During the 1920s, airframe manufacturers in Wichita, Kansas, produced a series of airplanes that signaled the gradual demise of open cockpit flying in favor of a comfortable, enclosed cabin.
In February 1921, the indefatigable Jacob M. Moellendick announced to the Wichita newspapers that the Wichita Laird Airplane Corporation was planning to launch an air service from Wichita to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Kansas City, Kansas. Always ready to generate publicity for his infant company, Jake always believed that the city of Wichita, that “Peerless Princess of the Prairie,” was destined to become a haven of civil aviation. Although Jake’s dream of a regional airline never materialized, he continued to harbor visions of a grand air service flying a fleet of Laird airplanes along routes stretching from Wichita across the entire Midwest region of the United States.
Moellendick, however, did have an airplane in mind for his proposed airline. It would be twin-engine, open-cockpit biplane powered by two Curtiss OX-5 engines each rated at 90 horsepower, but its most salient feature would be an enclosed cabin that could accommodate up to six passengers. Jake’s partner in the company, E.M. Laird, began construction of the Laird Limousine in December 1920. Moellendick hoped that he could sell the biplane to would-be airline moguls for about $15,000. The Limousine was only slightly larger than the three-place, open-cockpit Laird Swallow that sold for $6,500.
The cabin biplane had a wingspan of 47 feet and a length of 25 feet. The pilot and one passenger sat in the open cockpit forward of the cabin section, while the passengers relaxed in the upholstered interior complete with large windows on each side. Four seats were arranged in a club-type configuration. A large door on the left side of the fuselage allowed easy entry and egress for travelers.
Laird’s creation was the first enclosed cabin design built in the city, but it was grossly underpowered for its proposed role as a short-haul airliner. It had a maximum gross weight of 4,000 pounds, a useful load of 1,500 pounds and carried 180-gallons of fuel to feed the thirsty Curtiss powerplants. First flight occurred in mid-summer of 1921 with George “Buck” Weaver at the controls. Unfortunately, it was immediately apparent that the war-surplus OX-5s were completely inadequate, and after a few flights the ship languished in storage until May 1922 when Laird decided to replace the two Curtiss engines with one 12-cylinder Liberty engine rated at 450 horsepower. That engine, however, was never delivered. Disappointed but determined to re-engine the Limousine, Laird turned to his good friend in Chicago, Charles Dickenson, who agreed to sell him a 12-cylinder Packard 905 rated at 250 horsepower.
Laird had a host of improvements in mind for the cabin ship that included changing the wings to a single-bay design to reduce weight, streamlined interplane and cabane struts to reduce drag, and a new empennage featuring a vertical stabilizer instead of the three used on the original airplane. In addition, two large water cooling radiators were mounted on either side of the fuselage below the cockpit to keep the Packard from overheating.
Laird put Lloyd C. Stearman in charge of the rebuilding project but kept a watchful eye on the proceedings. Work began in August 1921 and completed early in 1922. The reborn Limousine flew in February with Walter Beech at the stick. As flight testing progressed Walter noted problems with cooling the big Packard, which gulped enormous amounts fuel and limited flight time. Trouble with the engine persisted. Finally, in 1923 Laird had the Packard removed and installed a 400-horsepower, 12-cylinder Liberty engine in its place. That powerplant was plagued with failures and only a few brief flights were made by Beech that ended with forced landings.
After two years of time and money expended in an attempt to make the Limousine into an airliner, Moellendick’s patience ran out. He ordered the biplane flown to Arkansas City, Kansas, where it would be placed in storage to await its fate. A local pilot named Irl Beach (no relation to Walter Beech) was hired to make the short flight. Soon after takeoff, the engine rebelled and Beach was forced to land the Limousine in a field near the campus of Fairmount College.
Unsure of what to do next, Irl telephoned Jake and asked for instructions. Moellendick’s answer was succinct: “Burn it!” The column of smoke rising above the Kansas countryside marked not only the Limousine’s final resting place, but a fitting epitaph for Jake’s dream of creating an airline.
