In 1934 amid the United States’ worst economic calamity, the Stearman Aircraft Company unveiled the utilitarian Model 70 – a landmark design that saved the
company from extinction.
Throughout the early 1930s Ben Selvin and the Crooners could often be heard on the radio belting out the popular song, “Happy Days Are Here Again.” It was so popular during the Great Depression years that Democratic presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt chose it to be the theme song of his 1932 campaign to win the White House, and it would go on to become the Democratic party’s unofficial song for years to come.
By 1934 the aircraft industry in Wichita, Kansas, which had been crippled for the past four years by the nation’s economic woes, was finally experiencing a painfully slow, but authentic, recovery. Southeast of the city more than 100 men and women were working feverishly to build parts and assemblies for the all-metal, twin-engine Boeing Model 247 airline transport. East of town, the infant Beech Aircraft Company was beginning limited production of the Beechcraft Model B17L cabin biplane, and on Franklin Avenue Dwane Wallace and his brother Dwight were fighting a battle to wrest control of the defunct Cessna Aircraft Company from the incumbent board of directors. They were successful, and in January 1934 the two men forged ahead with plans to reopen the factory and manufacture the Cessna Model C-34 monoplane. Although the Beech, Cessna and Stearman companies were competitors, their leaders knew full well that it was in the best interest of them all to keep Wichita at the forefront of the country’s struggling but viable light airplane manufacturing segment.
In the wake of company founder and President Lloyd C. Stearman’s resignation in 1931, Walter P. Innes, Jr., took the reins of leadership until 1933 when Julius E. Schaefer was elected. The company remained a subsidiary of the powerful United Aircraft & Transport Corporation (UA&TC), which probably saved the business from extinction at the hands of the Great Depression.
In addition to contracts building target gliders for the Army Air Corps, the company was rebuilding 34 Boeing Model 40 cabin biplanes that had been decommissioned by United Air Lines when it began operating the Boeing 247 airliner. Schaefer planned to sell the airplanes to mining companies in Mexico, South America, small airlines in the Latin American region, as well as private individuals.
Amid all the contract work for the Army and Boeing, late in 1933 Stearman Chief Engineer Mac Short and his staff were busy completing the design of a new training biplane that company officials hoped would appeal to the United States Army Air Corps and the U.S. Navy. It was not the first time that the company had been interested in building military trainers. During 1932-1933 there was little or no business prospects for building new commercial airplanes, but the Army’s aging fleet of Consolidated PT-3 biplanes needed replacement.
More than 460 of the stout ships had been built and the type had rendered excellent service since the mid-1920s. Before his departure in 1931, however, Lloyd Stearman had designed the Model 6 Cloudboy – a utilitarian, two-place, open-cockpit biplane intended to be the company’s entry-level product. The Model 6 met all of the Army’s requirements, but only four (designated YPT-9) were built for evaluation and service testing. Unfortunately, the YPT-9 was rejected, along with other competitors, in favor of the Consolidated YPT-11.
Despite failure to secure its first military contract, the Stearman Aircraft Company, Julius Schaefer and Mac Short had learned valuable lessons that would soon help pave the way for future business with the U.S. Army and Navy. The new design, designated Model 70, was conceived on speculation and without any funding from the federal government. Although debate still rages within the ranks of Stearman aficionados as to exactly who designed the Model 70, the most likely scenario includes Short and two other engineers, Harold W. Zipp and J. Jack Clark. The trio took the Spartan Model 6 Cloudboy and upgraded the airframe by adding a number of features, some of which had not been employed on any previous Stearman aircraft.
Chief among these was a full cantilever main landing gear that provided a compact, uncluttered installation and reduced parasite drag. Next, the ailerons were mounted only on the lower wing panels and the fuselage’s circular cross section generally resembled that of the handsome Model 80. Last, a new empennage design was incorporated that featured adjustable trim tabs on the trailing edge of the elevator surfaces. Overall, at least on paper, the team believed they had succeeded in creating a modern, rugged and affordable airplane well suited for training fledglings.1
The first and only Model 70 built was Stearman constructor number (serial number) 701 and was registered initially as X571Y (X=Experimental). The biplane not only boasted attractive lines but was designed to withstand the rigors of military pilot training.
The welded steel tube fuselage was stressed to meet Army Air Corps specifications of +12G and -9G, which allowed execution of the many aerobatic maneuvers that were standard fare for a flying cadet. To power the latest Stearman design, a nine-cylinder Lycoming R-680 static, air-cooled radial engine rated at 210 horsepower was installed.
