Travel Air’s Last Hurrah

Travel Air’s Last Hurrah

Travel Air’s Last Hurrah

Late in 1928 Walter H. Beech authorized development of the four-place Type 10 cabin monoplane, but by 1930 America’s deepening economic debacle had almost wiped out the once booming market for new airplanes.

Fact: The aviation business is cyclical. Any pilot, mechanic, airframe or engine manufacturer, as well as companies operating under FAR Part 91, Part 121 or Part 135 knows that all too well.

Early in 1929, however, Walter H. Beech and the Travel Air Company were riding a wave of prosperity that Walter and the board of directors hoped would never end. Wall Street was at its zenith, the national economy was growing and people had money to spend, and in some cases, lots of money. Mr. Beech was quick to realize, however, that the stock market, air-minded investors, easy credit and a plethora of ready cash were not fully responsible for the excesses of what would become known as the infamous ‘Roarin’ Twenties.

Much of Travel Air’s stunning sales success during the past two years was, in large part, due to the epic transatlantic solo flight in May 1927, of a former airmail aviator named Charles A. Lindbergh. Soon after he landed at Le Bourget Airport in Paris, France, his 33-hour aerial trek brought aviation and flying to the forefront of the American public.

Upon his return to the United States, “Lucky Lindy” (a newspaper reporter’s nickname that Lindbergh hated) was celebrated as America’s latest hero. He was feted at dozens of cities across the nation, and the Smithsonian Institution was quick to secure his Ryan monoplane, the “Spirit of St. Louis,” and place it on permanent, static display where it continues to inspire visitors 90 years later.

In the wake of Lindbergh’s success, a strong case of flying fever soon gripped the nation as thousands and thousands of men and women flocked to airports from coast to coast, eager to learn how to fly. In a rush to meet demand, dozens of flying schools began popping up in almost every state, and those schools needed new airplanes to train their brood of fledglings. Wichita, Kansas, known as “The Air Capital of the World,” had the airplanes they needed. By 1929 the “City on the Plains” boasted three major airframe builders – Travel Air, Cessna and Stearman Aircraft – as well as dozens of smaller enterprises hungry for their share of success. Earlier that year Olive Ann Mellor, office manager for Travel Air, reported to president Walter Beech that the company had orders on hand amounting to one airplane per day for the remainder of the year.

The only surviving example of a Travel Air Type 10D is part of the Eagles Mere Air Museum in Pennsylvania. It is serial No. 2011, registered NC418N. The engine is a later version of the Wright J6-7 and is rated at 240 horsepower.
(Nigel Hitchman, courtesy Eagles Mere Air Museum)

When the company began in 1925 it had built only 19 airplanes during its first year, but in the summer of 1929 three shifts of workers were struggling to build 25 biplanes and monoplanes per week, so great was the demand. For example, in March of that year so much money was available for loans that buying an airplane was as easy as buying a Model A Ford or Chevrolet three-window coupe. Travel Air broke all sales records that month when orders for $300,000-worth of airplanes were on the books. By comparison, one year earlier total sales for all of 1928 were only $100,000. In addition, one share of company stock worth $100 in 1925 was, after the company’s absorption by the giant Curtiss-Wright Corporation in August 1929, suddenly worth a whopping $4,000!

Keeping customers happy and delivering their new Travel Air ship on time was a formidable task as production had to increase to keep pace with demand. Walter Beech’s man for that job was the indomitable William “Bill” Snook, factory manager. He had been with the company since its founding late in 1924 and had proved to be an excellent choice for a tough job. Assisting Snook were a team of highly-trained inspectors stationed throughout the factory complex. It was their job to ensure that every part and assembly met blueprint specifications and quality control standards.

Walter Beech once told Wichita reporters that the five-building factory campus had to run like clockwork: “There is no stoppage of materials from the time they come into the plant until they emerge as a completed airplane.” He added that “We have no stock of raw materials in storage and stock of airplanes on hand. We are not paying interest on non-motion.” By mid-1929 the workforce was increased to about 600 men and women from 350 late in 1928.

Although Travel Air offered buyers a stable of nine robust biplanes, it could offer only two monoplanes – the highly successful and popular Type 6000B and the rare Type A6000A. Walter Beech, however, gradually became aware that the company’s product line needed a smaller and less expensive cabin monoplane than the Type 6000, of which more than 100 had been built since 1928.1

View of the cockpit shows throttle, mixture and spark advance/retard controls mounted in a central position similar to that of the larger Type 6000B. Original wood control wheels resembled those of an automobile and were completely circular, not 180 degrees as shown here. (Nigel Hitchman, courtesy Eagles Mere
Air Museum)

The engineering department had a promising design in mind, and by late 1928 preliminary drafting work was well underway. Designated the Type 10, a prototype would be built and flown to work out any problems with the airframe and engine before proceeding with full-scale production in mid-1929. The Type 10 bore a close resemblance to its larger sibling, the Type 6000B, but would accommodate only four occupants.

Construction was typical for the era with the fuselage and empennage framework of welded steel tubing. The two wing panels featured box-type, laminated spruce spars that were routed out to reduce weight, then glued together under 20 tons of pressure and allowed to cure for 12 hours. Each wing panel was supported externally by two metal lift struts. The fuselage, wings and empennage were covered in cotton cloth, stitched and spray painted with six coats of clear, cellulose nitrate dope. A base color coat was applied and sanded before two final color coats were sprayed, the last using a 70/30 thinner/color to give the fabric a shiny appearance. Three different color schemes were available: Black fuselage with an orange stripe and orange wing panels; green fuselage with orange wings; blue fuselage with orange wings.

The Type 10’s wings used the popular Gottingen 593 airfoil section that provided lots of lift for slow landings at 55 mph but offered a decent cruise speed of 115 mph. Wingspan was a generous 43 feet 6 inches with a total area of 239 square feet. Height was 8 feet 8 inches and overall length was 27 feet 4.5 inches. Maximum gross weight was set at 3,400 pounds with a payload of 510 and a useful load of 1,145 pounds. The gravity-fed fuel system included a 70-gallon tank in each wing root. The fixed, conventional landing gear featured 30 x 5-inch wheels equipped with 32 x 6-inch tires with Bendix mechanically-operated brakes controlled by pedals in the cockpit. A non-steerable tailwheel was standard (tailskids were still the norm for many airplanes of that era, but the increase in paved runways gradually led to installation of tailwheels).

Two engine choices were offered. The most expensive option was the nine-cylinder Wright Whirlwind J6-9 static, air-cooled radial rated at 300 horsepower. It powered the Type 10 to a maximum speed of 140 mph with a rate of climb exceeding 1,100 feet per minute. Service ceiling was 17,000 feet. The other engine option was the seven-cylinder Wright J6-7 radial that produced 225 horsepower, but performance decreased slightly in every category. Because of its ties with parent company Curtiss-Wright, Travel Air also planned to offer the Type 10 powered by a six-cylinder, static, air-cooled radial known as the Curtiss Challenger. Rated at only 185 horsepower, the engine was fitted to a Type 10B for certification but no production airplanes were built with that powerplant because performance suffered unacceptably.2   

The Eagles Mere Air Museum flies the Travel Air Type 10D about 15-20 hours each year to exercise the Wright R-760 radial engine, but the monoplane spends a majority of its time on static display inside the museum facility.
(Nigel Hitchman, courtesy Eagles Mere Air Museum)

The standard cabin configuration included four (removable) wicker chairs upholstered to match the interior sidewalls and headliner. Four plate glass windows could be rolled up or down using hand cranks on the sidewalls. The cockpit layout was similar to that of the Type 6000B with dual Deperdussin-type control wheels that activated cable controls for the primary control surfaces. The horizontal stabilizer could be moved up or down via a trim device to reduce elevator forces during climb, cruise and landing.

