C.V. Cessna — Wichita’s Aviator

C.V. Cessna — Wichita’s Aviator

C.V. Cessna — Wichita’s Aviator

Thanks to a group of aviation enthusiasts in Wichita, Kansas, in 1916 Clyde Vernon Cessna relocated to the “Peerless Princess of the Prairie” to pursue his dream of manufacturing and selling “aeroplanes.”

At the beginning of the 20th Century on the Great Plains of America, wheat was king. It was the Midwest’s bread of life and flourished unchallenged as the leading economic driver of the region. That grain ruled in Kansas, too, and the bustling town of Wichita celebrated the harvest each year with the Wheat Exposition held during the first week of October.

The “War to End All Wars” had been raging in Europe for more than two years, and the death toll shocked the world. From that bloody conflict emerged a new method of warfare that caught (and held) the public’s attention – aerial combat. Sensing a financial opportunity to boost revenue from the exposition, officials invited a popular aviator by the name of Clyde Cessna to make a series of flights during the event.

Clyde had been flying before the public eye since 1911, and by 1916 was making a handsome annual profit thanks to the success of the Cessna Exhibition Company. More than a century later, many pilots flying Cessna airplanes are unaware that the farmer from Rago, Kansas, had always harbored a desire to build and sell airplanes of his own design. Flying was exhilarating, but was always a risky and dangerous business. Cessna’s interest in aeronautics went beyond flying, and in 1913 he was prepared to take his enthusiasm to the next level. As early as 1913, he believed that people were ready to buy airplanes and learn to fly. Cessna was a visionary, even to the point of telling the press that one day people would fly in airplanes large enough to enjoy ballroom dancing while crossing the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Paris, nonstop, of course.

Clyde Vernon Cessna was a farmer, a natural mechanic, automobile salesman extraordinaire, and a true pioneer aviator. Unlike his close friends Walter H. Beech and Lloyd C. Stearman, Cessna never held a pilot’s license and preferred to pursue his dream of manufacturing and selling airplanes of his own design. His career began in 1911 and spanned another 25 years. He died in 1954 and is remembered as one of the “Founding Fathers” of America’s general aviation industry. (Edward H. Phillips Collection)

During a three-day visit to Wichita in October 1913, Clyde began to realize that the “Peerless Princess” held great potential as a site to manufacture aircraft. He was so convinced about the location that he held a press conference. Clyde informed the newspaper reporters that he planned not only to build flying machines, but to train pilots at the city’s first flight school. Unfortunately, Cessna’s initial encounter with Wichita’s bureaucracy resulted in his arrest! He was distributing handbills advertising demonstration flights when J.A. Blair, superintendent of street cleaning, charged the aviator with unlawful distribution on the city’s avenues.

Hauled into court, Clyde told W.D. Jochens, the presiding judge, that he was unaware of the ordinance and asked that the charges be dropped. The judge disagreed and fined Clyde one dollar. Adding insult to injury, Jochens suggested that the next time Cessna wished to deliver handbills to the public, he should drop them from an airplane. There was no ordinance against that!

Despite his brief clash with the law, Clyde remained optimistic that Wichita was the best place to make his ambitious dreams come true – all he needed was money and people to help him get started. Three years later, in August 1916, that help arrived in the form of George Sherwood, production manager for the local J.J. Jones Motor Company. By that time Cessna already had become acquainted with J.J. Jones, whose “Light Six” touring car was produced in a factory north of the city.1

Visiting Clyde at his home in Rago, Sherwood represented a small group of businessmen who were willing to step up and support Cessna’s desire of becoming an aircraft manufacturer. In addition, they wanted him to establish a flight school to train fledglings in the art of flight. Many of the businessmen were members of the Wichita Aero Club, but their only “flying machine” was a hot air balloon. As with Cessna, they believed that airplanes offered the only practical solution for the future of air travel.

One member, in particular, Jack Turner, was enthusiastic in his belief that Wichita held great promise for the manufacture of airplanes, and the flat prairie lands around the region offered natural landing fields. Turner, who owned a lumber and coal company in town, went one step further; he told Clyde he was ready to order a Cessna airplane and take flying lessons from the aviator himself. Turner’s zest for the new science of flight bred considerable enthusiasm among his peers, and Sherwood was quick to echo these sentiments along with offering other details about the proposal.

