outside of Denver, Colorado, the miracle happened.

Over the next several weeks after the auction, Kirkner, with the help of friends from Maryland, readied the plane for its trip home. It took three days and 12 hours of flight before the Reliant finally touched down at its new home at a private airstrip south of Annapolis, Maryland. For the next several weeks, Kirkner and the Stinson were the center of attention, then tragedy struck. On a trip home to Pulaski, Kirkner was forced to land at Lynchburg, Virginia, due to a clogged fuel line.

“After landing I accidentally hit the brakes,” Kirkner remembers, and the big transport’s nose thudded onto the ground, raising the tail until the plane was nearly standing on its nose. Then slowly it teetered and fell onto it’s back, severely damaging the wings and vertical stabilizer. Kirkner and his wife escaped uninjured, but were devastated over the damage to the airplane.

Kirkner trucked the damaged plane back to Maryland, storing its parts in different friends’ garages, sheds, and barns until he could find the time to repair it. For the next five years his friends at the airstrip often ribbed him about when he was going to fix the Stinson. Finally, in 1992 he started making the time to work on the airplane. All of which would be fine, he said, except that t he didn’t know anything about repairing airplanes, much less classic wood-and-fabric airplanes.

“I had no experience, no tools, nothing. Just a lot of help and advice from my friends, and a Federal Aviation Administration repair manual,” he said.

For weeks, Kirkner taught himself riveting, painting, sewing, and doping techniques, all essential skills in mending antique airplanes. After about a year, he had repaired and restored all of the control surfaces, the horizontal stabilizer, and the structure of one wing. But rather than the traditional linen or Grade A cotton fabric to re-skin the plane, Kirkner opted for a new hi-tech polyester fabric because it was easier to apply and is more durable.

One of the joys of restoring an older airplane is also reconstructing its history. While flipping through the plane’s logs, Kirkner learned his Reliant had been used as a commuter airplane as well as for private use. It also has a history of an earlier modification allowing it to drop mannequins for testing parachute designs. “It had two tubes in the belly with the dummies in them. The pilot simply pulled a lever and the dummy dropped out,” Kirkner explained. “I can imagine the reaction of people on the ground seeing this if the chute didn’t open,”

There is one entry in the log that, Kirkner said, demands a little more investigation. The entry was for an evening flight on May 6, 1937, in the vicinity of West Orange, New Jersey, and read, “Hindenburg blows up.” Kirkner is unsure if the Reliant’s pilot actually witnessed the catastrophe that evening in Lakehurst, New Jersey, or was simply commenting on that day’s biggest event.

The entire rebuilding and restoration process was going to take about three years, Kirkner estimated. When done, he plans to start taking the restored antique around to air shows on the East Coast and give rides to any and all. While the restoration job will be very good, Kirkner does not plan to enter the airplane in any contests to be judged against other restored classics.

“This is going to be a working airplane, it is for people to enjoy, to take kids up for their first flight. That’s how people get interested in flying — by flying,” Kirkner said. “I’d like to take up some old timers, people whose first airplane ride was in a Stinson Reliant. I’m sure it would be exciting for them.”

As for his own future in aviation, Kirkner was crystal clear. “I just want to keep flying. Here,” he said, steering a visitor around the Stinson’s rebuilt wing and pointing to the opposite wall, “this sums up my whole philosophy in general, and this airplane in particular, and where I’m heading.”

On the wall was a replica of a Maryland automobile license plate. It read “FLY4FUN.”

Dennis McGee is an aviation writer living in Annapolis, Maryland.

Dennis McGee
Aviation Writer