The prototype airplane (Type 10B serial No. 1008, licensed 8844) was powered by a Wright J6-9 engine before it was replaced for tests with the Curtiss Challenger. First flown early in 1929 under the command of company chief pilot, Clarence Clark, tests with the Wright J6-7 were also conducted. The U.S. Department of Commerce, Aeronautics Division, granted the Type 10B Approved Type Certificate No. 278 in December 1929. The Type 10B was eventually replaced on the assembly line by the Type 10D, which featured a redesigned front windshield that afforded the pilot and front seat passenger increased outside visibility.

The new Travel Air was introduced to the market in March 1929. Customer interest was weak, not because of any fault of the Type 10, but chiefly because of fears surrounding the growing financial instability on Wall Street. Priced at more than $12,000 for a standard Type 10B with the Wright J6-9 engine or $11,000 if the J6-7 was installed, the airplane should have become an excellent stablemate to the Type 6000B. Existing Travel Air records, however, indicate that only 11 airplanes were built before production was terminated due to a sagging market for new or used airplanes. By June 1930 the company’s finances were in a tailspin. Sales of all Travel Air ships plummeted, as did those of Cessna Aircraft, Stearman Aircraft and many other manufacturers in Wichita as well as across the nation. During 1930 Walter Beech was forced to lay off hundreds of workers, despite major price reductions across the product line, and as the economy sank to new depths of depression, Curtiss-Wright management ordered the factory to be closed and locked.3

By 1931 Curtiss-Wright had transferred all production of Travel Air airplanes from Wichita to its facilities in St. Louis, Missouri. In addition to airplanes the relocation included Walter Beech, who served as a company president and sales manager.

As of 2018 only one example of the four-place Travel Air exists – a Type 10D on static display at the Eagles Mere Air Museum located at Merritt Field near Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania. According to the airplane’s current owner, George Jenkins, the Travel Air was originally registered as NC418 (currently NC418N). The original buyer opted for the Wright J6-7 radial engine that was rated at 225 horsepower.

After a search of Travel Air production records kept by factory manager William Snook, the last Type 10D recorded in his notes (serial No. 10-2008) was built in March 1930, and NC418 (serial No. 10-2011) probably was built in April or May and sold sometime later that year. It was originally based in Illinois until 1945 when it was sold to a buyer in Boise, Idaho. The monoplane was flown in Idaho until 1955 when it was removed from service. The owner intended to perform a total rebuild and restoration of the rare Travel Air, but the ship languished until 1963 when it was sold to its next owner in Southern California, where it was stored in a hangar. In 2004 the ship was acquired by the Eagles Mere Air Museum and transported to North Florida. During the next three years it was rebuilt, inspected and declared airworthy. First flight since restoration occurred July 25, 2006.

For more information about the Eagles Mere Air Museum, which houses a collection of more than 20 vintage and classic airplanes, engines and related artifacts representing aviation from 1908-1935, go to www.eaglesmereairmuseum.org.

Notes:

  1. Industrywide, by 1929 an increasing number of orders for cabin ships were being received by Travel Air, Cessna Aircraft, Boeing, Curtiss-Wright and other manufacturers. One important reason was that an increasing number of businessmen were ready to trade open cockpits, fur-lined flying suits, leather helmets and goggles for the shirt-sleeve comfort of an enclosed cabin.
  2. The Cessna Aircraft Company, which also had ties with Curtiss-Wright, initially offered its Model DC-6 cabin monoplane with the Curtiss Challenger engine, but it was quickly discarded in favor of the Wright J6-7 radial of
    225 horsepower.
  3. The factory remained empty except for storage of leftover airframes. In 1932 Clyde Cessna and his son Eldon leased one building to construct the CR-1, CR-2, CR-2A and the CR-3 racing monoplanes. Finally, in 1934 Walter and Olive Ann Beech acquired the former Travel Air campus and transformed it into the home of the Beech Aircraft Company.

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