GOLDEN AGE MODEL MAKERS OF DISTINCTION
(This is an updated version of the two part article that appeared in the October 2002 and January 2003 issues of SKYWAYS The Journal of the Airplane 1920-1940.)
On April 17, 1938, large metropolitan newspapers including the Los Angeles Examiner and the Washington Post ran a photograph of Howard and Harvey Doering holding their magnificent, 1/16 scale all metal Boeing 247 D in front of an United Airlines 247 with its captain, E. Hamilton Lee, viewing it admiringly. Impressive as it was, it represented only one of their many accomplishments for, by the time the Doering twins had graduated from Garfield High School, East Los Angeles just the year before, they were already well known for their model work and were receiving commissions from famous pilots, aircraft dealers and owners as well as collectors. After they were hired by Vultee Aircraft in 1939, they started the model shop there and for years produced further superbly detailed sales models, production line presentation and prototype model work.
During the late Thirties and early Forties several national periodicals featured the Doerings’ model making achievements. Reading these articles as a boy left a lasting impression on me and over the years I continued to recall the photographs and the techniques described. Yet it was not until recently when I happened on a February, 1944 copy of Aircraft Age with a photo essay about their Vultee presentation models that I decided to see what could be learned of whole story about these Golden Age model makers. As it turned out, there was a great deal to be learned, much of it from other admirers of their work, but most from the brothers themselves who, at 83, agreed to an interview in April, 2002, and delighted me with stories of a bygone era of aviation and modeling and of master craftsmanship. Harvey summarized how it all started: "Well, Howard and I...we built flying scale models. We built flying models of other types, too, but our favorite was flying scale models. And then we got to selling the models, and the just for display models, and that’s how we got into it." The following is their story.
Born in Taber, Alberta, Canada, on New Year’s day, 1919, Howard and Harvey Doering moved to Los Angles when they were three. Their father, Frank, a farm machinery and automobile mechanic, worked a number of railroad and automotive jobs and at one time worked for Kreutzer who manufactured several aircraft. Later, he had his own machine shop. It was here that the boys learned metal working and mechanical skills. Coming home from school, their father put them to work in the shop doing body work on cars and rebuilding engines. Harvey related that while they learned a lot, it didn’t always please them. "Yes, we worked in the shop quite a bit. Came home from school, he wanted us to help him in the shop. We wanted to play!" Their interest in aviation, however, had already been sparked by Charles Lindbergh’s feats, and they were always building models in their spare time. In fact, they had built their first models, including the Spirit of St. Louis, in 1927 at the age of eight!
From that time on, Howard and Harvey were dedicated model builders. When they got their first model to fly, a mostly spruce, rubber powered Ideal kit of the Fokker Universal, Harvey remembered that it only flew ten feet, but "it tickled the pie out of us." They continued to build many models and in 1934 they tied for first in a static display flying scale model contest for which they won some flying lessons. This provided the impetus for further serious model work.
The brothers worked independently on models as well as collaborating on the same project. When asked about this, Harvey related a story from their later years at Vultee. "Either one of us would do any part of the model. In fact, it was, I guess, a kind of a joke down at the company. They would say we would build models and we would not talk to each other but we would know what the other one was doing. In fact, there was an article in the Vultee paper about that one time about the ‘non-talking twins.’ At work they wouldn’t talk and one would build one part of the model and the other guy would build the other part and they would fit together."
The exceptional quality of the brothers’ craftsmanship was apparent early on, and at least once involved them in some controversy, albeit in a non aviation venture. The Gilmore Oil Company (now Mobil) sponsored a "pushmobile" contest for youngsters as entertainment between races at the Legion Ascot Speedway. Youth, up to 16 years of age, built race car replicas and raced them, with one steering and one pushing. The twins entered a contest based on the quality of the car and, from some 200 entries, were among the finalists for the $50 first prize. However, they were disqualified on the professional looking quality of their entry, the opinion being that they obviously didn’t do their own work. The boys were understandably upset. Their father protested to the company which sent a representative to the Doering home. Here Howard and Harvey went into the shop and, taking a piece of metal, quickly formed it into the shape of the forward cowl of their racer and painted a "G" on it. Then they turned a spindle on the lathe while the man watched thus proving that they, indeed, did their very own metal work. The company sent them the $50 first prize money!
