“Air Tours” that made their debut in the mid-1920s thrust the Travel Air Manufacturing Company and Walter Beech into the public spotlight when
the daring aviator claimed back-to-back victories in 1925 and 1926.
Wichita, Kansas, in the early 1920s was still a sleepy little town tucked away amongst America’s once-vast prairielands. Known chiefly for its wheat industry, the city’s reputation began an exciting transition in 1925 when aviation planted its roots in the “Peerless Princess of the Prairie.” Three men, Clyde V. Cessna, Walter H. Beech and Lloyd C. Stearman had forged a new entity named the “Travel Air Manufacturing Company, Inc.” and set up shop in a tiny workspace behind the Broadview Hotel located downtown.
The infant company was struggling to meet growing demand for the “Model A” that was available with either the Curtiss OX-5 or OXX-6 of 90- and 100-horsepower, respectively. Company officials, led by vice president Walter H. Beech, realized that additional income was essential to help keep the balance sheets in the black. As a result, Travel Air soon began offering flight instruction at the flying field located about five miles from city center. A lease agreement with the City of Wichita was arranged and two Model A ships were located at the field and housed in makeshift hangars that were crude but functional.1
In addition to giving flight instruction to student pilots who could afford to pay the high price of $50 per hour, Travel Air operated an air taxi service at the field that was kept busy flying people to points within Kansas and beyond. The company also gave “joy rides” to the curious souls who wanted to experience soaring above the earth. According to company information provided to the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce of America, Inc., in 1925 the two hard-working Travel Airs made about 3,200 flights carrying an estimated 6,500 passengers a total of 75,000 miles. The revenue gained from these flight operations went into the company coffers and contributed substantially to paying the bills.
In today’s highly-regulated, ultra-sophisticated glass-cockpit and automated world of aviation, it is easy to forget that the birth and growth of commercial flying in the United States after World War I was a very slow and laborious process. Nearly 90 years ago, in an effort to create widespread public awareness and fuel national interest in aviation, automotive mogul Henry Ford helped to create the National Air Tour for the Edsel B. Ford Reliability Trophy, named in honor of and managed by his son and heir to the Ford empire. The aerial tour was, to some extent, patterned after popular automobile activities such as the Glidden excursions that began in 1904. These “road trips” were intended to not only educate the public and promote sales of the “horseless carriage” as a useful means of reliable transportation, but also to promote the creation of non-existent infrastructure such as paved roads, bridges and travel facilities including refueling stations, hotels and restaurants.
The concept of airplanes flying a pre-determined course between cities actually originated with America’s Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce soon after the Armistice was signed in 1918; when proposed, it was met with silence and found little or no public or political support. In theory, the tour was a good idea but was too far ahead of its time. Although the reasons are numerous, chief among these was the fact that in 1919 the United States was recovering from the horrors of World War I, the airplane was essentially ignored as potential means of public and private transportation, and a commercial aviation industry did not exist to support and assist the creation of such a long-distance aerial exhibition.
During the early 1920s, however, that scene had slowly begun to change. By 1925, there were at least 290 operators in 41 states flying 676 airplanes. Only a handful of small, would-be airframe manufacturers existed, many of them (including the Travel Air Manufacturing Company) tucked away in make-shift facilities across the nation. The aviation visionaries who worked in those shops were building a limited number of airplanes per year, including seaplanes and float planes, while others managed to create a niche market by modifying World War I surplus biplanes to meet specific customer requirements. In addition to Travel Air, other early pioneering companies included Waco (abbreviation for Weaver Aircraft Company), Curtiss, Laird, Martin and many others too numerous to mention.
As the momentum for private and commercial flying gradually accelerated, the climate was finally ripe for an air tour. In addition to exposing the public to the advantages of flying, the event provided small manufacturers such as Travel Air the opportunity to demonstrate the design and performance attributes of their airplanes. When the Ford-sponsored event was announced, Beech, Stearman and Cessna, management’s “top guns” at the company, were quick to enter three airplanes – two “Model B6” three-place biplanes, one powered by a Curtiss OXX-6 and another powered by an OX-5; and one Model A three-place biplane powered by an OXX-6. Travel Air’s trio of flying machines easily met the technical and performance requirements stipulated by tour officials for entry. These included a maximum speed of more than 80 mph carrying the pilot and a payload of 0.5-lb. per cubic inch of engine displacement, and the payload could consist of a passenger, ballast or a combination of both. In addition, the rules required pilots to promise that they did not take alcohol in any form, and state that they were in good health.
