In 1926 the Travel Air Manufacturing Company offered pilots the “Type BH” biplane powered by the superb Hispano-Suiza V-8 engine.
In an effort to expand the Travel Air Manufacturing Company’s product line, Walter Beech and the engineering department mated the proven Type “B” airframe with the war-surplus Hispano-Suiza engine rated at 180 horsepower. Following the end of World War I, supplies of the “Hisso,” as it was commonly called, were available to buyers, but to keep prices as low as possible Travel Air offered their ships with the inexpensive and ubiquitous Curtiss OX-5 and OXX-6 engines rated at 90- and 100-horspeower, respectfully.
In 1925, its first year in business, the Wichita, Kansas-based company sold 19 airplanes and held orders for more as 1926 dawned. To increase production, Walter Beech, Clyde Cessna and the board of directors relocated manufacturing to West Douglas Avenue where 30 employees struggled to keep pace with growing demand for Travel Air airplanes.
Development of the Type “BH” began with the Type “BW” that was introduced in March 1926. The latter was powered by the new, nine-cylinder Wright J-4B static, air-cooled radial engine rated at 200 horsepower. The engine was manufactured by the Wright Aeronautical Corporation and cost nearly $6,000 – nearly double the price of a factory-fresh OX-5-powered biplane – the company’s “bread and butter” and bestselling model. A local Wichita oilman named W.B. “Skipper” Howe plunked down his money for a J-4-powered ship that would cost him a whopping $9,800 when delivered.
The Type BW first flew in March with Beech at the controls. According to Bob Phelps, one of the Travel Air’s original employees and an eyewitness to the flight, Walter flew around the airfield and made a low pass in front of the small group of spectators. After landing he reported that the ship was nose heavy and needed changes to the wing rigging. Phelps, assisted by engineer Lloyd Carlton Stearman, discussed the situation and concluded that the stagger needed to be changed by one degree. Beech took off again and flew past the crowd, this time holding both his arms up in the air as the biplane flew straight and level.
The first Travel Air to boast a Hisso powerplant was the Type “CW” cabin biplane designed by Stearman, Beech and Cessna along with engineer Herbert Rawdon. The ship was the largest yet built by the company, with a one-piece upper wing panel that spanned nearly 42 feet. The cabin could accommodate four people but the pilot sat outside where he could listen to the “wind in the wires.” The customer, brothers Joseph and Wilford Gerbracht of the Gerbracht Aeronautic Corporation based in Ames, Iowa, christened the ship Pegasus (other sources report it was dubbed The Golden Pegasus). They operated the airplane for charter, air taxi and delivering newsreels to movie theaters.
The next application of the Hispano-Suiza engine came about in preparation for the 1926 Ford Tour (officially known as the “National Air Tour for the Edsel B. Ford Reliability Trophy”).1
Lloyd Stearman and Herbert Rawdon modified the standard airframe of the Type BW to accept the 180-horsepower version of the Hisso, thereby creating the Type BH. The airplane was one of several Travel Air biplanes that took part in the Ford Tour, including a Type BW owned by the Pioneer Instrument Company. Flown by Walter Beech and navigated by Brice Goldsborough, the BH won the Ford Tour, according to Beech, largely because Goldsborough’s navigational skills.
Travel Air test pilot Clarence Clark flew the Type BW during the two-week tour that covered a large swath of the Midwestern United States, including Kansas. As was the Type BH flown by Beech, Clark’s Type BW was equipped with mechanical brakes designed by Travel Air engineers. The brakes helped Walter place first and Clark second in a number of events held at airports along the Tour’s route.
During Travel Air’s brief seven-year existence from 1925-1931, workers built more than 1,450 biplanes and monoplanes. Of these, records indicate about 25-30 were Type BH (later changed to Type 3000). Customers were informed that the company would not build a “Hisso-powered” biplane unless the owner provided the engine, because none were kept in stock at the factory. During 1927-1928 the Type 3000 was flown by Louise McPhetridge von Thaden to establish altitude, speed and endurance records for women aviators. She was the only woman to hold all three records simultaneously, albeit only for a short time.
