Cessna Aircraft Company’s commercial Model T-50 was designed for airlines and air taxi service but evolved into one of the best twin-engine military trainers of World War II.
In June 1939, officials of the Cessna Aircraft Company announced a major expansion of facilities that would allow for increased production of the single-engine Airmaster and the Model T-50 – Cessna’s first twin-engine airplane. The final assembly building would make 28,000 square feet of floor space available at a cost of $50,000.
Although the Airmaster had sold well, it had reached its limit of development. What Cessna needed, according to its leader Dwane L. Wallace, was a twin-engine ship that could carry five people at speeds approaching 200 mph and sell for $30,000. It would be aimed chiefly at air taxi and small airline operators. Wallace, however, realized that if the war raging in Europe spread to the United States there would be great demand for training aircraft, and a military version of the T-50 could be a prime candidate.
Two years earlier, in the autumn of 1937, Wallace put Tom Salter and his engineering staff to work developing concepts for a twin-engine Cessna. After 18 months of work, much of it supervised by Wallace, the prototype T-50 was ready for its first flight. On Sunday, March 26, 1939, Wallace and factory manager William “Bill” Snook climbed aboard the monoplane for a 20-minute jaunt into the blue skies above Wichita, Kansas. Satisfied with the initial flight, the next day Dwane took the airplane up for a one hour, 40-minute excursion that carefully probed handling characteristics, high and low speed performance, stalls and systems operation.
A six-month flight test program was conducted and a few changes were made that included replacement of the V-shaped windshield with two panels of curved glass and enlarging the aft cabin windows. In March 1940, the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) issued Approved Type Certificate (ATC) 722 for the Model T-50. The CAA then ordered 13 airplanes that were assigned to inspectors responsible for overseeing manufacturers located in different regions of the nation. Another seven airplanes were purchased by private pilots and air taxi operators.
There was nothing revolutionary about the T-50. It was a fabric-covered cabin monoplane with a one-piece wood wing and a fuselage built of welded steel tubing, conventional landing gear and was powered by two, seven-cylinder Jacobs L-4MB static, air-cooled radial engines each rated at 225 horsepower turning Curtiss-Reed metal, fixed-pitch propellers. At nearly 10 feet in length, the cabin was spacious with more than enough room for the pilot and four passengers. Entry and exit was through a door on the left side of the fuselage.
By 1940 America was gearing up for war. It was supporting Great Britain with massive amounts of weapons and equipment as diplomatic relations with Japan deteriorated. In May of that year President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress for money to build 50,000 airplanes, and in July the War Department awarded Cessna Aircraft Company an order for 33 twin-engine advanced trainers designated AT-8. The contract was worth more than $800,000 and was the largest order the resurrected company had received up to that time.
The AT-8 was one of the first airplanes built for the U.S. Army Air Corps for training pilots to fly multi-engine aircraft. It was nearly a direct copy of the commercial T-50 except for the addition of small windows in the cockpit roof, and replacement of the Jacobs engines for nine-cylinder Lycoming R-680 powerplants, each rated at 290 horsepower and equipped with two-blade Hamilton-Standard constant-speed, non-feathering propellers. In addition, government furnished equipment (GFE) such as radios, headsets and instrumentation were included, along with an overall aluminum color paint scheme.
As Great Britain reeled under the might of Germany’s Luftwaffe, it needed pilots by the thousands to carry the war to Adolph Hitler. As a result, England, Canada and Australia formed the British Commonwealth Air Training plan designed to pool resources of the three countries. Foremost among these was Canada – a continent-sized airbase that stood little chance of being attacked. In the summer of 1940, just as the Battle of Britain was heating up, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) sent a contingent to Wichita to evaluate the T-50 as a potential advanced trainer. It appealed to the RCAF for a number of important reasons: Cessna’s twin was a modern design, well suited to the task, possessed economy of operation, was manufactured of non-strategic materials, could be easily repaired in the field and, most important of all, it was ready for mass production. Convinced that the T-50 was the right airplane for the job, the RCAF soon issued a contract for 180 airplanes designated Crane I. These ships featured 225-horsepower Jacobs engines, wood, fixed-pitch propellers and special cold weather equipment.
During the autumn of 1940, the Cessna Aircraft Company held an order backlog worth more than $5 million but lacked insufficient floor space to build airplanes. Making matters worse, the Army Air Corps expected its first AT-8 before December 31 and the RCAF wanted the first Crane I by Christmas.
In September, the company announced a second expansion program to build a final assembly building 400 feet in length and 200 feet wide to be completed before Thanksgiving. As the manufacturing campus expanded, so did the workforce. The payroll increased from 200 in July 1940 to more than 500 and then 700 by November. Although many of the people were Kansas natives, a growing number hailed from every state in the union as Cessna, Beech Aircraft Corporation, Boeing Wichita Division and many other small companies in the city and surrounding areas clamored for more workers to build the wings of war.
