Wichita’s Air Racing Legacy, Part 2

Wichita’s Air Racing Legacy, Part 2

Wichita’s Air Racing Legacy, Part 2

Clyde V. Cessna once said, “Speed is the only reason for flying,” and from 1928-1932 Wichita’s grand patriarch of aviation backed up that claim by competing in air races that propelled the Cessna Aircraft Company to new heights of success.

On September 5, 1928, 47 pilots prepared to depart Long Island’s Roosevelt Field on the first leg of the New York-to-Los Angeles Air Derby. By 4 a.m., the flight line was bustling with activity as pilots double-checked their aircraft, mechanics changed spark plugs and adjusted carburetors, and fuel trucks darted from ship-to-ship topping off fuel and oil tanks.

A total of $57,500 in prize money was up for grabs, and Clyde Cessna was determined to win his share of the bounty. It was still dark when the president of the Cessna Aircraft Company called a meeting of his pilots to discuss final preparations for the race. Clyde had entered six monoplanes in the event – one Model AA flown by Cessna and Curtiss Quick, a Model AW piloted by Earl Rowland, and four Model BW ships flown by Cessna dealers and distributors. Clyde and his fellow aviators reviewed estimated fuel and oil consumption, the best power settings to use, and emphasized the necessity of accurate dead-reckoning navigation between the 16 control points that defined the route westward.

Among the 35 pilots competing in the Class A segment, Rowland knew he and the Model AW would face tough competition from Robert Dake and his American Moth parasol monoplane. Both airplanes featured seven-cylinder static, air-cooled Warner Scarab radial engines. At precisely 5:43 a.m., the official starter dropped the red flag as the first airplane took off for Los Angeles, 2,840 statute miles away.

Minutes later 26 other airplanes followed, including Earl Rowland and the Model AW. Cessna was confident that Rowland would be victorious in the Class A division because of the monoplane’s speed and the fuel economy of its Warner powerplant. Rowland had been a pilot for the Stearman Aircraft Company in the summer of 1928 when he became interested in flying the Cessna Model AW in the Air Derby. Lloyd Stearman had no objection, and Clyde quickly assigned Earl to fly the silver monoplane bearing race number 99.1

Air racing became increasingly popular in the late 1920s and into the early 1930s and evolved into a national pastime that rivaled major league baseball. One of the famous air racing pilots of that era was James Harold “Jimmy” Doolittle, who posed for the camera with the Laird “Super Solution” biplane he raced during 1931. (Joan Laird Post)

After flying for 10 hours, Rowland was 28 minutes ahead of arch rival Dake. Earl was flying a tough, disciplined race, calculating every step and navigating with extreme precision between control points. When the silver Cessna landed at Fort Worth, Texas, it had amassed a lead of more than 30 minutes over the American Moth. At the El Paso control point, Earl had stretched his lead to more than one hour, but the western half of the nation still lay ahead. After a grueling five days of hard flying, Cessna number 99 landed gently on the grass of Mines Field near Los Angeles, followed only one minute later by Dake and the American Moth. Rowland was officially declared the winner in the Class A division, earning $5,000 for his efforts. Later that day he was given checks totaling $4,000 from the Richfield and Kendall oil companies, sponsors of the event.

Including additional cash awards for achieving lowest elapsed times between certain control points, Earl corralled $10,910 to split between himself and Clyde Cessna. While attending the 1928 National Air Races (NAR), Earl entered number 99 in the 75-mile, “Free-for-All” race and easily won the event, adding another $1,200 to his winnings. In the wake of Earl’s victory, orders for the Model AW poured in to the Cessna offices.2

Clyde’s next foray occurred in May 1929 when he entered two factory-sponsored aircraft – the prototype DC-6 cabin monoplane and a specially-built prototype mail carrier dubbed the CM-1 – in the inaugural Gardner Trophy Race sponsored by Russell E. and Fred W. Gardner. Unlike other competitions, the Gardner race was a full-throttle speed dash and cared nothing about efficiency, load carried and elapsed time. The event consisted of two phases: a qualifying flight starting from five widely separated locations in the United States, and a speed race from St. Louis to Indianapolis and return. The winners of the qualifying flights would earn $750, with the first- and second-place finishers earning the right to fly in the dash between cities. The victor in that event would take home $5,500.