The first known aviation event held in Wichita occurred in May 1911 when a three-day air show was held at Walnut Grove located two miles north of the city at 21st Street. A traveling troupe of aviators, including well-known pilots Eugene Ely and Jimmy Ward, flew a series of exhibition flights with Curtiss biplanes. The local newspapers reported that about 12,000 people flocked to the site to watch the “intrepid aeronauts.” (Courtesy of the Sedgwick County Historical Museum)

By now, Sherwood had captured Clyde’s complete attention. His guest then explained that a vacant building at the Jones facility would be made available, and a large tract of land adjacent to the structure would serve as a rudimentary flying field. Sherwood returned to Wichita with what would prove to be a landmark agreement – Clyde Cessna would become the city’s first airframe builder.

To drum up local interest, Clyde and Sherwood would depart from Hutchinson, Kansas, in a race to the Jones factory. Sherwood would drive a Light Six car and Clyde would fly his monoplane. As intended, the competition pitted an automobile against an aeroplane – the perfect contrast of speed and utility designed to demonstrate why Wichita should have its own airplane factory.

Both men had little doubt who would prevail, but Sherwood promised to put up a good fight by keeping the Light Six “flat out” all the way. As scheduled, by September 1, 1916, Clyde and his older brother Roy (who was an indispensable asset to the Cessna Exhibition Company) had arrived in Hutchinson and prepared the monoplane for the upcoming flight. Sherwood was already there and had the Jones machine tuned to a fever pitch.

At precisely 11:00 a.m., Sherwood slammed the accelerator to the floor and rapidly upshifted the Jones machine, while nearby Clyde gave the Anzani full power and began his takeoff roll across a bumpy field. Roy, after helping his brother depart, jumped in his Model T Ford and sped southeast toward Wichita, 60 miles away. Only 35 minutes later (after flying at a reduced power setting to preserve the hard-working Anzani), Cessna landed in an alfalfa field near the Jones campus. His flight had been uneventful as the country roads below guided the aviator toward his destination. As planned, the Light Six was nowhere to be seen. Thirty minutes later, Sherwood finally arrived, followed soon by Roy Cessna.

The “race” had been a success, and after resting briefly, Clyde climbed back aboard the monoplane and took off for a flight above the downtown area of the city. He circled above the Schweiter, Eagle newspaper and Fourth National Bank buildings, as well as the sales office of the J. J. Jones Motor Company. To cap off his flight, Cessna reduced throttle and glided down to an altitude of about 300 feet over the streets. He could clearly see throngs of Wichitans waving enthusiastically at their newest resident and his marvelous flying machine. Clyde then applied full throttle and climbed to a higher altitude as he flew high above Main Street before landing near the Jones factory.

Both flights were successful in igniting public support for the city’s first aircraft manufacturer. Soon after landing, Clyde’s machine was surrounded by hundreds of onlookers anxious to get a closer view of the aviator’s steed. Flushed with success, Clyde and Roy were whisked away to a special luncheon held in their honor by the Wichita Aero Club whose members were there in force: Jack Turner, C.C. Bayless, Jerome Herington, Elmer Reese, Hal Black, Henry Lassen, George Sherwood and Charles E. Becker, publicity manager for J.J. Jones.

In October 1915, the Wichita Aero Club sponsored a balloon race aimed at exposing the public to the new science of aeronautics. The event was held at the baseball diamond located on Ackerman’s Island that also served as the location of Wonderland Park. (Courtesy of the Sedgwick County Historical Museum)

These men reaffirmed publicly their desire and support for C.V. Cessna’s transition to Wichita, as well as offering financial and logistical support for the establishment of an aircraft factory and a flying school. A few days later, Aero Club officials told the local press that Mr. Cessna had officially accepted their offer and had begun the process of relocating his family to the city. By the time of the official announcement more than 40 men had expressed an interest in taking flying lessons, but Clyde cautioned that it would be at least six months before classes could begin. Of these men, none was more jubilant than Jack Turner. The wealthy Wichitan was outspoken in his zeal for aviation and learning to fly, and quickly approached Clyde about designing a custom-built monoplane for his personal transportation.2

During the next few days Clyde and Roy inspected Building “I” that would become their workshop at the Jones factory. It proved to be more than adequate at 80 feet in length and 50 feet in width. Cessna estimated that he could build up to 10 airplanes during the first year of manufacture. To sweeten the deal, Mr. Jones offered a total of 73 acres of ground adjacent to the building for a flying field.

