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Sarah Wilson
Sarah Wilson sits on the just-restored Stearman Speedmail she had longed to own.(photo by Phil Weston)

By Randy Dufault

July 31, 2013 - After flying with the American Barnstormers Tour in a Stearman Model 4, Sarah Wilson knew she just had to have one of the classic airplanes for herself.

"I was teary-eyed because it was so beautiful," she said. "I decided this was the plane I wanted."

Through her aviation connections, Wilson located what remained of a Model 4E not far from her Lakeland, Florida, home. A bit of dealing with the owner ensued, and after not too much time, Wilson owned at least the beginnings of her desired ride.

"We had a very lovely conversation," Wilson said about the negotiation with the owner. "And he said, 'I like you. I'll sell it to you. Are you going to build it?' I said yep...so I went down and signed the paperwork and that's how I got it. Seven years ago.

"I'd originally wanted to do the Texaco plane and had contacted Walt House at the Kansas Aviation Museum - they are restoring theirs for static display. I didn't know about the Jimmie Allen. But then Walt said he had paperwork for this plane. After an afternoon of researching I decided that was the plane I was going to build. I had the N number and all the stuff so I could do this and not just make it up."

N667K is a 1929 Stearman Junior Speedmail. It was originally purchased by the Richfield Oil Company as a business airplane and to promote sales of its gasoline to the aviation market.

In the early 1930s Richfield began sponsoring a radio program called the Air Adventures of Jimmie Allen. Kids of the time could receive a weekly newsletter, flight lesson worksheets, trading cards, pilot wings, emblems, and patches from the club.

Not long after Richfield decided to add a face to Jimmie Allen and an actor, Murray McLean, was hired to play the part. Richfield Chief Pilot Dudley Steele flew McLean, a young pop star of the time, and the Speedmail to club events around the country.

Steele was also chairman of the American Legion Aeronautics Committee. In that role he and the airplane were ambassadors for the Legion and its separate aviation division.

In addition to all its other history, a check of Charles Lindbergh's logbooks turned up a 1930 flight at the controls of the plane.

"That's why I look like a giant billboard," Wilson said. "I'm Richfield Oil's eagle, the official club ship of the Jimmie Allen Flying Club, and I'm the official ship of the American Legion. It's got quite a history."

With a restoration plan in place Wilson turned the airplane over to Jim Kimball Enterprises of Zellwood, Florida, for restoration.

"Kimballs have done three of the seven Model 4s flying so they had most of the kinks worked out," Wilson said. "But everything on the airplane had to be machined and done by hand. I had the tail feathers and some bones, but I didn't have tons of parts.

"The biggest challenge was finding the instruments. I was real finicky about finding instruments that were exact so I was happy to get those. It's just a slow process."

A common challenge with restorations from the early days of aviation is color. Color photography was rare or nonexistent and rarely did the manufacturers record exact color formulations.

"Since these were used by the oil companies I believed they would have used their livery," Wilson said. "So I used the Automobilia book that shows all the gas pumps and signs.

"The navy was very easy as it is pretty uniform across the board."

On the other hand Wilson said the lighter colors ranged from a cream white to duck yellow. Ultimately a cream was chosen on the belief that yellow would have appeared darker in the black and white photos.

Wilson added, "That's kind've how we picked it. It's not very scientific, but it was effective."

Computer aided design had to be employed to get the complex graphics correct. By merging historic photos with a current plan of the plane, the locations and sizes of each logo and graphic were drawn in the computer. And although the graphics were hand painted by an artist, large printouts made sure they were historically accurate.

First flight for the restored plane was in August of 2012, and Wilson is happy the project is complete.

"I guess finding the patience was the hardest thing to find," she said. "You want it to be done in a year, and it just goes on."

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