The CM-1 was radically different from production Cessna ships with a modified Model AW wing mounted midway on the welded steel tube fuselage that was covered with laminated plywood to give it a rounded, smooth appearance. An open cockpit was located at the trailing of the wing and a large compartment for air mail was installed in the forward fuselage and accommodated up to 500 pounds of mail and express packages. The fixed landing gear was adopted from the Model AW, and a tail skid supported the aft fuselage. The CM-1 was powered by a Wright Aeronautical nine-cylinder, static, air-cooled radial engine rated at 225 horsepower driving an adjustable-pitch steel propeller. The engine was nestled snugly beneath an NACA cowl.

When CM-1 was finally completed, there was little time for proper flight tests. Cessna had again enlisted the services of local pilot Earl Rowland, who with help from factory workers and mechanics, prepared the airplane as best they could before Earl took off for San Antonio, Texas. He flew unopposed from Texas to St. Louis, Missouri, easily winning his division. Rowland’s victory qualified him for the speed dash that was scheduled for Memorial Day to coincide with the Indianapolis 500 automobile race. Unfortunately, the CM-1 suffered from a lack of power from the Wright radial and finished a disappointing and distant fifth behind Charles “Speed” Holman flying a Laird LC-RJ-200 biplane and pilots Sydnor Hall, Art Davis and John Wood. The underpowered Cessna DC-6 flown by Stanley Stanton was so slow it was not competitive and finished in last place.

During the months immediately after the stock market debacle on Wall Street struck America in October 1929, Wichita’s aviation industry was forced to its knees as sales of new airplanes slowly grounded to a trickle. By 1930 Walter Beech at Travel Air, Clyde Cessna and Lloyd Stearman were forced to lay off hundreds of workers.

Mr. Cessna was unhappy with the state of the U.S. economy, and in 1930 he turned to air racing as one way to help keep the doors of his company open. American Cirrus Engines, Inc. sponsored the All American Flying Derby – an aerial trek of 5,541 statute miles within the United States – to demonstrate the feasibility of long distance flying in small aircraft featuring engines of low horsepower. Cessna jumped at the chance to capture his share of a $25,000 purse after local pilot Stanley Stanton proposed that a special racer be built to compete in the event. Stanton’s employer, Carl B. Haun, forked over $3,500 for Cessna to construct the GC-1 (G: seventh Cessna design; C: Cirrus engine and 1: the first ship of that type built).

Local Wichita pilot Stanley Stanton posed for the camera with the Cessna GC-1 he flew in the Cirrus Derby race in July 1930. A faulty supercharger plagued the red racer and it was not competitive. In 1932 the monoplane was destroyed in a hangar fire. (Textron Aviation)

Clyde’s son Eldon and a few company engineers still on the payroll worked feverishly to complete the all-red racer, which they delivered to Stanton on July 9. A four-cylinder Cirrus Ensign rated at 90 horsepower was installed, and featured a supercharger designed by famous race car driver, Ralph De Palma. He claimed it added 30 percent more power to the engine, but it was soon evident that the supercharger needed further development.

Early test flights of the GC-1 revealed a maximum speed of 160 mph – a good pace if the engine/supercharger combination worked properly and gave Stanton an excellent chance of winning the race. In mid-July Stanley flew the airplane to Detroit, joining 17 other competitors anxiously awaiting the drop of the starter’s flag. The fleet of small ships took off across the vast expanse of America. Unfortunately, bad weather plagued the race from the beginning, and the GC-1’s unreliable supercharger prevented the engine from attaining maximum power. As a result, the Ensign powerplant ran rough, the intake manifold cracked, seals leaked oil and exhaust stacks broke and fell off the engine. Despite these problems, the GC-1 managed to finish in seventh place (and out of the money) with an average speed of only 72 mph. By contrast, Lee Gelbach and his Command Aire monoplane finished in first place averaging more than 127 mph. After the Cirrus derby Cessna mechanics removed the troublesome supercharger and the airplane was entered in the 1930 NAR and took fourth place in a race for open cockpit aircraft with engines displacing 1,000 cubic inches.

Undaunted by the GC-1’s lackluster performance, Clyde Cessna built a second racer dubbed the GC-2 featuring a Warner Scarab radial engine that produced 110 horsepower. With its mid-wing design and wing span of 24 feet, the GC-2 was almost a carbon-copy of its predecessor. Earl Rowland took the ship aloft for its maiden flight on August 19. He was enthusiastic about the airplane’s maximum speed of about 170 mph, and after a few days spent working out some “bugs” in various systems, Rowland flew the GC-2 north to compete in the 1930 NAR in Chicago, Illinois. Clyde and Eldon also attended the races.