A Detailed Look at the Hisso
The history of the Hispano-Suiza Model 8A engine harks back to the autumn of 1914 when the Allied powers realized that the German six-cylinder Mercedes aircraft engine was superior to any powerplant being used on airplanes built by England or France.2 In response, a number of European companies attempted to design new engines, but one engineer – Marc Birkight – soon forged ahead of his contemporaries. He was a highly respected and capable engineer at the Hispano-Suiza Company that was well known for its powerful and luxurious automobiles. The company had factories in Barcelona, Spain and in Paris. Birkight, however, was a Swiss engineer and had extensive experience in designing and constructing machine tools. He considered a factory’s ability to manufacture an engine quickly and accurately to be as equally important as its performance. One historian described Birkight as a “…remarkable man. He invented the sports car, built six-cylinder cars that could go 100 mph, yet which idled so smoothly that a dime could be balanced on the radiator. He made 12-cylinder cars that were better than any Rolls-Royce and designed the first good aircraft cannon, and in 1915 Birkight showed the world how to design and build a water-cooled, 150-horsepower engine.”
Birkight’s creation featured aluminum cylinder banks with threaded, steel sleeves – a con-figuration that reduced overall weight, stiffened the crankcase and promoted easier, faster fabrication, manufacture and assembly. A single overhead camshaft was mounted on each bank of four cylinders that featured a bore of 4.7 inches and a stroke of 5.1 inches. The engine displaced 718 cubic inches and had a dry weight (less radiator and plumbing for water cooling) of 467 pounds. Moving parts were enclosed and lubricated by a pressure-oil system. Overall, the powerplant was rigid, light, durable and reliable. The engine’s weight was actually less than some static, air-cooled radial engines of the era that normally weighed less than water-cooled powerplants.
The first prototype of his V-8 design was tested by the French army in 1915 and successfully ran under test loads for 15 hours. Two additional engines ran for 50 hours and both passed the army’s stringent tests. These powerplants were capable of delivering 150 horsepower continuously, compared with about 90 horsepower for a majority of aero engines then in use by the Allied nations. Late in 1915 production began at the Paris factory, and the French Government soon ordered design work by other companies to cease and focus on producing the Hispano-Suiza engine.
By 1916, a year before the United States entered the war, contracts were underway to build the powerplant in America.3 Early in 1916 a contract for 450 engines was awarded to the General Aeronautic Company of America – a subsidiary of the Wright Company. Because of the complexity and sophistication of the engine and its specifications, the Wright-Martin Aircraft Corporation was created and took control of the General Aeronautic Company, the Wright Company and the Simplex Automobile Company.
Development of the engine proceeded rapidly by May 1917 when the United States Government submitted an order that, as of July, called for up to 1,000 of the engines. In addition to the 150-horsepower engine, both 180-, 200- and 300-horsepower versions were being designed but the decision was made to concentrate on the original engine in order to meet ever-increasing Allied demand for primary flight training biplanes.4
Manufacturing the Hispano-Suiza V-8 was challenging from the standpoint of fabrication and assembly. A senior Wright-Martin official summed up the situation:
“It must be remembered that in 1917 there were extremely few men in America with any experience of so delicate a manufacturing proposition as an aviation motor, and this made it difficult to obtain much assistance from the outside.” He went on to state that, “One of the basic features of the Hispano-Suiza engine is an aluminum casting of considerable delicacy and quite intricate. In Europe, the best foundries have been unable to produce this part so that it can be machined without previously being repaired by difficult hand work. In America, the usual sources of supply of aluminum castings were unwilling to undertake the job, so the Wright-Martin Corporation had to establish its own foundry. This was done to such good purpose that the castings being made in the autumn of 1917 were infinitely superior in quality to any obtainable in Europe right up to the end of the war.”
During the war orders for the 150-horsepower engine built by the Wright-Martin Corporation increased in value from $2 million in September 1917 to about $50 million by October 1918. If the war had continued into January 1919, production of 30 engines per day and 2,000 units per month was planned.
- The custom-made trophy cost Henry Ford $7,000. It remains on permanent display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
- The Mercedes engine powered a number of successful German designs including the Pfalz and Albatross single-seat fighters and the famous Fokker D-VII.
- When the war ended in November 1918, about 25,000 workers were engaged in manufacturing Birkight’s V-8 in 14 French factories, supplanted by one in England, three in Italy, one in Spain and one in Japan.
- Manufacture of the 300-horspower version was planned in parallel with the 150-horsepower engine but work on the 200-horsepower V-8 was terminated. In November 1918, the more powerful version was tested and performed well, and Wright-Martin was preparing to build as many as 1,000 units per month when the Armistice was declared on November 11 of that year. A total of more than 49,000 engines of all types were built during the war.