For Clyde, his new endeavor seemed full of hope and the promise of success. There was no incorporation of a company, no stockholders, no capital investment. Men of the Wichita Aero Club along with J.J. Jones simply had invited him to Wichita, provided a place to build airplanes and operate a flying school, all supported by a select group of businessmen. The Cessna Aeroplane Exhibition Company, as it was renamed, would continue to operate essentially as it had in the past. Only the location, facilities and particularly the possibilities, had changed.

In addition to setting up the new workshop in Building “I” at the Jones factory, Clyde and his brother were busy flying exhibitions that included flights at the Cowley County Fair on September 7. The local newspaper reported that Cessna thrilled the crowds by performing “fancy tricks in the sky.” Next stop for the Anzani-powered monoplane was the Hutchinson State Fair late in September, followed by a short flight back to Wichita. By the end of the month Clyde, Roy and their brother Noel were busy moving equipment into the workshop in preparation for building Cessna airplanes.

Clyde, however, was busy participating in the city’s annual Wheat Exposition held in the first week of October. Sponsors of the event had hired Cessna to make a series of flights, and he received a handsome monetary reward for his efforts. Clyde flew almost every day, taking off about 5:00 p.m. when the winds were more favorable for a safe flight. The monoplane and its radial engine performed flawlessly and Clyde found himself the center of attention after each flight as newspaper reporters and curious onlookers bombarded him with questions. They wanted to know how airplanes flew and whether it was hard to learn to fly such a machine that, to many people, remained such a mysterious phenomenon.

In an effort to answer their questions and showcase their new facility, the brothers Cessna held an open house on October 5. Inside Building “I” Roy and Noel explained to guests how the woodworking equipment operated, the type of tools they used to build aircraft, along with a display of airplane parts and engines. Meanwhile, outside Clyde was kept busy discussing the monoplane’s airframe and its radial engine. People were quick to notice that the airplane had become an aerial billboard sporting an advertisement for Jack Spine’s clothing store located at 111 West Douglas Avenue. Others were fascinated by the monoplane’s engine and its seemingly odd arrangement of the six cylinders in a radial configuration. One reporter for the Wichita Eagle newspaper called it the “mighty French engine” and extolled its 60-horsepower rating as one of the highest in the United States.3

Cessna’s first successful airplane was nicknamed Silverwings by Cessna because of the color of the cloth covering on its wings. Clyde taught himself to fly in the little monoplane, which was powered by a two-stroke, four-cylinder air-cooled Elbridge marine engine rated at 40 horsepower. Cessna flew the airplane at regional and county fairs, often earning $200-500 for a flight lasting five minutes while performing a figure-eight above the crowds. (Edward H. Phillips Collection)

In the wake of Clyde’s flights at the exposition, another pilot flew into town to put on her own show – Ruth Law. She had come to Wichita to demonstrate how helpless large cities were to aerial bombardment. Every morning newspapers across America carried stories of the war in Europe. Although airplanes were considered a novelty in the early years of the war, by 1916 field commanders viewed flying machines, and particularly large bombers, as airborne weapons platforms capable of leveling entire metropolitan areas. On October 10, Law took off in her Curtiss biplane and “bombed” Wichita’s city hall, the Forum building and the court house. She was paid $750 per day for her efforts that included “stunt flying,” which Cessna considered foolishness and detrimental to the future of aviation. In contrast to Law, who used the airplane to sensationalize flying, Clyde was trying to commercialize the airplane.4

By November 1916, the Cessna Aeroplane Exhibition Company shut down operations as winter approached. The 1916 season had been highly profitable, and Clyde planned to build two more airplanes during the cold months to handle the busy schedule in 1917. In a bold effort to promote his aircraft, Cessna planned to fly from Wichita to New York City in the summer of 1917. If all went well, he expected to land on Manhattan Island after flying for 18 hours and making three stops for fuel.