When the ship was completed, assembled, rigged and fully prepared for its first flight, the company’s test pilot David “Deed” Levy closely inspected every inch of the biplane. Satisfied that all was in order, he donned his parachute and climbed into the aft cockpit. Early on the morning of Jan. 1, 1934, the Model 70 took to the cold skies over Wichita. After wringing out the airplane, Levy landed and reported that it flew well and exhibited no bad habits.
Levy continued to fly the Model 70 and probed every aspect of its handling characteristics and performance. Late in January, however, Julius Schaefer was anxious to demonstrate the airplane to the military, particularly the Army Air Corps, which agreed to evaluate the ship. The epicenter of Air Corps flight testing and experimentation during the 1930s was Wright Field near Dayton, Ohio. Arrangements were made with the Army, and soon Schaefer and Mac Short arrived by rail in Dayton to witness the flights. The Air Corps and Navy pilots liked the Model 70 and had high praise for the airplane’s handling, but they found its stall break much too gentle for a primary trainer – they preferred a sharp, unmistakable break so cadets could learn early in their training how to identify and recover from a full stall. From Ohio, Levy flew the ship to Naval Air Station Anacostia near Washington, D.C., and later flew south to the Navy’s primary pilot training base in Pensacola, Florida, where the ship was evaluated further.
To eliminate the airplane’s benign stall warning, Mac Short had his engineers design and install narrow, triangular strips of wood on the upper and lower wing panels along the outer span. Known as stall strips, at high angles of attack, the shape of the wood disrupted airflow across the wing surface forcing a more abrupt and unmistakable stall break.
Schaefer and Short were pleased that the Model 70 clearly had made a good impression on the Army Air Corps. It was, however, the Navy that first showed serious interest in the airplane. Early in 1934 the Stearman Aircraft Company was invited to submit a quote for a primary trainer based on the Model 70 design. It would need to comply with Navy specifications and use the aging, but reliable, nine-cylinder, air-cooled Wright Aeronautical J5 radial engine that produced 200 horsepower. The Navy had a supply of the powerplants in storage and their use would save a significant amount of money, which a Depression-strapped Congress was reluctant to spend on the military.
Stearman officials submitted the lowest possible quote, and in May 1934 the Navy ordered 41 airplanes designated NS-1 (plus enough spares to build another 20 of the trainers.) The contract marked a turning point for the company and the Wichita Eagle newspaper also recognized the importance of the sale to the city: “Drama lies behind the simple, businesslike announcement of the factory, for Wichita, metropolis of the Plains, thus is accorded a large part in the buildup of the nation’s sea forces more than a thousand miles away. Despite determined work on the part of Wichita plane builders and air enthusiasts, few large military contracts have been awarded factories here. The big order accorded the Stearman plant is thought to have broken down this barrier and to point the way to national recognition of Wichita as capital of the air whether in peace or war.”2
Fortunately for Julius Schaefer and his band of workers, the wisdom of UA&TC back in 1930 to build a new, larger factory was about to pay off. The company had more than enough square footage to easily meet the Navy contract and no additional workers were needed. The only personnel change was the appointment of a naval officer to oversee production and ensure each biplane complied with the Navy’s specifications. With raw materials in hand, the same men and women who built the Model 70 now cut spruce and sewed cotton fabric to construct the first NS-1 (Stearman Model 73, c/n 73001, Navy serial number 9677) that was completed in December.
It is interesting to note that only a few months before the Navy contract was awarded, Schaefer and his associates were deeply concerned about the ramifications of the U.S. government’s attempt to break up large holding companies such as UA&TC, charging that these organizations were by their very nature monopolistic and threatened to dominate entire industries. Corporate executives, however, quickly realized how to circumvent any prohibition against restraint of trade by creating holding companies that acquired securities and, therefore, control of member companies.
In response, Congress passed the Clayton Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act in 1934. The Clayton Act prohibited stock acquisitions that could lessen competition as well as forbidding price discrimination. As for the Federal Trade Commission, it was specifically tasked with the responsibility of preventing companies from engaging in unfair methods of competition. In the wake of these laws, UA&TC reinvented itself, with the Stearman Aircraft Company becoming affiliated with the renamed Boeing Aircraft Company.
