In 1927, more than 11 years after he completed the first airplane built in Wichita, Clyde V. Cessna unveiled the Phantom cabin monoplane – a landmark design that paved the way for creation of the Cessna-Roos Aircraft Company.
As the cold winter winds of 1926 blew into Wichita, Kansas, Clyde Cessna was entering his second year as president of the infant Travel Air Manufacturing Company. Although the enterprise was slowly establishing itself as a builder of rugged and dependable biplanes, Clyde was growing increasingly restless. He was anxious for the company to design and build its first monoplane, preferably one with a full cantilever wing configuration.
Travel Air’s fat order book, however, prevented any such ambitious plans as customers plunked down $3,500 to buy their own Model “A” biplanes. Sometime during January or February, Clyde approached Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman to ask if they would object to his building a monoplane on his own time and at his own expense outside of the company. There was no objection and both men wished him success. Cessna rented a small workshop on the west side of town, and by March initial construction was underway.1
Clyde had been working for months on the monoplane’s design, often laboring well into the night at his home on South Green Avenue. The airplane would feature an enclosed cabin for five occupants surrounded by generous window area, and a semi-cantilever wing spanning 44 feet was mounted above the cabin. To those who knew Clyde well, it was no surprise that the ship would be powered by an Anzani static, air-cooled radial engine – a type that Cessna had been using since 1914. The 10-cylinder powerplant developed 110 horsepower, and Clyde estimated that the airplane would be capable of carrying up to 1,000 pounds of passengers, fuel and lightweight cargo.
On June 14 with Cessna at the controls, the monoplane took to the skies on its maiden flight that lasted about 20 minutes. Clyde was satisfied that the monoplane met his basic expectations, and the next day Walter Beech flew the ship and was impressed with what his friend and business associate had created in such a relatively short period of time. Beech went so far as to suggest that the airplane held promise as the first Travel Air with one wing.2
Although the Type 5000 was a successful design for the young company, Cessna was not content. He wanted to upgrade the airplane with a full-cantilever wing that would eliminate drag-producing lift struts that supported the existing wing. There was no doubt in Walter Beech’s mind that Clyde’s design had demonstrated the merits of monoplanes, but he and the board of directors were skeptical about building a full-cantilever wing.
Clyde knew it was time to strike out on his own, and in January he informed Walter that he was resigning from the company to start his own business. Beech was sorry to see him go, but he offered encouragement and wished Clyde only success. They respected each other’s view on airplane design and construction and remained good friends for the remainder of their lives. Another reason for Cessna’s decision came from three Wichita businessmen who offered to buy Clyde’s (privately-held) stock in Travel Air. Profits from that transaction would soon allow him to realize his long-standing desire to build and sell “Monoplanes Cessna.”
Word spread quickly around town that Cessna was planning to create a new company. Cornered one day by the local press, Clyde told them that “Monoplanes are the only worthwhile type of aircraft.” With that statement he had set his course. Cessna would remain in Wichita where he intended to design, manufacture and sell airplanes bearing his name and featuring a full-cantilever wing. During the past 11 years he had believed such a structure was technically feasible, and now he would attempt to turn his convictions into reality.3
A few months later in April 1927, Cessna told the press that he was establishing the Cessna Aircraft Company with assets of two airplane designs, one employee and lots of optimism for the future. The two airplanes featured full-cantilever wings. One design, unofficially dubbed the Cessna All Purpose, would carry three occupants, have a wingspan of 36 feet and a 100-horsepower radial engine. Its sister ship, the Cessna Common, featured a wing span of 47 feet, would carry up to five people and be powered by a Wright J-4 radial engine rated at 200 horsepower.
Clyde rented a small workshop, hired a few local, skilled craftsmen who had experience building airplanes, and began construction of the three-place ship, now renamed the Phantom. The fuselage dimensions were carefully outlined in chalk on the shop floor before the steel tubing was tack-welded to check alignment, then the fuselage was transferred to a wood jig for final welding.
Clyde knew the major challenge would be designing and building the full-cantilever wing structure to withstand the torsional and bending forces imposed during flight. Cessna tackled the problem two ways: he overbuilt the wing and hired Joseph Newell – the highly respected professor of aeronautical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to perform the complicated stress analysis of the wing.
Clyde knew that the new Aeronautics Branch of the U.S. government’s Department of Commerce (DOC), which was responsible for issuance of Approved Type Certificates for new aircraft, would give the wing design a particularly stringent evaluation. Therefore, Newell’s expertise would be essential if Cessna was to gain Federal Government approval to build and sell production aircraft. Soon a raft of technical drawings were sent to Newell so he could begin his analysis.4
A prototype airplane, now renamed the Phantom, first flew in August 1927 with Romer Weyant at the controls. Upon landing he reported that the ship flew well, but that during maneuvers some torsional vibrations of the wing occurred. The problem was traced to weak wire bracing within the structure. The installation of additional wires of greater diameter apparently resolved the issue.
