Airmaster! (Part One)

Airmaster! (Part One)

Airmaster! (Part One)

In 1933 Dwane L. Wallace and his brother Dwight resurrected the Cessna Aircraft Company, launched the new Model C-34 and restored their uncle Clyde V. Cessna as president of the company that bore his name.

Four years after the devastating stock market crash of 1929, the United States was slowly beginning to emerge from the depths of the worst economic debacle in the nation’s history. Still, tens of millions of people remained unemployed, thousands of banks had shut their doors, soup kitchens were overwhelmed and obituaries of suicidal millionaires gone broke littered the newspapers.

In November 1932, President Herbert Hoover had been kicked out of the White House by the American people in a landslide election. They replaced him with the charismatic governor of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His campaign song was “Happy Days Are Here Again,” and Roosevelt was intent on living up to that musical motto by getting the United States back on its financial feet.

Rare photograph of the prototype C-34 soon after its completion in August 1934. The airplane was the first to be built in the Cessna factory since the EC-2 of 1931. (Robert J. Pickett Collection/Kansas Aviation Museum)

Meanwhile, out west in Wichita, Kansas, the once-mighty “Air Capital of the World” had been reduced to little more than a shadow of its former self. Only the Stearman Aircraft Company had managed to barely survive the slaughter of Wall Street that began in October 1929, thanks largely to subcontract work from the Boeing Aircraft Company in Seattle, Washington. Curtiss-Wright had padlocked the Travel Air Company’s factory in 1931, and in 1932 the board of directors booted Clyde Cessna out of the company that bore his name.

Amid all of that misfortune, a young man from Belmont, Kansas, decided to attend Wichita University and major in aeronautical engineering. He was a favorite nephew of none other than pioneer aviator Clyde Vernon Cessna himself, and his famous uncle was the first to give him a ride in an airplane and strongly encouraged the lad to pursue his dream of flying. After graduating in May 1933 with sheepskin in hand, Dwane L. Wallace set about trying to find a job as an aeronautical engineer. Mac Short, chief engineer at the Stearman Aircraft Company, had to turn him away, so he went to see Walter Beech but suffered the same results.

Wallace, however, was relentless. Finally, Beech’s chief engineer Ted Wells put Dwane on the skinny payroll at a very meager salary as the third member of Beech Aircraft Company’s engineering department. Dwane assisted Wells and Jack Wassal performing drafting and stress analysis before moving up to engineering projects for the Model B17L and the mighty, 710-horsepower A17F.

Although Wallace was thankful to have a job in aviation, he wanted to do more than work in his uncle Clyde’s silent factory – he wanted to resurrect it, to bring it back to life again. During the summer and autumn 1933 he began plotting a three-point course of action: First, wrest power from the Cessna Aircraft Company board of directors and shareholders. Second, invite Clyde Cessna to be an active participant in the new venture. Third, design an airplane that would sell in a severely depressed marketplace.

For months he and his older brother Dwight, a highly respected attorney, held discussions with Mr. Cessna. The elder Wallace knew how to handle the legal aspects of what would amount to an attempted hostile takeover of the Cessna Aircraft Company.

Mr. Cessna made it clear, however, that he was only interested in helping his two nephews reopen the factory. After the death of his friend Roy Liggett in 1933 while flying the Cessna CR-2A racer, Clyde had lost interest in manufacturing and selling airplanes but he still believed in aviation. Dwane and Dwight worked hard during evenings and on weekends formulating plans and writing letters to stockholders. Clyde agreed to sign the letters. His endorsement was crucial to the Wallace brother’s campaign to take back their uncle’s airplane company from those content to let it die.

By the end of 1933 the Wallace brothers were ready to make their assault. They mailed the special letters and included a proxy so shareholders could vote for or against the company’s future. A second series of letters was mailed later, and one is quoted here in full:

Dear Sir:

A short time ago I mailed you a letter enclosing a proxy, which no doubt gave you a good idea of what has been going on at the Cessna plant for the past three years under its present management. I feel that I should write you more in detail of what I intend to do after I’m back in control of our company.

