In 1928 Tinseltown’s Wallace Beery paid Walter H. Beech $18,500 cash for a custom-built Travel Air Type A6000A cabin monoplane that, in terms of luxury, performance and quality, foreshadowed the Beechcraft King Air that flew 36 years later.
On a typical business day late in 1927, Walter H. Beech, president of the Travel Air Manufacturing Company located in Wichita, Kansas, sat at his desk puffing on his ubiquitous pipe. By this time in his career Walter had traded the open cockpit of a biplane for the comfort of a spacious office, and a fur-lined flying suit and leather goggles for a custom-made, three-piece business suit and tie.
Since taking the helm of the company following the resignation of pioneer aviator Clyde V. Cessna and talented designer Lloyd C. Stearman, Walter had begun to build Travel Air into one of America’s foremost airframe manufacturers. As one of Wichita’s earliest aviation enterprises, Travel Air had grown from a product line of one biplane, the 1925 Model A, to nearly half a dozen biplanes and one monoplane. Although most of Travel Air ships built were being bought by sportsman pilots, flying schools and clubs, as well as air taxi operators, Beech noticed that an increasing number of businessmen were buying airplanes and using them for business travel – air travel. The country’s extensive railway system was an important asset, but trains were slow compared to the speed of an airplane, and that meant more time doing business and less time riding the rails and enduring layovers.
Walter Beech decided it was time to expand the product line further by offering a cabin monoplane designed with the businessman in mind. The company had been building monoplanes since 1926, and in August 1927 Hollywood stunt pilot Arthur Goebel and navigator William Davis had flown a Type 5000 dubbed the Woolaroc from California to Wheeler Field, Territory of Hawaii, to win the Dole Race and $25,000 in first prize money.
The Type 5000, however, was not marketable as a business aircraft. It was designed primarily for short-haul airline and light cargo service and was far too utilitarian inside and out to meet the needs of the businessman. As a result, Walter took action. He ordered an in-depth market survey (one of the earliest for aviation) to find out if businessmen would buy a Travel Air cabin monoplane, a fresh, modern design where they could conduct business aloft in shirtsleeve comfort instead of a cold, noisy open cockpit. The businessman who flew was a new marketing opportunity for all airplane manufacturers, and Beech intended to keep Travel Air ahead of the competition.
The company’s chief engineer, Horace Weihmiller, listened to Walter as he explained his concept for the businessman’s Travel Air. It would have to be fast, powerful, have a two-place cockpit, wheel brakes, and above all, a spacious cabin that could be equipped with useful options such as a lavatory with hot/cold running water, a typewriter, a desk and perhaps a mimeograph machine and a Dictaphone. In addition, Beech dispatched the company’s sales and marketing manager, Owen G. Harned, to the East Coast where he visited businessmen in major cities to determine what they thought a cabin monoplane should possess.
Based on the market survey and Harned’s interviews, the decision was made to design and build a prototype business aircraft designated the Type 6000. Billed by Beech as the “Limousine of the Air,” by the spring of 1928 Weihmiller and his engineering staff completed design and construction of a prototype (serial number 230, registered X4765) that first flew on April 15 with chief test pilot Clarence Clark at the controls.
In June Walter flew the ship in the Kansas Air Tour and nearly 100,000 people saw the airplane. Among those were company officials and executives, and Walter was kept busy flying demonstrations. By August it was clear that businessmen wanted the Type 6000. The only serious complaint heard by both Beech and Harned during flight demonstrations was that the cabin was too small. As a result, the Type 6000 was redesigned and enlarged to become the Type 6000B with a larger cabin, six seats, a more powerful radial engine and improved overall performance.
In the fall of 1928 Walter, accompanied by Harned and a few friends, flew a Type 6000B to attend the Los Angeles Aeronautical Exposition. Many demonstration flights were conducted by Beech and Owen Harned and a few firm orders were received. Among those signing up for a flight was a famous Hollywood actor named Wallace Beery (see sidebar). An active pilot, Beery had been flying an aging Travel Air Type BW biplane and although he told Beech that he liked the “old crate,” he was highly impressed by the performance and comfort of the big monoplane.
Beery was so impressed that he sat down with Walter and ordered a custom-built ship for his personal use. It was, however, not a Type 6000B powered by a nine-cylinder Wright R-975 static, air-cooled radial engine that produced 300 horsepower. What Beery wanted was the ultimate Travel Air – the new Type A-6000-A that had been developed by the company. Beery wanted a number of custom features incorporated into the airplane that Walter agreed could be accomplished for a price. When Walter gave him an estimate of what the ship would cost – a whopping $20,0001 – Beery never flinched!