Cessna was pleased with the airplane’s initial performance, and so was Victor Roos, a motorcycle dealer from Omaha, Nebraska. After learning about the Phantom’s successful flight, he approached Clyde about forming a partnership. Roos was a superb salesman and liked what he saw in the sleek monoplane. It was a fresh and unique design that he believed held promise in the emerging market for small commercial airplanes. By August the two men had reached an agreement and the Cessna-Roos Aircraft Company was born. The two men had equipment and materials that had to be incorporated into the new company. Among these were 67 Anzani 10-cylinder radial engines, aircraft-quality wood, sheet metal and tooling.
It had already become apparent that the workshop (50 feet 75 feet) was completely inadequate for the manufacture of production airplanes. A new factory complex, to be located on the city’s west side, was quickly approved by management and a local contractor was soon at work breaking ground for the facility.5
As autumn approached a second airplane was under construction in the downtown workshop, and there were sufficient materials to build another 12 Phantoms. In October a third prototype monoplane had been completed and made a successful first flight. The latest version featured a few modifications, including lengthening the fuselage to 25 feet from 23 feet, increasing total wing area by 50 square feet, redesigned wing ribs and four thickly-padded seats were installed in the fully upholstered cabin. A 200-horsepower Wright Whirlwind radial engine powered the ship.
The Cessna-Roos Aircraft Company’s monoplane was nearly ready for production. Newell had been working hard to complete the multi-faceted stress analysis of the monoplane’s airframe, followed by preparing and submitting a plethora of highly detailed documentation to the Bureau of Aeronautics for perusal by government aeronautical engineers. Earlier in the process Newell had notified Cessna that the original wing design was both overweight and overbuilt. As a result, he assured Clyde that production wings could be built lighter without sacrificing strength or safety factor.
When inspectors at the Bureau of Aeronautics reviewed Newell’s work, they advised the professor and Cessna that the company could proceed with deliveries to customers pending award of an Approved Type Certificate. Newell’s hard work had paid off. Later,
he traveled to Wichita to personally observe all the static tests for the entire airframe, and particularly the wing. These tests were conducted at the Cessna factory and strictly supervised by a DOC inspector who carefully documented every step of the process.
The DOC’s static test of a wood wing was often a long and tedious process, often requiring days to complete. To evaluate the wood wing under various load conditions it was placed upside down on a special fixture designed to simulate various high angles of attack. The structure was divided into six sections along the wing’s 40-foot, two-inch span and three sections along the chord. That particular arrangement was deemed necessary so that loads could be applied to accurately simulate stresses encountered during flight. To simulate G-forces imposed on the structure, heavily-loaded sandbags were placed on the wing. As testing progressed, more weight was placed along the wing’s span. No failures occurred anywhere in the structure until weight equivalent to a load factor of 6.0 was applied. A four-foot section of the leading edge located about three feet from the root, began to yield but did not fail until a load factor of 6.5 was imposed.
To correct the problem, Newell instructed Cessna engineers to install both additional ribs and wider capstrips in the affected area. Drawings were prepared and approved, and production wings already on the assembly line were quickly modified to comply with the change.
When a load factor of 6.5 was achieved without failure, sandbags were added until a load factor of 7.0 and finally 8.0 was attained. Fortunately, the main and secondary spars carried the load, with the wing bending downward so far that the tips were only one-half inch above the floor. The inspector then called for workers to push down on the tips vigorously, then quickly release the tips to observe the reaction. Once again, the structure did not fail. The static test was considered complete when the wing could not be loaded with any more sandbags because the wingtips were resting on the floor.
After all the sandbags had been removed, the entire wing structure was examined carefully to detect any sign of internal buckling, distortion or separation of wood plies. In the wake of the tests, Cessna’s sturdy wing design was approved by the Bureau of Aeronautics for production monoplanes powered by the 90-horsepower Anzani, 110-horsepower Warner Scarab and 125-horsepower Siemens-Halske radial engines (later, airplanes powered by the 130-horsepower Comet powerplant were added to the list).
Although Clyde was pleased that his design had won government approval, the factory was nowhere near completion. Until it was, impatient customers would not be receiving their new monoplanes. By mid-December, however, overworked construction crews had completed the main buildings and were being replaced by Cessna employees hurriedly installing equipment, tooling and other machinery.