To attempt such a feat, however, would require a new aircraft and a more powerful engine. He estimated that if $2,000 could be obtained to acquire an engine of 100 horsepower, it would take only two months to construct the airframe. “From Wichita to New York” soon became the battle cry of the Cessna Aeroplane Exhibition Company as the brothers began to design the airplane. By December preliminary construction had begun. Unfortunately, funding was not forthcoming and Clyde eventually shelved his plans for the long-distance flight.

Construction of a new monoplane, however, continued unabated. Among the workers hired by Cessna to assist in building the ship was Miss Avis Van Hee, a jaunty young lady who had taken a flight with the famous Arch Hoxey, a celebrated aviator who flew for the Wright Brother’s exhibition team. Van Hee’s enthusiasm convinced Clyde to put her on the payroll, and she helped to construct the first airplane built in Wichita. By February, a second airplane was taking shape in the workshop, one that would feature a small cockpit ahead of the pilot’s seat to accommodate a paying passenger.

When spring 1917 finally arrived, the new Cessna monoplane (and the first airplane built in Wichita) was ready for its maiden flight, which occurred late in March. With war clouds gathering over America as President Woodrow Wilson struggled to keep the nation out of the bloody conflict, on April 6 he asked Congress for a Declaration of War against the Central Powers. America was officially in the fight.

In 1916, Cessna was invited to build airplanes in Wichita, thereby setting the city on its pathway to fame as a hub of aircraft manufacturing. The workshop was part of the Jones automobile factory located north of the city, and a large field served as the city’s first “aerodrome.” The photograph is historically important because the first airplane built in Wichita (left foreground) and the fuselage of the new Comet are visible. (Courtesy Robert Pickett Collection/Textron Aviation)

Anxious to do his part helping the war effort, Cessna wired the War Department that he could have two airplanes “ready for action,” including the two-place ship that he believed would be ideal for aerial reconnaissance. He offered the airplanes at a price of $4,000 each, but the government turned him down. Undaunted, Clyde next sent a telegram to Kansas Congressman William A. Ayres asking for assistance authorized under the National Defense Act recently passed by Congress. If he could not build airplanes for the military, he wanted to train pilots. He petitioned Ayres to wield his influence on Capitol Hill so Clyde could acquire the equipment, vehicles and aircraft to establish a flight school. Once again, his hopes were dashed. The War Department would train its pilots, not civilians.

Clyde resumed his plans for a flight school, claiming in advertisements that it would be the first privately-operated flying institution west of the Mississippi River. Soon more than 25 applications arrived in the mailbox. Among the requirements for acceptance each applicant had to pass a physical examination (equally stringent as that of the U.S. Army) by a qualified physician. Only five young men were chosen: W.E. True, Joseph J. Smitheisler, Marion McHugh, Edgar B. Smith and E.F. Rickabaugh. Of these, True worked at the J.J. Jones facility, McHugh was employed by the Ponca Tent and Awning Company in town, and Smith was a student at the local Fairmount College. He also worked as an assistant to Homer Harden, a commercial photographer in the city.5

Plans called for the flying course to cost $400 and last about eight weeks. By the end of training, each pilot would be capable of flying one of Cessna’s monoplanes. Instruction began in June. Each day the student pilots were expected to arrive at Building “H” no later than 4:30 a.m. while the Kansas air was calm and cool. Clyde’s approach to ground school was unique – he suspended the 1913 monoplane above the floor and had each student sit in the pilot’s seat and learn the purpose of the rudder bar, wing warping and elevator controls.

When Clyde was satisfied that the fledglings thoroughly understood the controls, the airplane was moved outside and the boys learned how to start the cantankerous Elbridge engine. When that was mastered, they began taxiing the ship at low speeds across the flying field, gradually increasing throttle until short “hops” just off the ground were achieved followed by a safe landing. Of the five students, Smith and McHugh were deemed candidates to join the exhibition company. Clyde needed help meeting the more than 30 contracts for flights he had already lined up across the Midwest region. He reasoned that with three pilots and three airplanes, the 1917 exhibition season should be a great success.

In addition to manufacturing airplanes, Clyde Cessna opened the first flight school in the city and began ground school classes with five students in June 1917. Cessna is shown here with his would-be aviators outside of Building H at the Jones facility. America’s entry into World War I forced Clyde to close the flight school and terminate manufacturing activities.