Additional impetus for the Ford Tour came from Congressional passage of the Kelly Air Mail Act of February 1925, which cleared the way for airlines, then in their infancy, to assume responsibility for carrying U.S. Government air mail. It was a crucial first step toward creating a viable commercial aviation industry. The inaugural “Ford Tour,” as it became known, was sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and managed by the Detroit Aviation Society. Last but not least, Edsel Ford donated a special, gold and silver trophy standing nearly four feet tall that reportedly cost about $7,000. It was inscribed with these words: “This trophy is offered to encourage the upbuilding of commercial aviation as medium of transportation.”
The tour would be flown over a 1,000-mile course divided into 10 individual legs stretching from Detroit to Chicago, on to Omaha and St. Joseph and Kansas City; thence to St. Louis, Indianapolis, Columbus, Cleveland and returning to Detroit. The Travel Air Model A (assigned Tour number “0”) was piloted by E.K. Campbell, one of the original handful of Travel Air distributors, and the two B6 ships were flown by Walter Beech (Tour number “4”) and Francis Bowhan (Tour number “2”). Bowhan, who earned his nickname “Chief” because of his Osage Indian heritage, was a colorful but competent local pilot who often flew for the company. Campbell was accompanied by S.A. McGinnis and later W.B. Mueller, and Bowhan’s passenger was none other than his wife, Charlotte, and Thomas Day. As for Beech, he carried only one passenger – Charles E. Planck. Total payload for each airplane included 335 pounds for Campbell, 315.5 pounds for Bowhan and 286.5 pounds for Beech.
In addition to pilots representing Travel Air, local pilot Earl Rowland flew an OX-5-powered “Swallow” accompanied by “Jake” Moellendick as passenger. Hart Bowman, John W. Stauffer and Edgar Goff flew in two other Swallow biplanes. The weather did not cooperate for much of the initial route, but overall the tour was deemed a success. The first Ford Tour produced 11 pilots who had achieved “perfect scores,” including Walter Beech and the other two Travel Air entrants. Each participant received a cash award of $350 and had their name engraved on Edsel Ford’s impressive trophy. The next Ford Tour, scheduled for August 7-21, 1926, would prove to be more competitive than the first, but Walter promised Tour officials that he would be back with a new Travel Air and first place in his sights.
Nine months later during the summer of 1926, not only was Wichita awash in a sweltering heat wave, but Walter Beech was feeling the “heat” from his fellow associates regarding construction of a biplane for the upcoming Ford Tour that was only a couple of months away. Clyde Cessna and Lloyd Stearman, while sympathetic with Walter about his desire to compete in the tour, objected to the $10,000 it would take to build the ship. Travel Air’s coffers were always lean and the company could afford to pay only a small portion of the total amount. As a result, Beech decided to contact his financial friends in New York City, which he knew would be receptive to his plans. He sent a telegram describing his situation, and much to his surprise, five minutes later he received a reply stating that the money he requested would be immediately made available.
Before construction of the Model BW’s airframe began, Travel Air was approached by the Pioneer Instrument Company, led by Brice Goldsborough. Early in 1926 Pioneer had purchased a “Model B” biplane powered by a Curtiss OXX-6 engine to serve as a demonstration platform for its new series of advanced flight and navigation instruments. After discussion between Beech and Goldsborough that summer, the two men reached an agreement whereby Pioneer would supply a complete “avionics suite” of instrumentation to be installed in the Model BW. To accommodate the equipment the fuselage was widened slightly in the aft cockpit area. Goldsborough was a highly respected engineer who had worked for Vincent Bendix before starting the Pioneer company. He was acknowledged as an expert in navigation theory and practice, and had installed an early version of the earth inductor compass in Admiral Richard Byrd’s Fokker monoplane that he operated during exploration of the Artic.
Goldsborough told Beech that he wanted the Travel Air to be a flying showcase of Pioneer’s vertical readout engine and flight instruments and particularly the sophisticated earth inductor compass (Lindbergh had the device installed in the “Spirit of St. Louis” for his solo transatlantic flight in May 1927).2 The two men would work together in an effort to win the Ford Tour, and precise navigation between points would be a key factor in achieving that goal. When the cost of building and equipping the airplane were finalized, the bill came to a whopping $12,000. Walter Beech was counting on the glory of winning the Tour, coupled with the widespread publicity that would occur in the wake of such a major event, to bring in a flurry of orders for Travel Air ships that would far surpass a mere $12,000.
Although accurate navigation and reliability of the airframe and engine were paramount to winning the Ford Tour, the 1926 competition included special contests open to all entrants. Among these was the “stick/unstick” event that tested an airplane’s ability to take off and land in the shortest distance. Success in that event would add valuable points to a pilots overall score for the Tour that would be visiting airports whose grass or dirt runways varied in length. Judges stationed along the runways at each destination would determine when the airplane landed and came to a stop, and a score would be recorded. In 1926, wheel brakes were still a bit of a novelty on small aircraft, and five of the 40 ships entered were equipped with them, including the Model BW. The other would later prove to be tough competition – a Stinson “Detroiter,” Mercury Biplane, Ford Tri-Motor and a Buhl/Verville “Airster.”
As the starting date for the Tour arrived, both Beech and Goldsborough believed they had a serious chance at claiming victory. Assigned Tour Number two, the Model BW sported the hand-painted letters “PI” on each side of the fuselage along with the word “Pioneer” across the upper wing panels. The aft cockpit was bristling with the latest in navigation instrument technology. These included a display for the earth inductor compass, which was powered by a generator and a wind-driven vane mounted atop the aft fuselage turtledeck, vertical readout engine instruments for the tachometer, engine oil pressure, oil temperature and fuel pressure; airspeed indicator, vertical speed and a pitch indicator completed the impressive installation. Conventional, circular engine instruments were installed in the front cockpit that would be occupied by Beech, while Goldsborough guided each leg of the Tour from the aft cockpit.
A venture was mounted on the right cabane strut and supplied vacuum to operate the gyroscopic turn and bank indicator. The “T&B,” as it was often called, was among the earliest flight instruments that made “blind flying” a reality. What King Air pilots today take for granted as instrument flight was still relatively unknown in 1926 outside of the U.S. military. The Pioneer company had promoted the use and reliability of gyroscopic flight instruments, as had Sperry, Bendix and other innovators in the years before and after World War I. The era of all-weather flight, however, was still many years in the future but serious progress was being made. Another important capability built into the Travel Air was the drift indicating and compensation system. Its purpose was to help Goldsborough correct for the effects of wind on the airplane’s trajectory across the earth’s surface. A chief component of
that system was the earth inductor compass, which compared to a conventional
liquid compass featured significantly improved stability during flight as well as superior accuracy.
The Ford Tour got off to a safe start on August 7, with pilot Louie Meister flying a Buhl/Verville Airster being the first to depart. The 2,585-mile route took pilots from Dearborn, Michigan to Milwaukee, Des Moines, Lincoln, Nebraska; Wichita, Kansas City, Moline, Illinois; Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and finally, back to Dearborn. As the tour progressed, it quickly became obvious to competitors that the Travel Air entry was well prepared for the navigation challenges that lie ahead. As each leg of the route unfolded, Goldsborough informed Beech what compass heading to fly, despite having to override Walter’s occasional disagreement. As each leg of the tour was flown, the earth inductor compass controller mounted on the left side of the instrument panel showed deviation from the intended course, which had been carefully plotted the night before by Goldsborough. He prepared each set of charts with checkpoints marked at 10-mile increments.