Up to this point in his partnership with Clyde Cessna, Victor Roos had been content to remain in the background, but as 1927 drew to a close he became openly displeased with the way Cessna and other members of the company’s board of directors were conducting day-to-day operations. During a meeting Roos declared his objections to “proposed plans and changes” for the enterprise that included changing the name to “The Cessna Aircraft Company.” Although no action was taken during the meeting, it was obvious to everyone present that tensions were beginning to rise between Roos and his colleagues.6
At the next meeting the controversy resurfaced and this time, sparks flew. Roos vehemently objected to any alteration of the company’s name, claiming it would be detrimental to the business at a time when production was about to begin. In addition, he claimed the change was a clear injustice to him personally. Adding insult to injury, the board of directors also refused to meet Roos’ demand for compensation, and he resigned on the spot. The disgruntled motorcycle salesman was soon employed to manage the Swallow Aircraft Company across town.
With Victor Roos out of the picture at last, the Charter Board of the State of Kansas approved “The Cessna Aircraft Company” corporate name. As Christmas approached, 20 employees were building six airplanes in the new factory in addition to four that had been completed since the company started operations five months earlier.7
The year 1927 had been a hectic, stressful, but productive 12 months for Clyde Cessna and the company that bore his name. He had succeeded in attaining government approval to sell his full-cantilever wing monoplanes powered by various radial engines, built a new factory, was in the process of forging a nationwide sales and marketing team, and had signed up dealers and distributors coast-to-coast to promote and sell his airplanes.
Of the 284 aircraft granted an Approved Type Certificate (ATC) by the DOC during 1927, Cessna was awarded two; one for the Model AA (ATC 65) and the other for the Model AW (ATC 72). Limited production versions, such as the Model AC (Comet engine), Model AF (Floco/Axelson engine) and Model AS (Siemens-Halske engine) were approved under the DOC’s Group Two process. Group Two approvals allowed airframe manufacturers such as Cessna to offer one airframe that could be powered by different radial engines without having to seek an ATC for each configuration.
The year 1928 would witness rapid growth for the Cessna Aircraft Company as it gained a solid reputation for building fast and efficient monoplanes. Cessna’s airplanes would find their way onto the front pages of national newspapers, bask in the winner’s circle at air races and increase Wichita’s fame from coast-to-coast. Clyde would make his mark on aviation and testify to the world that “Monoplanes are the only worthwhile type of aircraft.”
- “Hearsay history” has long claimed that Cessna and Beech clashed over the design merits of biplanes and monoplanes. While it is true that Cessna believed that monoplanes were superior to biplanes in terms of both aerodynamics and speed, there is no evidence to support the “myth” that Clyde resigned from Travel Air in the wake of arguments with Beech, who firmly supported biplanes.
- During the second half of 1926 Clyde’s design did serve as the basis for development of Travel Air’s Type 5000 cabin monoplane that first flew in December. One month later Travel Air won a contract from National Air Transport for eight of the monoplanes. The production ships would be larger overall and powered by nine-cylinder Wright J-5 radial engines.
- Full-cantilever wings were not a new development. One example was the famous Dutch designer Anthony Fokker’s DVIII fighter of World War I that boasted a full-cantilever wing, and during the 1920s Fokker’s series of large transports featured wings with no supporting struts. It was, however, unusual to employ that structure on a small aircraft. The Lockheed Vega of 1927 (designed by Jack Northrop) is an excellent example of a full-cantilever monoplane design.
- It is important to understand that in 1927 stress analysis of commercial aircraft structures was still evolving. The science was relatively new and was based largely on procedures developed by the U.S. military to evaluate the airframe structures of fighters and bombers. Proper analysis required a thorough understanding of mathematical equations and how to apply them properly to a structure. In the late 1920s few builders of small airplanes had someone on staff qualified to do the computations required. In October 1927 the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Aeronautics issued manufacturers a Handbook for Airplane Designers to guide engineers as to methods of distributing loads and analysis of structures prior to submitting paperwork required to obtain an ATC. The Handbook supplemented the Air Commerce Regulations that became effective on December 31, 1926.
- The facility was large enough that Cessna and Roos offered to rent part of the factory to Lloyd Stearman, who had recently returned to Wichita from California. Lloyd, along with chief engineer Mac Short and pilot Fred Hoyt, had struggled to sell Stearman biplanes on the West Coast since November 1926. Stearman, however, declined, preferring to start production of the C-3-series biplanes in the old Jones Motor car buildings north of downtown, where Cessna had constructed the first airplane built in Wichita 11 years earlier.
- From the beginning of his association with the company, Victor Roos had been considered an outsider by some members of the board of directors who firmly believed that Clyde Cessna should be in charge. Roos found such a proposal totally unacceptable.
- According to records, as of December 1927 a combined total of 974 airplanes had been built in Wichita since 1919. These would include airplanes built by E.M. Laird, the Swallow Aircraft Company, Travel Air Manufacturing Company and the Cessna Aircraft Company.