In 1933 the Stearman Aircraft Company’s Model 73 biplane helped save the company and brought national recognition of Wichita, Kansas, as a major provider of commercial and military aircraft.
Five years after the worst economic debacle in American history had gutted Wall Street and laid waste to billions of dollars-worth of investments, personal fortunes and corporations, the fragile aviation industry in Wichita, Kansas, was beginning to rise from the ashes.
Southeast of the city at the Stearman factory, more than 100 employees were laboring to build components and assemblies for the new Boeing Model 247 airliner. Designed as an all-metal, twin-engine monoplane with retractable landing gear, the airplane was state-of-the-art, and United Air Lines was anxious to place the sleek ship into service on its expanding system of routes.
East of downtown, the Beech Aircraft Corporation, under the able guidance of Walter H. and Olive Ann Beech, was just beginning to manufacture the Model B17L cabin biplane designed by engineer Theodore “Ted” Wells. The Beechcraft featured a negative-stagger wing arrangement and, like the Model 247, boasted a retractable main landing gear – one of the first for an airplane in the single-engine, four-place class.
Southeast of the city at the defunct Cessna Aircraft Company, brothers Dwane and Dwight Wallace were waging a campaign to wrest control of the business from its board of directors who, in 1932, had locked pioneer aviator Clyde V. Cessna out of his own factory and shut down production. Fortunately, the brothers succeeded in their quest and by 1934 were preparing to manufacture the Cessna Model C34 featuring a Warner Scarab static, air-cooled radial engine, a full-cantilever wing and a cantilever main landing gear.
Although all three of these companies were competitors, their leaders remained a close-knit clan that, regardless of who was prospering in those tough times, knew it was always in the best interest of Wichita to promote the city as a leader in small airplane design and manufacturing.
So, it was by 1934 a trio of talented engineers at the Stearman factory on South Oliver Road were busy completing the design of a primary training biplane – one that company officials hoped would find favor with the United States Army Air Corps and the U.S. Navy. Despite an improving economy and rising consumer confidence in the future, by 1934 a tight-fisted Congress remained reluctant to appropriate funds for military aviation. As a result, the aircraft was conceived strictly on speculation and without any money from the Air Corps, Navy or the federal government.
During the past 85 years, exactly how the design process began in the mind of Lloyd C. Stearman sometime in 1931, and how it was revived in 1933 by engineers Mac Short, J. Jack Clark and Harold W. Zipp, remains somewhat unclear. Apparently, the trio based their design on a rudimentary drawing by Stearman of a modified Model 6 Cloudboy that embodied upgrades to make it appealing to the military.
Led by chief engineer Short, the team made further improvements to the airframe that included a cantilever main landing gear, a fuselage cross section that was similar to that of the sole Model 80 biplane and a new empennage that featured dual trim tabs. In general, it was only an evolutionary, not revolutionary design, but it did represent the company’s latest attempt to create a rugged flying machine aimed specifically at the military’s primary training mission.
Designated as the Model 70, the latest Stearman was both attractive in appearance but tough, too. The airframe was stressed for +12G and -9G, which allowed for the execution of many aerobatic and combat maneuvers that were standard fare for a fledgling cadet. The trim biplane was powered by a Lycoming R-680 static, air-cooled, nine-cylinder radial engine rated at 210 horsepower swinging a two-blade, ground-adjustable steel propeller.
By the end of 1933 the airplane was completed and underwent a series of ground checks, rigging and engine runs before engineers and company test pilot David “Deed” Levy pronounced the Model 70 ready for its first flight. Levy took the ship into its element on New Year’s Day, 1934, and upon landing proclaimed that the ship exhibited no bad habits and flew well.
The U.S. Army Air Corps and U.S. Navy agreed to test the biplane, and during the next few months test pilots would wring out the Model 70 at Wright Field near Dayton, Ohio, Naval Air Station Anacostia, and at the Navy’s flight training base at Pensacola, Florida. Both Army and Navy aviators liked the Stearman but found fault in its stall behavior, which was too benign. They wanted the stall to be more abrupt, and eventually small, triangular wood strips were attached to the leading edge of the lower wing panels to achieve that requirement.
In the wake of flight trials, the Navy approached senior officials of the Stearman company and sought a quote to build trainers similar to the Model 70, but with minor modifications that included installation of aging but available Wright J5 radial engines rated at 200 horsepower. These changes transformed the Model 70 into the Model 73, and in May 1934 the Navy placed an order for 14 airplanes designated NS-1, plus spare parts and assemblies to construct another 20 of the primary trainers.
The contract marked a major turning point in the brief history of the Stearman Aircraft Company. Senior officials were hopeful that the initial order would be only a first in a series of aircraft for the military. When the company released information to the public, the Wichita Eagle newspaper was quick to recognize how important the new business would be to the city:
“Drama lies behind the simple, businesslike announcement of the factory for Wichita, metropolis of the Plains, this is accorded a large part in the up building of the nations’ 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.”1
It is interesting to note here that before the Navy contract was announced, Julius E. Schaefer, president of the Stearman company, was becoming increasingly con-cerned about the ramifications of the federal government’s attempts to break up large holding companies such as Stearman Aircraft’s parent company, United Aircraft & Transport Corporation (UA&TC). President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration believed that UA&TC and similar organizations were monopolistic and threatened to dominate entire industries.