Although the production Type 6000B boasted a stout airframe that could accommodate more than 300 horsepower, the Type A-6000-A would be powered by the fire-breathing Pratt & Whitney Wasp Jr” radial engine rated at 420 horsepower. Today the engine is generally known as the Pratt & Whitney R-985 rated at 450 horsepower at 2,300 RPM, with a bore and stroke of 5.2 inches and weighing 653 pounds (dry weight with no accessories).2
When Beech returned to Wichita, he quickly ordered the engineering department to work out details of modifying the Type 6000B to accommodate the big Wasp powerplant. Beery’s airplane, however, shared the same basic airframe of the Wright J6-9-powered Type 6000B: The forward cabin was widened four inches and lengthened five inches, while the width of the aft fuselage forward of the empennage was increased five inches. The throttle quadrant was essentially the same with throttle, mixture and spark advance/retard levers placed within easy reach of the pilot.
Other major changes were hidden from view. Engineers added steel tube bracing in specific areas of the wings to handle the stress induced by the Wasp, and total wing area was increased to 340 square feet from 282 square feet to allow for larger fuel tanks (130 gallons total) to feed the thirsty Pratt & Whitney engine.
In addition, the crank mechanisms that raised and lowered the cabin windows were improved and di-mensions of the windows increased to 32 15 inches to increase visibility. A larger tailwheel, non-steerable would be installed along with Bendix wheel brakes with 36 8-inch tires. The interior would include a large divan, lavatory, and a porcelain sink with hot/cold running water. Although the passenger and pilot seats were standard wicker construction, Beery specified that the cushions be covered with a specially-ordered, thick, plush mauve-colored velour cloth. The final touch would be a folding table mounted in the cabin for writing and playing cards.
In early December 1928, Beery’s ship was completed and ready for flight tests. Clarence Clark took the big monoplane aloft for a series of checks to ensure it was ready for delivery. It was during one of the early flights that the fabric ripped away from the upper fuselage because of the airplane’s higher cruise speed that approached 130 miles per hour. An engineering “fix” was quickly developed and applied that solved the problem (the “fix” later became standard on all A-6000-A ships built).
On December 14 Walter sent William “Pete” Hill on a short road trip from Wichita northeast to Newton, Kansas, where Beery had landed in his Type BW after a leisurely, multi-stop, cross-county flight from California. The famous thespian was suf-fering from a bout with influenza but retained his cheery disposition. He was accompanied by George H. “Slim” Maves, who would be overseeing the care and preventive maintenance of the new Travel Air. As with Beery, Maves held a Transport License.
After arriving at the factory on East Central Avenue, Beery was given a warm welcome by Walter Beech and escorted on a tour of Travel Air’s extensive facilities. Next, he was introduced to the ladies in the business office including the manager, Olive Ann Mellor. He chatted with Olive Ann and the others before remembering with a chuckle that he had some unfinished business with Ms. Mellor – he still owed Travel Air the balance of $10,000 on his airplane. Grinning ear-to-ear, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a huge wad of greenbacks secured around the middle by a rubber band. He handed $10,000 in cash to Olive Ann, took his receipt stating, “Paid in full” and bid farewell to the ladies as he was whisked off to Walter’s office. The three girls had never seen $10,000 in cash. Olive Ann allowed each one of them to hold the wad in their hands for a few moments before placing it in the company safe for deposit. 3
That afternoon Walter, Beery and Maves inspected the Wasp-powered monoplane. It was accepted by Beery who expressed his enthusiasm about every detail of the airplane. Later that evening Wallace and Walter went to the Crown Uptown Theater to view a flying movie before retiring for the night. The next day Beery flew the ship with Pete Hill on a familiarization flight to learn how to best handle the Travel Air, and then took off with Maves for a two-hour flight.
Accompanied by Maves as a passenger, Beery flew the airplane back to Los Angeles, California, stopping along the way at Tucson, Arizona, on December 18. According to the Davis-Monthan Aviation Field Register, on March 14, 1929, Beery landed again at Tucson with a load of five passengers on board the Travel Air, enroute from Los Angeles to El Paso, Texas. When Travel Air finally received an Approved Type Certificate for the A-6000-A in March 1929, it stipulated that existing airplanes be reworked with a larger empennage. Soon after Beery’s flight to El Paso, the airplane was flown to Wichita for the required modifications that were completed on March 22.