Among their many models of the mid-Thirties were the Travel Air 2000 (with an OX-5 modified to be air cooled), a Boeing 40B and four or five Fleet biplanes, payment for which was further flying lessons. Illustrated here are a Boeing 203, a Boeing F4B4 and a P-26 all in 1/16th scale that were painted wood and fabric. The P-26 had a particularly eye-catching paint job. In general during this period, the Doerings’ larger models had fabric covered, hollow built up structures. The smaller models were solid balsa, their ribs simulated with thread, then fabric covered. The use of metal was not prominent in earlier models.
In 1936, during their junior year in high school, a Stinson dealer commissioned the twins to construct a 1/16 scale sales model of the Stinson SR-8. This model was fabric on a wood frame but it had a metal cowl. All details of upholstery were authentically reproduced. The instrument panel had a wood grain finish, the controls operated to move the flying surfaces, and the flaps lowered. The photo shows the 17 year olds at work on the Stinson at their workbench.
There was eventually an agent, Russ Stiles, who displayed a 1/36 scale Seversky P-35 model to potential customers around the state to get orders for the Doerings. This model is extant in the LA area, owned by Lane Leonard. Harvey describes it has having about a 12" wing span and constructed using a core of balsa covered with worked aluminum and then painted. Later, however, they removed the original paint scheme and the model is now displayed in a polished aluminum finish.
In 1937, as a Christmas present, Frank Fuller’s wife commissioned the brothers to build a model of her husband’s Seversky SEV-S2 (P-35) racer in which he won the 1937 and 1939 Bendix races. The twins have a newspaper clipping from December 26, 1937 showing them holding the model with the caption, "What Kris Kringle left for the Flying Speedster." In addition to the finely formed and minutely detailed aluminum sheeting on this 12" span model, Harvey described it as follows: "Yes, the controls operated. You could stick your finger on the stick and make the ailerons and elevator work, but you couldn’t get the rudder to work because you couldn’t get your finger down to the rudder bar. The gear retracted and the propeller turned, but that was about it." He did not mention the accurate miniature lettering, insignia and colored detail work which were meticulously hand painted on this model. This is characteristic, as well, of all their other models even including later production line work at Vultee.
While the Stinson model of 1936 had a metal cowl, the Doerings had not used their metal working and mechanical skills, learned in their father’s shop, to build a model entirely out of metal. This changed in 1937 when Roger Falwell, a United Airlines pilot, commissioned them to model his Boeing 247D. Working in 1/16th scale, giving a wing span of 55 ½ inches, the brothers drew up a set of plans (part of which are extant) and began construction by making a balsa fuselage. Aluminum longerons were attached to the balsa, then formed aluminum panels riveted to them. Once the formed panels were in place, the balsa structure was cut out leaving an empty interior ready for detailing. Underway photographs show a construction layout similar to what one might have expected to see on the floor at the Boeing factory.
The brothers could have progressed no further than this point and had an interesting model. But the fuselage work had just begun. Inside went the detail, all the detail that one would find in the actual aircraft: accurate flooring, upholstered seats (with covers), sewn in overhead, stowage bins. In the rear of the cabin was the complete lavatory. Complete. Down to the toilet paper!
Since it was difficult to see all this detail on the finished model, how could it be shown what was actually in there? This occurred to the brothers, so they designed a pin hole camera to photograph the interior through a removable panel over the cabin aft the cockpit. They had never heard of such a camera, but they had the need, so they designed one, a typical instance of their creative adaptability across a broad spectrum of artistic and mechanical disciplines. A series of interior photographs were taken and six of them from the Doerings' scrapbook and annotated by them are attached here.
But the detail magic was just getting underway. The wings were built up once again using the wood substructure with metal overlaid. The outer wing panels were glued to a built up structure which remained in the model, but the inner wing was all metal as it handled the nacelle structures, retractable landing gear, turning propellers, motors to run both, control linkages and batteries to power it all. The batteries were housed inside a hinged panel in the leading edge of the wing inboard of the nacelles. The model even had the engine starter cranks in their stowed position inside the fuselage nose cone, not to mention wheel chocks and the cabin door ladder.
The cockpit was, of course, completely detailed. A finger could be inserted into the cockpit from the top fuselage hatch and levers flipped to start the propellers whirling and retract the landing gears as well as turn on the complete lighting system. The rather amazed grin on the face of E. Hamiliton Lee, the United pilot in the lead photograph of this article, is understandable as he pointed to where he sat in the cockpit. The twins met up with "Ham" Lee again in 1983 at Cable Airport in LA where all three signed an original of that photo of 1938. There are numerous references attesting to the amazement people expressed when viewing the Doerings’ models, and it says much that this awed admiration came from not just curious onlookers, but from the aviation professionals who designed and built the actual aircraft as well as the pilots who flew them.
The 247 model was masked and sprayed the various shades of anodized aluminum found on the original, then all markings hand painted. It was then extensively photographed, a number of shots taken on the runway at the Burbank airport with the San Gabriel Mountains as a backdrop. Four of these photographs are presented here, and there is difficulty ascertaining that the subject is a model and not the actual aircraft. It is not an uncommon problem with photos of the Doerings’ work.
In reflection during the interview in 2002, sixty-five years later, both brothers agreed that this was their favorite model, their magnum opus. Built for Roger Falwell's $1500 commission in 1937 and widely publicized, they do not know its present whereabouts. They would like to know if it still exists, and if so, to see it again. No doubt a lot of people would. To this end, any information the reader might have should be sent to the author at Doxaerie as it would be highly appreciated.
Yet for all its exceptional detail and craftsmanship, the Boeing 247 model was only the first of the Doering all metal masterpieces. There follows in 1938 a superlative Douglas Dolphin model of William E. Boeing's personal aircraft, Rover, commissioned by a member of Boeing's family. The Doering's photographs show a model indistinguishable from the real thing. In commenting on this model, the brothers mainly focused on the rivet detail. When actual rivets were not used in the model construction, a pounce wheel was used on the inside of each aluminum panel to provide a dimple on the exterior surface. But this was just the first step. "Then," as Harvey explained, "you’d put that on a block of wood with the grain up, soft wood, not balsa, but soft pine or something like that I think we used. And then you’d take a flat piece of metal, a flat iron, and pound that down and then the rivet instead of going up like this (indicating with his hands a pointed top and a "fillet" around it), you’d bring it down and it would look like that (indicating a flattened head with more vertical sides as it protruded only slightly from the sheet aluminum)." Photographs of the Dolphin illustrate the rivet work very clearly. Is there a trick to this? Yes. "You paint it, then you polish it off a little. Then they show up better that way."
The whereabouts of the Dolphin was unknown to the Doerings, but in late 2003 the model was identified in the Museum of Flight, Seattle in almost perfect condition. These recent photographs by Dennis Parks, Curator, show how carefully detailed this model really is. Since the original publication of this article, several more of the Doering models have surfaced, and it is hoped these "discoveries" will continue.
Did all this work and publicity, as well as their proximity to Hollywood lead to film industry work? There was some. One of the pilots involved in film work, Garland Lincoln, knew of the boys’ work and took some models to the studios where they were rented and used as props in scenes for several movies. The brothers recall that there were a few lines of dialogue about the models, but they cannot now remember the names of the movies. It would be interesting to discover which movies and identify the models.
Continued in Doering Brothers II