Wichita’s next enclosed cabin airplane was the Travel Air Model CH that could accommodate four passengers in a cramped cabin forward of the open cockpit. Built in 1926, the biplane featured a 180-horsepoer Wright/Hispano Suiza V-8 engine turning a Hamilton Standard fixed-pitch, twisted steel propeller. The first airplane was built for the Gerbracht Aeronautic Corporation in Iowa. Travel Air built one additional Model CW biplane in 1926 that saw service in Alaska. A redesigned version designated the Type 7000 was built in 1928.
A pre-production prototype of Travel Air’s Type 5000 enclosed cabin monoplane arrived on the scene in 1926. It was based largely on a private venture design by Clyde V. Cessna that first flew in June of that year. It was powered by an Anzani 10-cylinder static, air-cooled radial engine that produced 110 horsepower. The five-place cabin could be converted in minutes to an air ambulance configuration, and when Walter Beech flew the ship he was impressed by its overall performance.
In the wake of that flight, Travel Air engineers embarked on a design that would become the Type 5000 aimed at small regional airlines. The prototype flew for the first time in December 1926 with Clarence Clark at the controls. Kansas City, Missouri-based National Air Transport ordered eight of the Type 5000 for service on short-haul routes in the Midwestern United States.1
By 1928, Walter Beech had become acting president of the Travel Air Manufacturing Company after the departure of Lloyd Stearman and Clyde Cessna to establish their own companies. Eventually Beech was formally elected president by the company’s board of directors. One of his first initiatives was to conduct an extensive market survey to determine if air-minded businessmen would buy a modern, enclosed cabin monoplane for exclusive use as a business aircraft. Walter knew that the Type 5000 was a resounding success for National Air Transport, and he believed that the time had come to design and build a larger, more powerful cabin ship specifically for executive transportation.
To test the market’s waters, Beech intentionally leaked information about the proposed aircraft to the local press, stating only that the company planned to develop a “sedan model.” The businessman that flew was a new market for the fledgling small airplane industry, and Beech sensed an opportunity. He was not the first to do so. Other men, such as Giuseppe Bellanca, had realized the potential of selling airplanes with enclosed cabins. In 1922 he introduced the Anzani-powered Bellanca C.F. that was among the earliest attempts in America to build an enclosed cabin monoplane.
In an effort to determine if there was sufficient interest in such an airplane for executives, Travel Air mailed hundreds of market surveys to companies and their chief pilots. The response clearly indicated that if Travel Air offered the right airplane at the right price with the right performance and cabin comfort, orders would be forthcoming. That was sufficient evidence for Walter Beech to order development of what would become the Type 6000.
Following months of design work, on April 15, 1928, a prototype was rolled out into the Kansas sunshine. Beech billed the airplane as the “Limousine of the Air” – an airplane that, at least from a purely historical viewpoint, could be considered the patriarch of all future Beechcraft business aircraft. In addition, it set the tone for Mr. Beech’s marketing strategies for what an executive transport should be. The Type 6000 also put Travel Air ahead of its competitors in the lightweight aircraft segment.
The prototype was powered by Wright J-5C, nine-cylinder radial engine rated at 200 horsepower. Six wicker-type seats were installed in the spacious cabin. The seats were designed for quick removal that allowed a generous volume for hauling cargo and bulky items. In executive configuration, passengers entered the heated cabin through a large door on the right side of the fuselage. A second, smaller door on the right, forward fuselage allowed entry/egress from the cockpit for the flight crew. One feature of the cabin was the installation of automobile-style, plate glass cabin windows that could be rolled down for ventilation.
Basic specifications included a wingspan of 48 feet 7 inches, length of 30 feet 10.5 inches and a height of eight feet 8.5 inches. The monoplane weighed 2,200 pounds empty and had a maximum gross weight of 3,800 pounds. Cruising speed was 105 mph. Travel Air’s chief pilot, Clarence Clark, flew the ship on a series of test flights to probe the airplane’s flight characteristics. Rate of climb was about 700 feet per minute with a service ceiling of 12,000 feet. Fully loaded, takeoff distance was 720 feet and landing rollout was 300 feet with heavy application of the mechanical brakes.