Sadly, the Travel Air was destroyed in a crash on March 25, 1930, at Alhambra, California. Piloted by Maves, who was accompanied by his wife Cynthia and friend Lynn Hayes, eyewitness reports stated that the airplane “nose-dived” into the ground during final approach for landing. The occupants were burned beyond recognition and the monoplane was destroyed. When asked about the accident, Beery told the press that Maves was never permitted to fly the airplane and Beery was unaware that he had used the airplane for a personal flight.
According to the FAA Aircraft Registry, a license for Travel Air Type A-6000-A, serial number 816, registered NC9015, was cancelled on April 25, 1930, bringing to an inglorious end the short, two-year career of Wallace Beery’s Hollywood Travel Air.
1. Beery’s monoplane was the most expensive Travel Air built by the company. The second most expensive monoplane was “Smiling Thru” – a Type 6000B custom-built for the Automatic Washer Company (later Maytag). It was lavishly equipped as a flying office for company president H.L. Ogg. With the office equipment removed from the cabin, the airplane could carry three washing machines for demonstrations, powered by a special 12-volt auxiliary power supply.
2. Smith, Herschel; “A History of Aircraft Piston Engines;” Sunflower University Press, Manhattan, Kansas, 1986.
After World War One engine development in the United States centered primarily on water-cooled, upright 12-cylinder designs such as the famous “Liberty” powerplant. It was the work of Charles L. Lawrence that led to development of the first practical static-air-cooled radial engine manufactured in America. In 1921 he built the J-1: a nine-cylinder radial that produced 180 horsepower. It was followed by the J-2 of 200 horsepower that became the foundation for development of the famous J-4 and J-5 engines that powered many aircraft in the late 1920s, including Travel Air biplanes and propelled Charles A. Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis” across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Paris.
3. In 1981 the scene was recounted to the author by Madge Doyle who was working in the office that memorable day. She remembered Beery’s deep, gruff voice and his pleasing demeanor, but it was holding and smelling that wad of $10,000 that left the most lasting impression on her.
Hollywood’s Wallace Beery
Wallace Fitzgerald Beery was not only one of Hollywood’s top ten, highest-paid actors during the 1920s and early 1930s, but he was an avid supporter of aviation, a licensed pilot and owner of a number of airplanes during his career including a Travel Air Type BW biplane and the powerful Type A-6000-A cabin monoplane.
Born in Clay County, Missouri, in April 1885, Beery began his acting career in 1904 when he joined his older brother Noah Beery, Sr., in New York City. Wallace sang in comic operas and later appeared on Broadway in The Belle of the West in 1905 before landing a role in The Yankee Tourist that gained him notable recognition. Before the outbreak of World War I Beery had established himself as a star of comedy films before moving on to play more serious roles as a villain, including his portrayal in 1933 of Mexican partisan Pancho Villa in Viva Villa!
Beery also acted in films based on history such as King Richard I in Robin Hood, alongside Hollywood movie titan Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. In 1930 Beery reached true stardom in Min and Bill that proved to be a box office hit despite the Great Depression. He also found success in The Champ, for which he received an Academy Award (shared with Frederic March) in 1931, and The Secret Six where he played a gangster and shared the marquis with Clark Gable and starlet Jean Harlow.
Beery’s first aviation movie was Hell Divers produced in in 1932, once again teaming up with the young but rising star, Clark Gable. The film, in which Beery portrays Chief Petty Officer “Windy” Riker as a veteran aerial gunner in a squadron of Curtiss Helldiver biplanes, includes rare footage of flight operations aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Saratoga. In 1935 he played seasoned flight instructor “Big Mike” Stone in West Point of the Air – an epic Hollywood production that centered on the rigors of training Army Air Corps cadets at Randolph Field, Texas. The film includes excellent footage of Fleet primary trainers.
By 1928 Beery’s flying career was taking off. He had earned a Transport License from the Department of Commerce and frequently flew his Travel Air Type BW open-cockpit biplane powered by a Wright J4 static,
air-cooled radial engine rated at 200 horsepower. After owning the Type A-600-A Beery flew a number of other airplanes including a Howard DGA-11. In 1935 he was com-missioned a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve and posted to Naval Reserve Air Base Long Beach, California.
On April 15, 1949, Beery was reading a newspaper in his home in Beverly Hills, California, when he collapsed and died of a heart attack. He was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. In 1960 Beery was posthumously awarded a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame.