Wichita Orphans (Part Two)

Wichita Orphans (Part Two)

Wichita Orphans (Part Two)

Cessna Aircraft Company’s experimental C-106, P-7 and P-10 were designed and developed amidst the fury of World War II but failed to progress beyond the prototype stage.

During the winter of 1940, western Europe was quiet. Poland had fallen to the Nazis, part of Finland was under Soviet control and a brief but tranquil three-month period known as the “Phony War” settled over the continent. Earlier that year when Germany had conquered Denmark, Norway and the Low Countries, the ugly reality of America’s involvement in the conflict began to look like a real possibility – only France and England stood between Adolph Hitler and the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.

In Wichita, Kansas, the board of directors at the Cessna Aircraft Company came to the same realization that if the United States was left to face Hitler alone, she was woefully unprepared for the fight to come. Fortunately, there were 3,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean between America and Europe that stood as a major obstacle to any invading German force. If Uncle Sam had to take up the sword, then he would need airplanes, thousands of them, from single-engine primary trainers to four-engine heavy bombers and everything in between.

Cessna General Manager Dwane Wallace envisioned the new twin-engine Model T-50 as a strong candidate for a multi-engine trainer. He soon began preparing for large scale production of the Bobcat (as it was unofficially known) if war came to Wichita’s doorstep. The T-50 was the company’s first twin-engine ship and the prototype flew March 26, 1939. In June 1940, the board of directors approved a major expansion of the facilities to accommodate anticipated orders for the T-50 and, possibly, the single-engine Model C-145/C-165 Airmaster. Wallace, however, realized that there would be little or no demand for a military version of the Airmaster, and the last of 186 airplanes was built in 1941.

Completed at a cost of $50,000, the expansion added 28,000 square feet of floor space dedicated to final assembly operations. Although the company had sold a small number of the twin-engine ships to the Civil Aeronautics Authority and commercial operators, the T-50’s true potential was in the military marketplace. Wallace had held meetings with representatives of the United States Army Air Corps about the airplane’s specifications and performance. The Army was interested in replacing aging, obsolete trainers but Congress still held a tight rein on the nation’s purse strings and there was little money available to upgrade and modernize the Air Corps.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed that when, in the wake of France’s capitulation to the Germans, he called for production of 50,000 airplanes as part of America’s “Arsenal of Democracy.” Congress relaxed its grip on the budget and soon hundreds of millions of dollars were made available. The Air Corps sought to revitalize its air fleet and twin-engine trainers were high on its list of priorities. Cessna received orders for 33 military versions of the T-50 designated AT-8, and soon the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) placed orders for 180 airplanes designated Crane I.

Flight tests of the prototype C-106 led to construction of a second airplane, the C-106A. It featured geared radial engines, full-feathering, constant-speed propellers and a larger cargo door. The two Loadmasters built were cut up for scrap in 1943. (Wichita State University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives via Robert J. Pickett Collection/Kansas Aviation Museum)

As the fateful year 1941 arrived, more than 1,500 workers labored in three shifts to build the AT-8 and Crane I. Later that year the Cessna engineering staff initiated a program to improve performance of the aircraft. The project was classified as “P-7” and centered on a series of upgrades to the existing Bobcat and redesignated T-50A. The only major improvements were installation of Jacobs L6MB static, air-cooled radial engines, each rated at 300 horsepower, replacing the 225-horsepower L4MB powerplants of the T-50. Because the P-7 would be capable of higher speeds and feature increased wing loading compared to its predecessor, the wood wings and empennage surfaces were sheathed with plywood that also provided increased torsional strength for the entire wing structure.

In addition, the airplane would have a higher maximum gross weight and needed a new landing gear arrangement to handle the increase. Cessna reportedly purchased main landing gear from North American Aviation that was used on its T-6 advanced trainer and modified the gear to fit the T-50A. Only one prototype was built and first flew June 2, 1941, with veteran Cessna pilot Mort Brown at the controls. Flight testing demonstrated that the airplane possessed a significant improvement in takeoff, climb and maximum speed, achieving more than 200 mph. A series of tests continued through that summer and the ship was often flown by Dwane Wallace. The Army Air Corps and the RCAF, however, expressed little interest in the P-7 project and no orders were forthcoming, chiefly because both air forces were content with the AT-8 and Crane I that already were in full production. The P-7 eventually was dismantled at the factory and disappeared.

Cessna’s engineers, however, were already working on another design intended to be a potential replacement for the venerable T-50. Known around the factory as Project P-10, the airplane essentially was a high performance, multi-engine trainer that made extensive use of the T-50 airframe and components but was equipped with a bubble-type canopy enclosing a cockpit featuring side-by-side seating for the instructor and student. Wingspan was reduced slightly and the wings, empennage and fuselage were covered in plywood. Aluminum alloys were used to construct the engine nacelles and cowlings for the two Jacobs L6MB radial engines, each producing 300 horsepower.

As with the P-7, Cessna engineers used a modified version of the AT-6’s main landing gear to support the heavier P-10 on the ground. On October 6, 1940, Mort Brown climbed into the P-10’s cockpit and took the ship up for its first flight. He noted that the airplane had excellent visibility from the cockpit and very good performance compared to the AT-8. More flight tests followed until late that year when Brown turned over responsibility for flying the P-10 to Carl Winstead, another company pilot and long-time member of Wichita’s aviation fraternity. Unfortunately, the Army Air Corps was not interested in the P-10 because it had a sufficient number of training aircraft on order through 1944, and no contracts were forthcoming. According to Cessna Aircraft Company records, the airplane was dismantled at the factory in October 1941 and, as with the P-7, disappeared.

One other important story about Wichita during the war centers on Cessna’s participation in the U.S. Army’s quest to assemble a large force of combat gliders. In 1942 the Allies began planning for “Operation Overlord” – invasion of Hitler’s “Fortress Europe.” An important part of that highly complex plan was the use of gliders to airlift troops and equipment behind enemy lines. The glider of choice was the Waco CG-4, designed by the Waco Aircraft Company located in Troy, Ohio. In June, Wichita received orders to help build the aircraft and commanded to give the work top priority. Delivery of more than 700 gliders was to be accomplished by October.1

Cessna Aircraft Company’s role was building the outer wing panels. To accomplish that task on time, a special factory boasting 108,000 square feet was erected in only 30 days near Hutchinson, Kansas, 50 miles northwest of Wichita. Beech Aircraft Corporation was assigned responsibility for the inner wing panels. Beech and Cessna delivered their assemblies to the Boeing-Wichita Division that retained overall responsibility for the program. The gliders were assembled and delivered to the U.S. Army as scheduled and played their part well in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, acting as the spearhead of a massive Allied force invasion.

When 1943 arrived, Cessna management was looking to the future when demand for the military T-50 would inevitably decline as Germany, Japan and Italy were defeated. That year the Allies were in ascendancy across every front as Germany was battered by bombs and weakened by fighting on two fronts; Japan was on the defensive throughout the Pacific and Italy was on the brink of collapse.

The C-106 was a good design and the Army Air Corps was interested in mass production of the twin-engine freighter, but only two were built. (Wichita State University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives via Robert J. Pickett Collection/Kansas Aviation Museum)

Meanwhile, back in Wichita as hundreds of Cessna twin-engine trainers continued to roll off the assembly lines, the engineering department was working on another airplane that could help the Army transport supplies to soldiers fighting at the European and Pacific fronts. It would be built of non-strategic materials, possess good overall performance and be capable of operating from short, unimproved airstrips that were commonplace in a war zone.

Designated Project P-260 and nicknamed by Cessna as the Loadmaster, the design featured the company’s characteristic all-wood, full-cantilever wing mounted atop a welded steel tube fuselage. The conventional landing gear was fully retractable, and two Pratt & Whitney R-1340S3-H1 radial engines that each produced 600 horsepower (takeoff rating). The forward fuselage section around the cockpit and the wing nacelles were the only assemblies that used aluminum alloy – the fuselage was covered in fabric doped and shrunk to fit. The wings were sheathed in plywood as were the horizontal and vertical stabilizers. The flight control surfaces were made of welded steel tubing covered with fabric.

The Army Air Corps like the Loadmaster and assigned the designation “C-106” to the high-wing monoplane. The prototype made its first flight January 1943 and was the largest Cessna airplane built up to that time. As the flight test program progressed, the engineers needed a pilot with experience flying large aircraft, and they had just the right man in mind. “Deed” Levy, well known and a highly experienced pilot for the Boeing-Wichita Division, was called in to help evaluate the airplane’s handling characteristics. Levy’s suggestions coupled with those of Air Corps pilots led to construction of an improved, second prototype, the C-106A. It featured three-blade propellers, geared engines and a redesigned fuselage that included a larger cargo door to better facilitate loading and unloading operations.

With a wingspan of 64.7 feet and a length of 51.1 feet, the C-106A weighed in empty at 9,000 pounds and could be loaded up to a maximum takeoff weight of 14,000 pounds. Maximum speed was projected to be 195 mph. The C-106A took to the skies over Wichita April 9, 1943, and won Cessna Aircraft Company a contract for 500 of the transports. Unfortunately, the Air Corps later decided it could not justify manufacturing the airplane due to high priority for materials to build other aircraft. The contract was canceled and both the C-106 and C-106A were scrapped at the factory.

A few other projects developed by Cessna Aircraft during the war are worthy of mention, although none progressed beyond the drawing board or mock-up stages:

In May 1941, a two-place version of the Bobcat, dubbed the T-55, was designed with two, 300-horsepower Jacobs radial engines providing a maximum speed of 225 mph. None were built.

One year later in 1942, Cessna engineers planned to install four Pratt & Whitney R-985-T1B3 Wasp Junior radial engines to an enlarged T-50 airframe transforming it into a four-engine trainer for heavy bomber aircrews. No further development occurred.

The T-70 navigator trainer was proposed in 1941 as a low-wing cabin monoplane powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-1340 radial engines. Seating 10 students in its spacious interior, the T-70 was designed to a maximum gross weight of 12,000 pounds and a maximum speed of 220 mph. The design was shelved in part because the Beechcraft AT-11 navigator trainer was already in production and serving that role well.

Project P-370 was known at the Cessna factory as the The Family Car of the Air during its development in 1944. Intended for the postwar lightweight airplane market, the P-370 made it to the mock-up stage but the project was canceled in 1945.

Perhaps the most bizarre project conceived by Cessna engineering during the war was the CTP-1 (Cessna Torpedo Plane) – a remote-controlled drone powered by a 200-horsepower engine and fitted with a 500-pound explosive warhead. The crude guidance system activated electric servos that deflected the rudder and elevators to control the flight path. The concept called for the CTP-1 to be guided over the target, the wings would be blown off by a charge and the fuselage would plummet downward and strike the enemy a mighty blow. None were built.


  The Waco CG-4 was built by 16 subcontractors during the war. A total
of 13,909 were manufactured. The glider could carry 15 troops or a howitzer and fewer soldiers as well as supplies. The glider’s wing spanned more than 83 feet. Gross weight was 9,000 pounds and maximum towing speed was 150 mph. The gliders were usually towed aloft by U.S. Army Air Forces Douglas C-47 and Royal Air Force Dakota transports.

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