By the early summer of 1928, production plans for the new airplane were well underway, and Beech wasted no time gathering orders for the monoplane. In June he flew the ship on the Kansas Air Tour where more than 10,000 people saw the airplane, including a number of prospects who later signed up to buy the handsome Travel Air. Later that month Walter took the ship to the East Coast where he managed to secure another 14 orders. Although pilots and businessmen like the Type 6000, they asked that the cabin be enlarged and more powerful engines made available to improve performance. Beech listened, and Travel Air engineers redesigned the airplane into the Type 6000B that entered production later that year. The first production Type 6000B, serial number 790 and registered NC6469, was delivered to Wilbur D. May.
As 1928 progressed, overall business for the company was very strong as the front office received about $12,000 in orders for new airplanes every day. It was no surprise to Walter Beech, however, that a growing number of orders were not for the company’s tried-and-true Type 2000 or Type 4000 open-cockpit biplanes, but for the new cabin monoplanes. After consulting his marketing analyses, Beech concluded that the ratio of production open-cockpit to enclosed cabin ships would be about 60 percent in favor of biplane and 40 percent for monoplanes.
By 1929 it had become clear that Travel Airs with one wing and a comfortable cabin were the way of the future. By the end of 1929 the company had certificated the six-place Type 6000B (300-horsepower Wright J6-9 engine), the Type A6000B powered by a 420-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-985 radial engine, and the four-place Type 10B and 10D (Wright R-760 rated at 225 horsepower and J6-9, respectively). More than 150 “cabin jobs” had been delivered before the stock market collapse in October 1929 severely affected sales of new airplanes. By the end of 1930, production was down to a trickle and the factory closed its doors in 1931.
Meanwhile, across town at the Cessna Aircraft Company, Walter Beech’s friend and now competitor Clyde V. Cessna was enjoying initial success of the Model AA cabin monoplane, the first example of which was delivered to Edmund A. Link in February 1928. Cessna had been a strong proponent of the monoplane since 1911 when he attended an airshow in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Clyde watched famous European “bird men” Roland Garros, Rene’ Simon and American Charles Hamilton flying Bleriot monoplanes. Cessna was particularly impressed by Garros’ 12-minute flight in his Bleriot as the pilot circled the crowds below while climbing the machine ever higher. Later in his career Cessna would remark that monoplanes were “worth more to see than any of the biplanes” that dominated early aerial exhibitions.
Clyde’s goal was to design, build and sell monoplanes featuring a full-cantilever wing with no supporting struts. It was not a new concept – Anthony Fokker had been building such airplanes for years and the new Lockheed Vega cabin monoplane of 1927, designed chiefly by Jack Northrop, was both handsome and fast. Cessna’s best-selling airplane was the Model AW. Certificated in September 1928, the four-place monoplane featured a seven-cylinder, 110-horsepower Warner Scarab static, air-cooled radial engine and a maximum speed of 128 mph. In terms of overall value for the dollar (standard-equipped price of $7,500), the Model AW offered pilots good performance and fuel economy without sacrificing useful load and payload.2
Clyde’s next step was to design a six-place cabin ship that would expand the company’s product line. In 1929 Cessna introduced the Model DC-6 (17 years before the Douglas DC-6) powered by a six-cylinder Curtiss Challenger radial engine rated at 170 horsepower. Grossly underpowered, only five were built before production changed to the superior Model DC-6A and DC-6B. Certified in September 1929, the DC-6A Chief was a handsome cabin monoplane that rivaled Travel Air’s Type 6000B, as well as excellent designs by manufacturers Stinson, Buhl, Verville and others. More importantly, it used the popular and powerful Wright J6-9 radial engine that produced 300 horsepower and gave the DC-6A a respectable cruising speed of 130 mph and a service ceiling of 18,500 feet. Only 22 were built before production ceased in 1930 due to the nation’s severe economic downturn.
The Chief’s sibling was the Model DC-6B Scout powered by a 225-horsepower Wright J6-7 engine. Essentially identical to the DC-6A except for its engine, the DC-6B was priced slightly lower ($10,000) and had a cruising speed of 120 mph. The debacle on Wall Street kept production to only 22 airplanes, but in 1934-1935 the revived Cessna Aircraft Company built three Scouts from parts left over from 1931, but these used Wright J6-7 engines rated at 250 horsepower.
