More than 80 years after it rolled out of Walter Beech’s Travel Air factory in Wichita, Kansas, one of only two Type 5000 cabin monoplanes known to exist has been resurrected to honor the birth of scheduled passenger service in North Texas.
No other airplane typifies the diversity of our aviation heritage more than National Air Transport’s Type 5000,” said Jim Hodgson, executive director of the Fort Worth Aviation Museum. The airplane, designated as No. 17 in the National Air Transport (NAT) fleet, was presented to Texas aviation enthusiast Amon G. Carter, Sr., after it was retired from service early in 1931. Carter was a well-known and wealthy Texas oilman, advertising mogul and a staunch advocate and promoter of aviation in the Lone Star state, particularly the North Texas region.
In 2012 the Fort Worth Aviation Museum initiated a campaign to acquire the vintage Travel Air and reunite the old monoplane with its home city. In 2013 it was purchased from Harry Hansen, a former Continental Airlines captain, by Fort Worth-based oil and gas energy company, MorningStar Capital LLC. “We are so pleased to be a part of this project to bring a piece of history back to life,” said Joy Webster, vice president of facilities for the company.
After acquiring the Travel Air from Carter’s family in 1963, Hansen spent the next 50 years attempting the monumental task of rebuilding an airplane that had been exposed to the vagaries of Texas weather for more than 30 years. Carter had parked No. 17 outside at his Shady Oak Farm near Lake Worth, and by the time Hansen hauled away the remains, the Travel Air’s doped cotton fabric on the fuselage and wings had long since withered away, the welded steel tubing fuselage was rusted and the wood wings had rotted and collapsed to the ground. As for the engine, the Wright Aeronautical J-5CA static, air-cooled, radial powerplant, externally was a severely corroded hulk and all of its internal parts were seized.
NAT’s old No. 17 (constructor number 172 registered C3002) was one of eight Type 5000 airplanes ordered by National Air Transport late in 1926.1 Early in 1925 investors from Chicago, New York and Detroit formed the company to provide air mail service between the three cities as well as smaller towns along the route. Texan Amon G. Carter eventually became involved with NAT and helped the company win a contract to carry air mail into Forth Worth. The Contract Air Mail (C.A.M. 3) route connected Chicago and Moline, Illinois; St. Joseph and Kansas City, Missouri; and Wichita, Kansas, with Ponca City and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; as well as Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas. By the summer of 1926, C.A.M. 3 was being operated using rugged Curtiss Carrier Pigeon biplanes, but later that year the new Type 5000 ships began flying the route between Chicago and Dallas carrying both mail and four passengers in the cabin. The pilot sat up front in a cockpit covered by a canopy. According to the Fort Worth Aviation Museum, NAT No. 17 was the first passenger-carrying transport employed by a scheduled airline to serve the city, operating from Meacham Field.2
Travel Air’s new transport was based on a design by Clyde V. Cessna, which he built and flew in 1926. Beech also flew the ship and quickly recognized its potential as a small airline transport that, after modifications, could meet NAT’s requirements. A prototype was built in only 69 days and Beech flew the airplane to Kansas City in December. In January 1927, Travel Air was awarded a contract that specified delivery of all eight monoplanes within 120 days at a cost not to exceed $128,676. The first transport was delivered in April and a second ship took to the skies in May, with two more, including NAT No. 17, under construction in the cramped workshop on the west side of Wichita. For the next five years NAT’s small fleet of cabin monoplanes plied the airways on a variety of routes throughout the Midwestern United States.
In recognition of his dogged support of aeronautics in North Texas, on February 1, 1931, No. 17 was gifted to Amon Carter by NAT officials. After America’s entry into World War I, Carter became a driving force in the establishment of three flying fields near Fort Worth to train would-be aces to fly above the blood-red fields of Europe. During the 1930s he was elected to the board of directors at American Airlines, and when the United States entered World War II Carter’s influence helped secure construction of a massive factory in Fort Worth that would build the Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bomber. Throughout those years ‘ol NAT No. 17 sat rotting away at Carter’s farm – forgotten and neglected.3
Forward to 2013: After acquiring the Travel Air from Hansen, MorningStar Capital shipped the airplane to Justin, Texas, where a small group of antique airplane enthusiasts at Cowtown Aerocrafters would tackle the project where Hansen had left off. Hansen had manufactured new wings and the fuselage had been welded in a special jig using new SAE 4130 steel tubing.