The last major air race of 1931 was the Trans-continental Handicap Air Derby. The route was from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland, Ohio, the site of that year’s NAR. Clyde’s son, Eldon, entered the Model AW flown by Earl Rowland in the 1928 air derby, but the young Cessna had made numerous modifications to the ship in an effort to reduce drag and eke out more speed. Earl Rowland also entered a Model AW sponsored by the Wichita Flying Club.

Roy Liggett posed with the CR-2 during the 1933 Miami Air races. A more powerful Warner Super Scarab engine had been installed and further modifications made to the airframe to reduce drag. The racer was capable of speeds well in excess of 200 mph and was highly competitive. (Textron Aviation)

A total of 63 pilots were registered for the transcontinental speed dash, and when the race began Eldon led the flyers into Arizona, but Rowland was forced out when the normally bullet-proof Warner Scarab engine quit cold. The forced landing badly damaged the monoplane, and Earl spent the next few days dismantling the wreckage and having it shipped back to the factory in Wichita.

Meanwhile, Eldon and his Model AW continued to outpace the rest of the field, but he had slipped to third place when the racers landed at Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Eldon managed to hang on to third place when the race ended in Cleveland a few days later and was happy to pocket $1,200 in prize money. Eldon and the speedy Model AW had distinguished themselves as tough competitors on a national scale, and he had gleaned valuable experience in the air that he would put to good use in 1932.

Back in March 1931, in a move designed to avoid declaring bankruptcy, the board of directors at the Cessna Aircraft Company voted to close the factory and remove Clyde Cessna from the payroll. Sales were non-existent, and investors had run out of patience. Clyde was disappointed, but he understood that their decision was appropriate given the near hopeless state of the nation’s small aircraft industry. Undaunted and armed with sufficient cash, Clyde and Eldon formed the C.V. Cessna Aircraft Company and took up residence in a small building located in Wichita. The father-son duo planned to design and build small and fast monoplanes capable of winning air races, because in the severely depressed aviation business, that is where the money was in 1932.3

The first product of the C.V. Aircraft Company was the diminutive CR-1 (Cessna Racer-No. 1). It was, indeed, small. The fuselage was only 12 feet long and the shoulder-mounted, full-cantilever wing spanned a mere 16 feet. A retractable main landing gear (manually operated via a crank and chain system) was an innovation for that class of airplane. Clyde was quoted as saying that retracting the gear into the forward fuselage “was the only way to arrange it” because the wings were the strongest part of the airframe and should “not have holes in them.”

To power the CR-1 Clyde installed an engine he was thoroughly familiar with – the seven-cylinder Warner Scarab. The engine’s small frontal area dictated the width of the fuselage, and the Warner was surrounded by a NACA-type pressure cowl. CR-1’s first flight occurred on January 18 with Eldon at the controls. The racer was so unstable and difficult to fly that it was also its last. It was rebuilt into the CR-2 and featured an additional two feet of wingspan and the fuselage was stretched two feet. Clyde’s friend and racing pilot Roy Liggett made the first flight without incident. A series of tests ensued to check the airplane’s behavior in high-G turns around simulated pylons, and to determine maximum speed. In accordance with standard practice for a thoroubred racer like the CR-2, the Warner was modified to operate at 2,500-2,700 RPM – far above the standard redline speed of 2,050 RPMs.

Christened Miss Wanda in honor of Clyde’s daughter, the tiny monoplane made its competition debut at the Omaha Air Races held in May 1932. Liggett placed fourth in the event for engines of 500 cubic-inch displacement at a speed of 166 mph. The racer’s last event at Omaha was a free-for-all that found Roy again crossing the finish line in fifth at a speed of 172 mph. Considering that the little Cessna was competing against racers boasting as much as 450 horsepower, Liggett had done well. Only 10 mph had separated Miss Wanda from first place.

Further modifications were made to Eldon’s Model AW to give it a few more miles per hour, while the CR-2 would compete in the 1932 NAR in its original configuration and, hopefully, take the checkered flag for the first time instead of finishing in fourth or fifth place. At the end of the NAR, Eldon in his Model AW and Liggett in Miss Wanda had won $1,700 in prize money. Despite these successes, Clyde and Eldon knew that to win races and top money, the CR-2 needed more horsepower and a maximum speed exceeding 200 mph.