A few miles north of downtown Wichita the Stearman Aircraft Company, led by Lloyd C. Stearman and an aviation-savvy board of directors, was busy filling orders for the C-3B open-cockpit biplane along with the M-2 Speedmail that was designed specifically to serve the growing U.S. Air Mail network. Stearman and his chief engineer, Mac Short, took the M-2 and reworked its rugged airframe into the CAB-1 Stearman Coach. Introduced in April 1929 at the aviation exhibition held in Detroit, Michigan, the CAB-1 represented the Stearman company’s attempt to compete in the increasingly crowded enclosed cabin segment of the small airplane market.
The ship made a good impression on attendees at the Detroit show with its two-tone cream and tan color combination that was complimented by a contrasting scheme of cream and red with a black band and striping. The airplane’s major feature that set it apart from competitors was its voluminous cabin that was surrounded 360 degrees by large windows. The insulated and heated cabin was appointed with four plush, deeply upholstered seats. A baggage compartment door on the left side of the fuselage allowed easy loading/unloading of suitcases. The engine of choice was the Wright J6-9 rated at 300 horsepower turning a ground-adjustable propeller. The cockpit featured indirect lighting and a complete set of instruments for “blind flying” was standard equipment.
Flight tests revealed a maximum speed of 135 mph and a cruising speed of 115, and the ship’s large wings of generous span and area provided a gentle landing speed of 47 mph (no wing flaps installed). The service ceiling was 16,000 feet with a rate of climb (sea level) of 900 feet per minute. Maximum gross weight was a hefty 4,270 pounds with a payload of only 780 pounds. After the Detroit event, the Stearman Coach was flown on a nationwide air tour to demonstrate the airplane to Stearman Aircraft’s dealer/distributor network. Unfortunately, the CAB-1’s biplane configuration worked against its acceptance by potential customers. Just as Walter Beech had already learned with the Type 6000, by 1929 air-minded businessmen preferred cabin monoplanes that represented the way of the future for business aviation. Plans to begin production 60 days after the Detroit show were scrapped when the marketplace showed little interest in the CAB-1. The sole example was disassembled and quickly disappeared from the company’s sales literature. By the end of 1929, the Stearman Coach was only a footnote in the history of the Stearman Aircraft Company.
In yet another effort to capitalize on the M-2’s basic airframe, Lloyd Stearman and Mac Short created the LT-1 (Light Transport) that was slightly larger than the M-2 and accommodated four passengers in a cramped cabin forward of the pilot’s open cockpit. Airmail was stowed in a compartment aft of the engine. The first LT-1 built flew in July 1929 and was powered by a Wright Cyclone engine of 525 horsepower, but the three other airplanes manufactured used the Pratt & Whitney Hornet nine-cylinder, radial engine that also produced 525 horsepower.
The LT-1 was a large cabin biplane with a total wing area of 490 square feet. Weighing in at a heavy 6,250 pounds, the biplane still managed a respectable cruising speed of 115 mph and a range of 690 statute miles. Only four of the hard-working LT-1 series were built. Three of these soldiered on into the 1930s after Interstate Air Lines was absorbed by American Airlines.
Although Wichita’s airframe manufacturers were not alone in selling enclosed cabin airplanes, their products were often at the leading edge of design and offered good performance, comfort and economy for the dollar. Today’s Beechcraft owners and operators may view Travel Air’s Type 6000, Stearman’s LT-1 and Cessna’s DC-6 as nothing more than antiquated artifacts from a bygone era, but they played an important role in laying the foundation for the future of business flying.
- The Travel Air Type 5000 prototype was the first commercially-built airplane to fly from California to the Territory of Hawaii. That flight occurred in July 1927. One month later, a Type 5000 built specifically for the Dole Race to Hawaii won that event after flying for more than 24 hours from Oakland, California, to Wheeler Field, Territory of Hawaii. The airplane, named the Woolaroc, is on static display at the Frank Phillips Museum near Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
- The Model AW was Cessna’s best-selling airplane although less than 50 were delivered before the stock market crash in 1929 sent sales into an unrecoverable flat spin. In 1934, however, Cessna’s nephew Dwane Wallace, with help from young engineers Tom Salter and Jerry Gerteis, redesigned the Model AW into the Model C-34 that became known (unofficially) as the Airmaster. More than 170 C-34, C-37, C-38, C-145 and C-165 airplanes were built before the Cessna factory transitioned to wartime production in 1940.