As the demand for exhibition flights increased that summer, Clyde’s time to train his student pilots came to halt. The five boys began to complain, and eventually a lawsuit was filed claiming breach of contract. The suit claimed that Clyde had not provided eight weeks of training nor did he set up flight demonstrations as stipulated in the contracts. Apparently, the suit was settled out of court. McHugh, however, was the only one to finally complete the course and was hired by Cessna as a pilot.6

In addition to preparations for the flight school, the brothers Cessna continued work on the two-place monoplane that they dubbed The Comet. When it was finished that summer, Clyde was appalled that the airplane had cost him $6,000 to build, causing the pioneer aviator to complain that airplanes were too expensive (some things never change!). The Comet first flew late in June. Clyde was enthusiastic about the airplane’s performance, and when he flew the ship at Blackwell, Oklahoma, for the city’s observance of the Fourth of July; he received $500. More than 11,000 people received their money’s worth as Cessna flew his monoplane in ever tighter circles above the grandstands, then reduced throttle to idle and glided down to within a few hundred feet of the ground. Suddenly, he opened the throttle and zoomed directly over the spectators as both men and women screamed and dove for cover wherever they could find it.

On the return flight to Wichita, the Comet covered the 65-mile route in 36 minutes at a speed of 107 mph. Painted under the left- and right-wing panels were the words: “Cessna Monoplane – Made In Wichita.” In the months ahead Clyde did fly the Comet with a passenger in the front cockpit, but when the U.S. Government essentially banned private flying in 1918 to conserve fuel for the war effort, the Cessna Aeroplane Exhibition Company closed its doors.

The Cessna boys soon went from aviators to their previous occupation as farmers, growing wheat to help feed the nation and the military servicemen and women. After the war ended in November 1918, Clyde’s thoughts returned to flying but the exhibition business never resumed operation. As for Cessna’s family of monoplanes, all of them were eventually dismantled and disappeared except for the Comet that survived until 1930 when Mr. Cessna reportedly destroyed it. During the intervening years of 1919-1924, Cessna operated a successful custom wheat threshing business. The profits from that enterprise would one day help finance and equip the next generation of Wichita’s aviation industry, starting with the Travel Air Manufacturing Company founded by two young men named Walter H. Beech and Lloyd C. Stearman.


  1. The J.J. Jones Motor Company began manufacturing the “Light Six” in 1914. Later, Jones relocated the company to the site of the Burton Car Works in north Wichita. During the 1880s Burton had earned an excellent reputation as a builder of quality passenger railroad cars.
  2. In the years ahead, Turner’s passion for flying never abated. He is recognized by local historians as a key investor in the Travel Air Manufacturing Company (1924), Cessna Aircraft Company (1927) and in particular the Stearman Aircraft Company (1927), for which Turner personally spearheaded the raising of $60,000 to bring Lloyd Stearman and his infant company back to Wichita from California.
  3.  The radial powerplant was one of many designs by Alessandro Anzani, a well-known manufacturer of bicycles in Europe who turned to building aero engines. His designs, although unsophisticated compared to other engines of the period 1910-1920, were generally reliable. By 1928, however, they were considered obsolete as new air-cooled, static radial engines such as the Wright J-4 and smaller Lycoming and Continental opposed engines began to dominate the marketplace.
  4. Aviatrix Ruth Law was one of America’s celebrated female pilots in 1916-1917. Her most famous flight was a cross-country journey of 590 miles in November 1916, flying her Curtiss pusher biplane nonstop from Chicago to Hornell, New York, in slightly more than five hours and setting a distance record. After America entered World War I in April 1917, Miss Law and her Curtiss pusher campaigned vigorously for “Liberty Loan” fund drives in behalf of the Red Cross and United States’ military.
  5. Smith later became one of Wichita’s most respected and sought-after photographers. From 1924-1931 he photographed hundreds of airplanes built by the Travel Air Company, Cessna Aircraft Company, Stearman Aircraft Company as well as smaller builders including Swallow, Lark and Laird. Smith took aerial photographs from the aft cockpit of his old Standard J-1 biplane, often piloted by local aviators Ted Braley or Walter H. Beech.
  6. McHugh is reported to have flown one of Cessna’s monoplanes during an exhibition in Coldwater, Kansas, but the flight could not be verified.

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