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 between the acquitting and acquired corporations, whereas the Federal Trade Commission was empowered to prevent companies from engaging in unfair methods of competition. As a result of these new laws, UA&TC renamed the Boeing Airplane Company as the Boeing Aircraft Company and placed Stearman Aircraft under its corporate umbrella. It was a fortuitous decision that would not only propel Wichita into the national spotlight, but cement Boeing’s stake in the City of the Plains.
As for the Navy contract, Schaefer explained that existing facilities would be large enough to accommodate the Navy’s order and there would be no need to expand the campus nor the workforce at that time. The same hand-picked group of men that built the Model 70 also built the first production NS-1 that was rolled out of the factory into the Kansas sunlight early in December 1934 – 11 months after first flight of the Model 70.
Hot on the heels of the Navy’s order, the Army Air Corps was seeking a new primary training airplane. During the summer of 1934 the engineering department refined the Navy’s Model 73 into the Army’s Model 75. A prototype aircraft designated X75 was evaluated by the Air Corps as the XPT-945 that was powered by a seven-cylinder Wright R-760 static, air-cooled radial engine rated at 225 horsepower. Later that powerplant was exchanged for a nine-cylinder Lycoming R-680 that also produced 225 horsepower. Further flight testing by the Air Corps was completed but no orders were forthcoming, chiefly because there was no funding available to buy the Army new airplanes.
Early in 1935, however, the Air Corps issued a specification and asked the Stearman company to prepare a bid, which was presented to the service in April and resulted in a contract for 20 airplanes to be designated PT-13A, powered by the R-680-5 engine. These orders from the U.S. War Department were part of an expansion program by the Army to increase the strength of its air fleet to more than 2,300 airplanes from a total of 1,800 as of early 1935.
Fortunately that year Congress had appropriated $23 million for new armaments that included trainers, fighters, transports and bombers. Captains of the nation’s air power, however, knew that these appropriations fell woefully short of what the Army and Navy needed to train the next generation of air warriors to fight in a potentially global conflict. As the Eagle newspaper pointed out, soon after news of the Air Corps’ order “Despite the 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.”
The Stearman factory, however, was bursting at the seams with orders for new biplanes that totaled $450,000. Not since the halcyon days of the late 1920s had the company experienced such a high level of activity. By the end of 1936 there were 400 men and women on the payroll working long, hard hours to build another 50 PT-13A trainers. In October the Air Corps contracted for another 30 of the biplanes, and before the end of the year export orders were received from Argentina and the Philippine Constabulary.
As the Great Depression slowly receded and military appropriations increased, Wichita’s airframe manufacturers were struggling to keep pace with demand for their airplanes. At the end of 1936 the Beech Aircraft Corporation, Cessna Aircraft Company and the Stearman Aircraft Company had more than doubled their business by comparison with 1935, and 1937 promised to deliver hundreds of more orders for military aircraft. Per the Eagle newspaper, it was estimated that … “perhaps $2,500,000-worth of business was put on the books here during the year (1936), some of it yet to be filled, but a substantial part of it has been produced. It was the best year since the boom days of 1928-1929.” Walter Beech told the press that the factory on East Central Avenue had built twice as many commercial Model 17 cabin biplanes in 1936 as they had in 1935, and more than 300 men and women were working on the production lines. In addition, in 1936 the Cessna factory had rolled out 50 of the new C34 cabin monoplanes – three times the number built in 1935 – and manager Dwane Wallace boldly prophesied that the company would double its business in 1937.
As the year 1937 dawned, facilities at the Stearman factory were rapidly approaching maximum production capacity. More than 500 workers were turning out 15 new biplanes each month, but the management realized that more floor space would be required to meet future demand. As 1937 progressed, more orders for the PT-13A soon arrived from the Army Air Corps. Air Corps flight instructors, who were arriving almost weekly to ferry new ships south to Texas, were quick to tell the local newspapers that, “The primary training planes have proven highly popular and efficient at the Randolph Field, San Antonio, Texas, base. When the present contract is filled there will be more than 125 Stearman planes in service there, all Wichita-built.” By autumn 1937, the factory workforce was completing one PT-13A every other day.
The Stearman company not only ended 1937 with a profit, but also contributed significantly to the Boeing Aircraft Company’s bottom line. The parent company and its subsidiaries held a backlog of unfilled orders worth more than $14 million. The Stearman factory had delivered 91 airplanes that year, with the majority of these delivered to the Air Corps and U.S. Navy, along with export versions of the Model 73 and Model 76 for the military services of Brazil, Argentina and the Philippines.
In April 1938 at a meeting of senior Boeing officials, the Stearman Aircraft Company was renamed the Stearman Division of Boeing Aircraft Company. The new name took effect June 1. Boeing executives explained that the change was made “for reasons of economy and manufacturing advantages.” When 1938 ended, the Stearman Division was on the brink of a major expansion to greatly increase its workforce and manufacturing capacity.
By early 1939 it had become clear to an increasing number of military leaders and politicians in America that war clouds again were threatening to engulf Europe. Both Great Britain and France hoped to placate Germany’s Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, and his thirst for more land. In addition, an increasingly belligerent and militaristic Japan had invaded Manchuria while rattling its sabre and calling for expansion of its “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”
Meanwhile, the United States clung tightly to its isolationist policies as President Roosevelt walked a political tightrope between preparing for war and talking peace. As commander in chief of all United States military forces, he wanted the “Arsenal of Democracy” to be ready if and when America went to war. The Stearman Division would soon become an important part of that arsenal.
Wichita “Eagle,” May 17, 1934, Page 5. Also Hoffman, Raymond J.B., “History of Boeing Airplanes Designed in Wichita,” Page 5. Boeing Aircraft Company, March 10, 1946.