It was not surprising that the changes made by UA&TC sparked wild rumors in Wichita. Chief among these was speculation that the Stearman factory soon would be closed, everyone would be laid off and the company relocated to the East or West Coast. Julius Schaefer quickly doused such rumors and assured employees that the reorganization would result only in the company becoming a subsidiary of Boeing. Schaefer also told stockholders and the local press that Stearman’s business “was found to be in splendid shape” with one large contract for the Navy’s NS-1 trainer well underway with “prospects of other orders from the United States Army as well.”3
Schaefer’s prediction soon proved to be true when the Army Air Corps expressed serious interest in an improved version of the Model 73 primary trainer. Late in the summer of 1934 Mac Short and his crew had begun modifying the Model 73 into the Model 75. It was identical to the Navy’s NS-1 except for a new main landing gear and installation of a seven-cylinder, Wright Aeronautical R-760 radial engine rated at 225 horsepower.
The prototype (Stearman c/n 75000, registered X14407) was evaluated by the Army as the XPT-945. After the engine was changed to the nine-cylinder Lycoming R-680 radial rated at 225 horsepower, further flight tests were completed but no orders were forthcoming because the Air Corps had no funding to acquire training aircraft. By February 1935, however, the financial situation had improved and the Army issued Stearman Aircraft a specification and requested a bid. In April the company replied and the Model 75 was reevaluated by the service. Much to the delight of Schaefer and Short, the Air Corps signed up for 20 airplanes (plus spares sufficient to build another six trainers) designated PT-13 to be powered by the Lycoming engine.
Fortunately, by 1935 the modernization of America’s air fleets by the Army and Navy was picking up momentum. Almost daily the newspapers told of Japanese aggression in Manchuria and Japan’s dream of establishing an “East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” that would swallow up much of the Pacific Rim. As for Europe, Adolf Hitler had become “Fuhrer” – the undisputed ruler of Germany – and had set his sights on expanding “lebensraum” (living space) for the German people, and to the south Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was dreaming of creating another Roman Empire in the Mediterranean region.
In the summer of 1935 Julius Schaefer went to Washington for a week of special conferences with Army and Navy officials. Of chief concern was whether Stearman Aircraft’s manufacturing capabilities could meet the War Department’s anticipated future demand for new training airplanes. While in the nation’s capital, Schaefer met with Harry H. Woodring, President Roosevelt’s assistant secretary of war and a former governor of Kansas. He informed Schaefer that the government would soon be awarding contracts to the company to build 46 aircraft – 26 for the Army Air Corps (total cost $243,578) and another 20 for the Navy (total cost $150,373). Stearman’s president was elated and returned home to share the good news with his fellow workers and Wichitans. Including existing work to fill the Navy contract for 41 NS-1 ships, Schaefer expressed confidence that the two additional contracts would keep the factory busy for at least the next 18 months.
The latest orders from the War Department were part of an expansion program by the Air Corps to increase its strength to more than 2,300 aircraft from the existing 1,800. In 1935 Congress had appropriated $23 million for new armaments, including contracts to build bombers, fighters and transports, but the chiefs of the air and sea knew those appropriations fell woefully short of what the Army and Navy required to properly prepare for the next global conflict. As one newspaper put it: “Despite an unexpected increase of nearly 500 aircraft this year, War Department officials see little hope of materially increasing the Air Corps’ strength until larger appropriations are made or funds allotted from other sources.”4
To make matters worse, by 1936 it was becoming increasingly obvious to President Roosevelt, senior members of Congress and high-ranking military officers that the world was on the verge of becoming an unsafe place once again. There was little hope that the impotent League of Nations, born out of the horrors of World War I, would be able to defuse any potential flashpoints before they ignited World War II.
As the crippling economic crisis in American began to fade, Wichita’s aviation industry, and particularly the Stearman Aircraft Company, were poised for a manufacturing renaissance unequaled since the reckless days of the “Roarin’ Twenties.” As the late 1930s unfolded, the city’s aeronautical chieftains, Walter Beech, Dwane Wallace and Julius Schaefer, could not have imagined the part each would play in making America the “Arsenal of Democracy.”
- Dwane Wallace and his engineers also designed a cantilever, fixed main landing gear for the new Cessna Model C-34, and other light aircraft of the day also featured similar configurations.
- Wichita Eagle, May 17, 1934, Page 5.
- Wichita Eagle, Sept. 18, 1934, Page 5.
- Wichita Eagle, July 4, 1935, Page 5.