A tribute to Donald Grundstrom

Red Baron Stearman
the model is shown with the fullscale
01. The model is shown with the fullscale Stearman that inspired it. Photo by Paul Brooks.

How often in life do we meet someone of profound influence and connection? This article is about such an influence and is a tribute to a great aviator and collector of cherished aircraft. The late Donald Grundstrom was born in 1923 in Orion, Illinois. He entered Army Air Corps training at the beginning of World War II. His mother’s illness pulled him from Air Corps training shortly afterward. He entered training again in 1943 and served for 3 years. His last 16 months, he served in a radio communications group that helped to liberate New Guinea, Luzon, and the southern Philippines in 1945.

Don received the Bronze Star, Philippines Liberation, American Defense, and Asian Pacific Victory medals. After his honorable discharge in 1945, Don began a job as a foundry man with John Deere & Company. He celebrated 50 years with John Deere, and during his tenure, he became general manager and helped to set up and manage several John Deere foundries.

Don was a legendary character, known by his coworkers as "The Gunner." He was disciplined, direct, and knew how to get things done. His love for aviation started at an early age; however, he did not learn to fly until he was 50 years old.

From that time on, Don owned several collector-quality aircraft ranging from Stearmans, Waco biplanes, a T-6 Texan, Oshkosh Champion RV-8s, Great Lakes Biplanes, a Titan Mustang, and the cherished N802RB Red Baron. The purchase of the Red Baron Super Stearman in 2012 is where this tribute begins.

don grundstrom are shown
02. The author (L) and Don Grundstrom are shown with the full-scale Stearman in October 2012.
a pratt and whitney 480 hp
03. A Pratt & Whitney 480 hp replica engine was created to retain the scalelike looks.
air release graphics were applied
04. Air-release graphics were applied before the clear coat.

I committed to building a 1/3-scale replica of Don’s famous N802RB, which was the last lead airplane for the Red Baron Pizza Squadron before it disbanded and its assets were sold in 2007. A short documentary video that tells more of the visual story is on the Hopkins Visuals website, listed in "Sources."

As most skilled modelers know, building a replica model has its challenges and is certainly a labor of love. When Don purchased the last remaining fully marked Stearman in 2012, I decided to recreate a 1/3-scale replica of his gem. I spent 3,600 hours and roughly 3-1/2 years building this model.

The base model is a 1/3-scale Balsa USA Stearman. The Balsa USA team was extremely helpful with providing information throughout the building process. As can be seen in some of the construction photos, I took many artistic liberties to create an accurate replica of the full-scale aircraft.

The most notable differences in construction were the replication of the cowling, access doors, exhaust system, headrest, storage compartment, and, of course, the four ailerons scaled to the full-scale airframe. The ailerons are attached with hidden linkages.

The cowling construction was one of the most challenging aspects of the build. Getting the shape, aesthetic proportions, and proper cooling for the DLE-111 engine behind the replica Pratt & Whitney engine, as well as enabling easy access and maintenance, were all key requirements in its execution. The result was a combination of the supplied aluminum cowling that opened up and attached to a plywood and fiberglass substrate. The fiberglass cowlings on the market that I tried didn’t accurately replicate the shape of the full-scale aircraft. I decided it would be better to use a combination of materials for the best accuracy.

the airframe is up on the gear
05. The airframe is up on the gear for the first time.
the author replicated the fullscale
06. The author replicated the fullscale wheel-pant mounts on Sierra gear struts.
the pilot figure is lothar
07. The pilot figure is Lothar von Richthofen, the brother of Manfred, also known as the Red Baron.

Other details, such as the underwing fuel gauge, flying wires, headrest, and storage compartment, took time and design iteration to arrive at the final execution. My career and experience as a professional industrial designer have taught me the importance of achieving innovative results.

One of the final pieces of jewelry on this model was the creation of the flying wires. On the full-scale aircraft, the mirrored, polished flying wires are truly eye-catching and glisten in the sunlight like diamonds. I was able to achieve this effect by using brass strips that were silver-soldered to threaded couplers on each end. Each wire was meticulously ground and sanded to shape. The final product was buffed and chromeplated for an accurate, scalelike appearance. Many hours were involved in creating the 26 wires for the wings, cabane structure, and tail.

During the process of creating the graphics, I was fortunate to find the full-scale logo graphics for the airplane. The graphics for the tail and other areas on the model were created from scratch. A great sign company that I have a business relationship with was able to assist in the scaling and printing of the final product.

a rear shot shows the cockpit
08. A rear shot shows the cockpit details that were added to the model. Brooks photo.
the replica pratt and whitney
09. The replica Pratt & Whitney 480 turned out great and significantly improved the scalelike look of the airplane.
a demonstration of the gull wing
10. A demonstration of the gull-wing doors shows the cylinder air ducting.

I covered the model with Solartex neutral fabric. Additionally, I was able to cut Stits detail rib tape and access hatches using a laser cutter and Solartex fabric. These details were applied after the base covering was completed.

Finally, the model was sprayed with urethane primer then white and red base coat matching colors were applied. All of the graphics were printed on air-release vinyl. The air-release vinyl reacts well when applied over the covering and looks remarkable after being covered with clear coat. When everything was complete, I sprayed the final coats of Nasson Clear to achieve the sheen of the full-scale Stearman.

I’m often asked about the model’s specifications, most notably the engine selection. I get teased for not putting a radial on the front of this beauty. I decided on a DLE-111 engine. This engine flies the airplane in an incredibly scalelike manner. Most importantly, I wanted to replicate the 450 hp Pratt & Whitney engine and Hamilton Standard propeller for realism in presentation. The radio system is a Spektrum 12-channel receiver, with digital high-torque Savox servos throughout, a Demon Cortex gyro, and a Sullivan Skywriter smoke pump.

Many people assisted in various ways during the replication of this model. Most notable was Don, who occasionally stopped by my shop to check on my progress and would polish the spinner with flour—an "oldschool" technique. I learned so much from him. There are many passionate builders, fabricators, and creators in this hobby, and my hope is that we all continue to inspire one another though our creative projects.

the lower wing shows the hidden
11. The lower wing shows the hidden aileron control and Savox SA-1256TG servo.
the ww ii donald grundstrom memorial
12. The WW II Donald Grundstrom Memorial box that the author created is now on display in Moline IL, at the Civil Air Patrol facility.

The flying circle of pilots who flew Don’s aircraft coined the phrase, "Made It Happen." Each of his airplanes proudly displays that phrase, as well as the American flag. Donald Grundstrom was a life-changing influence for me, and truly represents the "Greatest Generation." I look forward to sharing this model at many flying events in 2022.

Special thanks to Balsa USA, Horizon Hobby, DLE Engines, Spektrum RC, Fibertech ’n more, Best Pilots, Keleo Creations, SignPro Muscatine, Hopkins Visuals, Paul Brooks Photography, Terry Ziegler, Mike Kaas, Dave Agee, Terry Nitsch, Gary Warren, and Gary Kleinmeyer.



Balsa USA
(800) 225-7287


Horizon Hobby
(800) 338-4639


Fibertech ’n more
(563) 940-7977


SignPro Muscatine
(563) 263-2512


Hopkins Visuals
(563) 260-9608


Paul Brooks Photography

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