The Air Corps accepted its first AT-8 on schedule and the first Crane 1 flew north in December. Before the end of the year the RCAF had ordered another 360 trainers bringing the Crane I backlog to 540 aircraft. In May 1941, the 100th Crane I was delivered and Cessna’s payroll had increased to 1,900 hard-working men and women. To keep pace with growing demand for the AT-8 and Crane I, in June Wallace announced a third expansion program to provide an additional 3,750-square feet of space for woodworking and assembly. The building was completed in August.
The new facility was humming with activity when in the autumn 1941 the War Department placed an order for 450 Cessna trainers designated AT-17 powered by Jacobs R-755-9 engines. In keeping with the practice of naming military airplanes, such as Hellcat, Wildcat, Corsair and Flying Fortress, Wallace held a contest to choose a name for the AT-17. Hundreds of suggestions were submitted, but the winning entry was “Bobcat.”1
By December 1941, the Cessna factory complex had been expanded yet again, this time by 20,000 square feet, bringing total floor space to 360,000 square feet. In the wake of Japan’s surprise attack on the United States Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, on December 7, commercial production of the Airmaster and T-50 slowed dramatically and had ceased altogether by June 1942 as the company prepared for all-out war production.2
One month before the pivotal naval battle of Midway in June, the Cessna factory was placed on a 24-hour work schedule, six days a week. When Christmas rolled around that December, the company had built 1,839 AT-17 and Crane I trainers. The two airplanes were identical except that the RCAF ships had slightly different electrical systems. Only the early production AT-17 airplanes were delivered with Hamilton-Standard constant-speed propellers. Hartzell wood propellers equipped the vast majority of the AT-17 fleet in an effort to save steel and aluminum for combat aircraft.
In 1942 the RCAF ordered another 550 trainers but because of America’s entry into World War II, only 182 were delivered to the Canadians. The remaining 368 were built as AT-17A, AT-17C, AT-17D and UC-78C, differing only in minor equipment. The first C-78 airplanes were built in 1942 for light cargo duty before the designation was changed to UC-78 for utility and cargo missions. Later in the war 67 were transferred to the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps and operated as the JRC-1.
The largest number of the military T-50 model built during the war was the UC-78B, of which 2,156 were manufactured by the time production was halted late in 1944. The AT-17B was produced in 1942 with an order for 655 airplanes, but the last 189 were redesignated UC-78B before delivery. A number of these ships were limited to a gross weight of 5,300 pounds as the AT-17G.
The AT-17C production run of 60 trainers was originally to be lend-lease to the RCAF, but the Army Air Corps absorbed the entire order. If gross weight was limited to 5,300 pounds, the AT-17C became the AT-17H. In addition to the 1,052 AT-8 and AT-17 series, and the 3,160 C/UC-78 and JRC-1 airplanes, all 40 of
the commercial Model T-50s sold were moved by the military for the duration of the war and received Air Corps serial numbers.3
Cessna was not only busy building new airplanes, in 1943 an overhaul facility was operating in a leased hangar at the Hutchinson airport north of Wichita. It was charged with rebuilding, repairing and maintaining AT-8, AT-17 and UC-78 aircraft. The War Department snapped up the opportunity for Cessna to work on its own airplanes, thereby releasing military personnel for other duties. The overhaul depot closed in 1945.
In late 1944 as the war turned in favor of the Allies, the War Department began terminating contracts for all types of airplanes, including trainers. With Germany fighting a hopeless war on two fronts and Japan retreating from the Pacific Ocean toward their homeland, there was no need to keep building the wings of war. At Cessna, the production lines slowly grew more and more quiet, no longer crowded with AT-17, UC-78 and Crane I aircraft awaiting delivery. After workers had built 5,399 twin-engine airplanes from 1940-1944, production shifted to a peacetime footing. Thanks to Dwane L. Wallace and his team of executive management and Tom Salter’s engineering staff, the Cessna Aircraft Company had made a significant contribution to the war effort that eventually brought Germany and Japan to their knees.4
- Technically, the name “Bobcat” only applied to the AT-17. The most common nickname applied to any T-50 is “Bamboo Bomber.”
- By early 1942 the company had delivered 25 commercial T-50s including six to the CAA and another 14 to the Pan American Airways System. The PAA ships were built to the same standard as the Crane I.
- The U.S. military also impressed a small number of Airmasters and aging Cessna DC-6 cabin monoplanes from 1929-1930. The C-34 and C-37 ships were designated UC-77B and UC-77D, while the C-165 was operated as C/UC-94. The old DC-6A and DC-6B were UC-77 and UC-77A.
- In 1941 Dwane L. Wallace married his long-time secretary, Velma Lunt. He became the company’s Chairman of the Board in 1964 and retired in 1982. He died in December 1989. Wallace is remembered as one of America’s visionary aviation leaders who played a key role in making Wichita “The Air Capital of the World.”