Working in concert with the earth inductor compass was a special drift indicator mounted on the left side of the fuselage below the aft cockpit. The device consisted of an adjustable scale incorporating two sight wires and an eyecup for viewing the ground. By adjusting the scale to match the biplane’s altitude, the distance between the two wires was always exactly one mile. Using the preselected ground checkpoints every 10 miles as a reference, Goldsborough would look through the eyecup and sight wires at the ground passing below. When a checkpoint passed beneath the front wire he would activate a specially-built stopwatch, and stopped timing when the checkpoint passed the rear wire. The stopwatch was calibrated in miles per hour instead of minutes and seconds – a useful feature that obviated any need to calculate the Travel Air’s forward speed. By taking drift readings as the flight progressed and comparing results with previous drift checks, any change in the winds aloft were detected and course corrections passed on to the pilot. Another unique instrument was the Pioneer “Air Log” unit. The ingenious device calculated how may miles the airplane had flown through the air and was mounted on the right interplane strut.
Using wind power and suction from a small venturi, the instrument provided a cockpit display of both total miles flown and distance per leg. Goldsborough always knew how far the ship had flown as well as the distance remaining on each leg before arriving at the next destination.
Back in Wichita, the entire city seemed to be “rooting” for Beech and Goldsborough. One of the city’s leading newspapers, the Wichita “Eagle,” set up a special scoreboard on the east side of the Eagle building downtown and kept track of the Travel Air’s progress during the tour. Beech and Goldsborough were first to land in Kalamazoo and Chicago, and after arriving at Maywood Airport in the “windy city,” Beech was told he had won a $1,000 prize given by local Ford automobile dealers for the first airplane to land. Up to that point the Wright J-4 kept roaring along. Goldsborough was living up to his reputation as a skilled navigator, the instruments were working perfectly and Beech was flying the Model BW with a deft hand on the stick. Throughout the event Goldsborough was able to inform Beech within 45 minutes of their next destination what time they would arrive, and he was never wrong by more than two minutes! It was an impressive feat of precision air navigation whether judged by standards of 1926 or 2015.
When the parade of tour ships arrived at the next destination, St. Paul, Minnesota, the Travel Air still led the pack and had flown the Milwaukee-St. Paul leg at an average speed of 137.4 mph. Although the Model BW was leading the tour, it was only 44 points ahead of the tenacious Louis Meister and his Airster. Next, Walter and Brice won the leg from Lincoln, Nebraska to Wichita at an average speed of 128 mph, winning a silver loving cup from the White Eagle Oil Company. All of the tour contestants paused for a rest in Wichita during the weekend and were feted royally by the city fathers and local officials. Miss Ruth Richardson, the reigning “Miss Wichita” that year, presented each pilot with a rose and key to the city – a gesture that was well received by everyone.
On Monday, the tour departed Wichita for Richards Field in Kansas City. Once again the Travel Air landed first after a flight of only 1:30. By the end of the tour, Beech and Goldsborough had accumulated an impressive 4,034 points and easily beat all competitors. The Travel Air team earned $3,850 for their efforts and had their names inscribed on Edsel Ford’s expensive and very special trophy. It was shipped to Wichita in October and sat briefly on Walter Beech’s desk before being placed in a guarded case in the city’s Chamber of Commerce building. Later, it was returned to Ford Tour officials to await presentation to the winner of the 1927 event.
Of all the triumphs Beech and Goldsborough had achieved during the tour, they had proven that the airplane was a viable and reliable form of public and private transportation that could be flown between two points with great precision. Walter, however, was quick to give his navigator much of the credit for their victory. He realized that without Brice and his abilities, coupled with Pioneer’s special package of advanced instrumentation, it is doubtful that the Travel Air would have captured top honors. After all the hoopla surrounding the tour celebrations subsided, Beech flew the Model BW to New York City specifically to thank his financial supporters and to let them inspect the ship. He then flew to Philadelphia to attend the “Sesqui Air Meet,” where the Travel Air was delivered to its new owner.
1. These airplanes must have been among the first batch of ships built, but the lack of any reliable manufacturing records before 1926 precludes identifying them by each airplane’s construction (serial) number.
About the Author: Ed Phillips, now retired and living in the South, has researched and written eight books on the unique and rich aviation history that belongs to Wichita, Kan. His writings have focused on the evolution of the airplanes, companies and people that have made Wichita the “Air Capital of the World” for more than 80 years.