There is no doubt but that the airplane industry could be a paying one today if handled properly. Good examples of which are represented by the Waco, Monocoupe, Douglas and Northrop airplane companies, as well as others. Through the fact that I have been engaged in the airplane business for the past two decades and having always been recognized as one of the pilgrims in the airplane industry, I have made many valuable contacts in the field of aviation in the last three years with various companies and large distributing agents for airplanes, and with these connections I am sure that I can sell a large number of airplanes.

I intend to redesign and develop the four-place Warner ship to such an extent that it will develop a speed of approximately 185 mph and yet keep its present stability, airworthiness and other grand features that made it so popular. This ship will have many wonderful selling points, such as the low cost of maintenance and operation, upkeep and high cruising speed.

I am sure you realize that our stock is practically worthless today. A complete liquidation would pay only a very small percent back on our original investments, while if you cooperate with me, the Cessna Aircraft Company will again be doing a good business and our stock on the market rise accordingly.

I am enclosing another proxy in case you did not receive or have misplaced the other one, and I will appreciate your executing the same and returning it to me in the self-addressed envelope which is enclosed.

The letters were signed, “Very Truly Yours, Clyde V. Cessna.”

Clyde Vernon Cessna was truly one of America’s early aviation pioneers who believed in the future of the airplane as a means of personal transportation.
(Textron Aviation)

The brothers Wallace knew it would take more than letters from their famous uncle to win the battle, and Dwane visited every investor in Wichita who held more than 100 shares of stock, echoing Clyde’s call for cooperation by telling them their support now would lead to profits later. Next, Dwane and Dwight pooled their resources and bought 6,000 shares of Cessna Aircraft Company stock from the brokerage firm of C.M. Keys in New York City. Local investor Thad C. Carver, however, held more than 20,000 shares and Clyde held 12,000, with 67,000 shares outstanding.

On Jan. 17, 1934, at the annual stockholders meeting of the Cessna company, Dwane and Dwight narrowly won a majority and ousted the incumbent board of directors. New members of the board and officers of the reborn company were elected, including Clyde Cessna, president, Roscoe Vaughan, vice president; Dwight Wallace, secretary/treasurer, and Dwane Wallace, general manager. The hardest battle had been fought and won. The Wallace boys had an airplane company, but what they needed was an airplane to sell. Fortunately, since his senior year in college Dwane had been thinking about a new cabin monoplane and what virtues it had to possess if it was to succeed in a very depressed marketplace.

On March 5, 1934, Clyde Cessna officially announced that the company’s airplane would be known as the C-34 to celebrate the rebirth of Cessna Aircraft in 1934. To help Dwane with the engineering tasks required to transform the C-34 from the drawing board to first flight, he hired two young and talented men – Jerry Gerteis and Tom Salter. Detail design work progressed smoothly and fabrication of parts and assemblies was underway by the end of March. By late spring the fuselage and cabin design were close to completion and the full-cantilever wing layout was approaching its final configuration.

Dwane’s older brother Dwight used his skills as an attorney to navigate the legal channels necessary to regain control from the incumbent board of directors. He eventually became a full-time employee of the company during World War II.
(Courtesy Dwane L. Wallace)

To build the prototype for C-34 Dwane surrounded himself with a small band of skilled workers who were more than capable of translating a blueprint airplane into a living machine of steel, wood and fabric. A majority of the monoplane had to be made by hand because there was only a small number of new fixtures and jigs available to ease the job. The C-34’s cabin featured two front seats and bench-type rear seat that would provide ample comfort for the pilot and three passengers. The interior walls were soundproofed as much as possible, and fresh air vents would keep the cabin cool in hot weather and a heat muff on the engine’s exhaust manifold would keep everyone warm in winter. A small baggage compartment was located behind the rear seat and could accommodate up to 64 pounds of luggage or small packages.