Working under the direction of Lanny Parcells, the group spent a majority of 2013 and 2014 (3,000 man-hours) slowly rebuilding the monoplane as close as possible to its 1931 configuration. In addition to Lanny Parcells, the team included Bob Parcells, Tom Swindle, Dave Ozee and Gerry Asher. Doug Fulk, Tom Keim and Kerrie Black Bourland also assisted the crew during the rebuilding process.
Parcells said bringing back the Travel Air to its appearance when it served with NAT was a major challenge. “We are pleased with the way this project turned out considering the amount of reverse engineering necessary to obtain the level of authenticity.” The chief obstacle was determining the design and fabrication of the many wood fairings and formers that gave shape to the fuselage and the cockpit enclosure. A large number of photographs were available, but these were of limited value. Because of its limited production potential, Travel Air did not certify the Type 5000 and the absence of engineer-ing and technical information proved disappointing.
“We only attempted a cosmetic preservation of the engine because it was so badly deteriorated from decades of exposure to the outside elements,” Swindle said. Although the Wright radial powerplant appears complete externally, internally it is missing seven of the nine pistons, the cam ring and all of the pushrods. “Two of the pistons were so badly seized we could not remove them, and the cylinder barrels had completely rusted through in places,” he said. Similarly, the two Bosch magnetos mounted on the engine’s front crankcase were seized and could not be salvaged, but Swindle and Ozee did replace ignition leads for the 18 sparkplugs with a replica harness that closely resembles the original. As for the Hamilton Standard, ground-adjustable steel propeller, it was severely pitted but Parcells and his team managed to restore both blades and the hub thanks chiefly to sheer determination combined with aggressive treatment and polishing. Their efforts were rewarded when the cosmetic state of the propeller was deemed satisfactory for static display.
The crew at Cowtown Aerocrafters recovered the fuselage, wings and empennage using fabric supplied with the Stits Poly-Fiber system and painted the fuselage a shade of blue that closely resembled the color applied by the Travel Air factory. The Type 5000’s semi-cantilever wings featured an M-6 airfoil and spanned more than 51 feet tip-to-tip, providing a generous wing area of 312 square feet. Each wing was covered, rib-stitched by hand and given a final coat of aluminum dope to protect against deterioration from the sun’s ultra-violet rays. Parcells said all of the wood, steel tubing and fabric repair work was done in accordance with FAA Advisory Circular AC 43.13-2.
The exact configuration of NAT No. 17’s cockpit and cabin are unknown, except that Travel Air normally installed four wicker seats for the passengers and the fuselage featured sliding window panes to allow cool air during the hot months – a welcome advantage because the airplane usually flew at relatively low altitudes of 3,000 to 5,000 feet. A crude, but effective, heating system provided a limited degree of warmth during the winter months. In addition to these amenities, NAT specifically called for a small outlet (vented directly to atmosphere) mounted in the aft section of the cabin for use by passengers afflicted with airsickness.4
The other surviving Type 5000 is the Woolaroc flown by Art Goebel and William Davis to victory in the Dole Race from Oakland, California, to Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, in August 1927. The airplane is on static display at the Frank Phillips Museum in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
- All 11 of the Type 5000 monoplanes manufactured by Travel Air were licensed under Department of Commerce Group Two Approval Number 2-27, issued in February 1929. Maximum gross weight was limited to 3,600 pounds. The only engine approved for the Type 5000 was the Wright J-5-series rated at 200-220 horsepower.
- Morris, Bill: “History Lost, History Found;” Fort Worth Aviation Museum, 2013.
- According to FAA records, NAT No. 17’s original registration number, C3002, remains assigned to Travel Air Type 5000, constructor number 172.
- NAT eventually was absorbed into United Airlines. By the mid-1930s the airline was operating modern, twin-engine, all-metal Boeing 247 transports.