Indiana County group to restore plane owned by Jimmy Stewart
For decades, John Hurn had passed the weathered shell of the Cessna 310 F near the shop where he built and maintained aircraft at Dallas Executive Airport in Texas
Its original paint was long gone. Deregistered and deemed not airworthy by the Federal Aviation Administration, it was destined for the scrap heap.
Then one day, the airport manager asked Hurn to take a look at it. Its most recent owner had moved away and died.
“I took it into the shop and got the gear to work and both engines to work, and I got it taxiing around out here,” said Hurn, 77, of Arlington, Texas.
Hurn later learned its first owner was actor, aviation aficionado and Indiana County native Jimmy Stewart. It was one of two Cessnas he had owned.
“I thought it should be returned to his hometown, even though he's not there,” said Hurn, who was a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War, making more than 245 trips into North Vietnam and logging 1,400 hours of combat time.
The project to rescue the plane started when Charles Jessen, owner of a 1955 Cessna 310, volunteered to write a story about it for a Cessna owner's organization.
“While researching the article, I discovered the actual plane, or what was left of it, was sitting in a derelict condition down at Dallas Executive Airport,” Jessen wrote in an email. He contacted Tom Robertson, manager of the Jimmy Stewart Airport in Indiana, and asked whether he would be interested in rescuing the plane.
Robertson, who admitted being skeptical, asked for documentation proving Stewart had owned the plane.
“When he did send the proof, my jaw just about dropped off,” Robertson said, shaking his head. “To be in that deplorable shape. ... ”
Before long, the effort had the support of a network of individuals and organizations from Indiana County to Texas to California.
Word about the find and the project to return the plane to Indiana spread, and people rallied to the cause.
“It's quite exciting,” Robertson said. “People I've talked to around town are excited about having Jimmy's plane here, and they're willing to support it.”
Harold “Woody” Wood, 80, of Shelocta and five other members of Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 993 at Jimmy Stewart Airport traveled to Texas to disassemble the plane and bring it back to Western Pennsylvania. Wood is leading the restoration effort, a project that will take about 4,000 hours and cost more than $60,000.
“By the end of the year, it will be assembled and back on its wheels,” Wood said.
Their goal is to set up a “static” display of the reassembled — but not airworthy — plane in front of the Jimmy Stewart Airport.
For a group composed primarily of retirees, the project held special challenges. For example, when they tried to remove the vertical tail fin while in Dallas, they found only one member of their crew — Sean Fuellner, 19, who lives near Elderton — “was flexible enough” to get into the tiny part of the tail to remove the bolts.
“It's pretty tight back in the tail section, no room to move,” Fuellner said. “I know I got cramped up a little.”
“I'm glad we had him,” Wood said. “He was very important to this project.”
There are about 25 members of the group, and the average age is about 70. Nearly every member has built his own airplane.
The project is special for those working on it and for the Stewart family.
“Bringing something back of Jimmy Stewart's — he meant something to me. He was a bomber pilot who took time out of his career to give back,” said Ivan Stefanik, 57, one of the group's youngest members.
“For me, my brother, Mike, and my sister, Judy, the idea of this plane brings back wonderful memories from long ago,” said Stewart's daughter, Kelly Harcourt of Davis, Calif. “I remember watching Dad from behind as he touched levers and dials with the headphones on, and the leathery smell of the plane and the sound of the door closing before take-off.”
Stewart often flew his family in the Cessna to their ranch in Nevada or one in Northern California.
“The work and ingenuity of people like Charles Jessen and Harold Wood, along with many others, to save Dad's Cessna 310 is truly inspirational and moving for us,” said Harcourt, a retired research associate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Calif, Davis. “We cannot wait to see the plane once again in its new home in Indiana.”
Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.