In 1933 Dwane L. Wallace spearheaded the rebirth of the Cessna Aircraft Company. Under his guidance the reborn company weathered the Great Depression and went on to become the world’s largest manufacturer of light airplanes.
(Courtesy Dwane and Velma Wallace)

As for the C-34’s airframe, Dwane used the popular Cessna Model AW of 1929 as a baseline for design of the new monoplane. There were, however, some minor changes:

The M-12 airfoil used on the Model AW was replaced with a NACA (National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics) 2412 airfoil section that improved lift.

The spruce spar was made of built-up laminations that formed a continuous unit, with truss-type ribs fabricated from spruce and plywood gussets for reinforcement.

Double bracing wires were employed inside the wing structure to provide required torsional rigidity, and the leading edge was covered in plywood.

The completed wing did not require plywood sheathing over its entire length, therefore more doped cotton fabric was used that saved time, money and weight.

A full-cantilever main landing gear eliminated the welded steel tubing and elastic bungee cords used on the Model AW. Each gear assembly housed an oil-spring shock strut and
21-inch diameter wheels.

Cable-operated mechanical brakes were standard equipment along with an eight-inch, full-swiveling, non-steerable tailwheel.

A Warner “Super Scarab” static, air-cooled radial engine rated at 145 horsepower replaced the Model AW’s 110-horsepower Warner powerplant.

The prototype airplane was completed August 9 and licensed by the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) as NX12599, constructor No. 234. The next day the handsome ship was rolled out of the factory and prepared for its first flight. Dwane Wallace carefully inspected the new Cessna before local pilot George Harte climbed aboard and fired up the seven-cylinder Super Scarab engine.

The takeoff was uneventful and after putting the C-34 through its paces on a short test flight, Harte landed and reported to Wallace that the airplane handled well and had good performance, considering that it had only 145 horsepower.
A series of flights during the next few days revealed a maximum speed of 162 mph and a cruise speed of 145 mph. It looked as though Dwane had designed a worthy successor to his uncle’s Model AW.

By June 1935 the prototype had been thoroughly tested and certified by the Civil Aeronautics Authority. A C-34 with standard equipment was priced at $4,985. (Robert J. Pickett Collection/Kansas Aviation Museum)

A few weeks later after a slate of engineering flight tests were completed by Harte and Wallace, the CAA’s Jim Peyton flew the ship and worked closely with Wallace and Harte as the C-34’s flight characteristics were probed, including recovery from intentional spins in both left and right directions. Those tests went well, and in the autumn of 1934 only one obstacle remained: submitting stress analysis and engineering drawings to the CAA for approval and, hopefully, issuance of the coveted Approved Type Certificate (ATC).

Armed with a suitcase full of documentation, Wallace hopped on an eastbound bus to Washington, D.C. Dwane took a room in the Ambassador Hotel for two dollars a day and went to the CAA’s office where he met engineer Al Vollmecke. For five weeks Vollmecke perused every document and drawing with Wallace by his side. Inevitably, some changes had to be made to stress analysis calculations, and Dwane made many trips down the street to a blueprint shop where the alterations were made.

Finally, Vollmecke gave the Cessna C-34 his and the CAA’s stamp of approval. The Cessna Aircraft Company was issued ATC 573 June 8, 1935, and the prototype airplane was sold to the Sundorph Aeronautical Corporation later that year.

During 1935, the Cessna factory slowly began receiving orders for the C-34, but money was tight. To supplement revenue and keep the tiny payroll intact, Wallace obtained a repair station certificate from the CAA and his workforce made repairs and alterations to a wide variety of airplanes. By late 1935, three airplanes per month were rolling off the assembly line and consumer interest in the handsome monoplane was increasing.

Thanks to the Wallace brothers, their uncle Clyde’s airplane factory was back in business and the future looked bright. His nephews had inflicted a righteous revenge on the old board of directors, and now the sky was the limit.

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