Clyde was able to obtain a special version of the Warner engine known the Super Scarab that produced 145 horsepower. Installation of the heavier powerplant, however, required a slight increase in the CR-2’s fuselage length for weight and balance purposes, and a new cowling had to be fabricated to compensate for the increased outside diameter of the seven-cylinder radial. In addition, Clyde and Eldon further streamlined the little racer to reduce drag. The CR-2 was rolled out of the factory on December 28 for its second “first flight.” Speed tests indicated that a full throttle with the Warner screaming at 2,700 RPM, the tiny monoplane easily broke the 200-mph barrier.4

Charged with enthusiasm for the racer’s potential, Clyde wasted no time having Roy Liggett fly the monoplane down to Miami to compete in the 1933 “All-American Air Races” that kicked off a new season. The Super Scarab engine and drag reduction efforts paid off when the little monoplane won the Colonel E.H.R. Green Trophy race at an average speed of 194 mph. Liggett collected a whopping $6,500 and the victory was made sweeter because he finally beat Johnny Livingston and his modified Monocoupe. The CR-2 had defeated Johnny by a significant margin, and Livingston began to realize that if he was to remain at the top of his sport he needed a Cessna racer. After the races concluded, Liggett flew the ship back to Wichita where it rested in the hangar before the next major race scheduled for July.

In March, while the CR-2 was undergoing further modifications to eke out more speed, Johnny Livingston flew his Monocoupe to Wichita and had a serious chat with Clyde and Eldon Cessna. Before he departed Johnny ordered a custom-built racer that would be known as the CR-3. The ship would incorporate certain changes dictated by Livingston, including a shoulder-mounted wing recommended to him by Dwane Wallace, Clyde’s nephew who had recently earned a degree in aeronautical engineering. By late April, the basic airframe was nearing completion, and Livingston removed the Super Scarab from the Monocoupe for installation in the CR-3.

Roy Liggett posed with the CR-2 during the 1933 Miami Air races. A more powerful Warner Super Scarab engine had been installed and further modifications made to the airframe to reduce drag. The racer was capable of speeds well in excess of 200 mph and was highly competitive. (Textron Aviation)

By 1933, Johnny had become one of air racing’s all-time top money winners. For example, from 1928-1931 he took the checkered flag 79 times, placed second on 43 occasions and third only 15 times. Johnny was pinning his hopes of dominating the air race circuit with his new Cessna speedster. In May the only task remaining was to have Livingston sit in the cockpit to determine weight and balance calculations. The CR-3 was trundled out of the factory on June 2, 1933, and Livingston handed Mr. Cessna a check for $2,700. During the next few days a series of flight tests were conducted, minor adjustments were made to the airframe and engine, and at last Livingston was ready to unleash his new mount on the unsuspecting competition, including the CR-2.

In mid-June Johnny entered his brightly-painted Cessna (yellow overall with red trim) in the Omaha races, beating long-time competitors (and close friends) Benny Howard and Harold Neumann before traveling north to compete in air races held in July near Chicago. It would prove to be a tough competition because the CR-2 would be there, too, this time flown by veteran pilot Arthur J. Davis. Johnny managed to eke out a win in the Baby Ruth Trophy race at a speed of 201 mph, while Davis was right on his tail in second place with a speed of 200 mph. Both Cessna and Livingston knew that the two airplanes were essentially equal and would consistently butt heads in wingtip-to-wingtip fights for the money.

That is what happened on July 4 in the Aero Digest Trophy Race when the two racers appeared to be one airplane as they rounded the course lap after lap. Johnny, however, was able to gain a split-second lead over Davis in the last few pylon turns, thanks to that shoulder-mounted Dwane Wallace had recommended. Only three seconds and a few miles per hour separated first place from second, with Livingston winning $2,250 and Art pocketing $1,250.

To top off that achievement, on July 5, Livingston flew the racer at 237 mph over a 1.9-mile closed course to set a world record for airplanes with engines of less than 500 cubic inch displacement. Unfortunately, the meteoric rise of the CR-3 came to an end on August 1 when Johnny flew the ship to Columbus, Ohio. Although he was able to crank down the landing gear, he could not manually insert one of two pins that locked the gear in the extended position.

After many attempts to force the lock into place, Livingston reluctantly decided to bail out over the airport instead of risking injury or death making a forced landing. When Johnny stood up in the open cockpit, his body so disturbed airflow that the racer snapped into a spin, pinning the pilot against the fuselage. Johnny struggled back into the cockpit, recovered from the spin and climbed higher for another attempt to exit the airplane. This time he rolled the monoplane into knife-edge flight, firewalled the throttle and pushed top rudder while ramming the stick forward. He popped out of the cockpit and fell clear of the stricken racer before pulling the ripcord. As he slowly drifted downward, Livingston watched his undefeated racer dive straight into the ground at a tremendous speed, the Super Scarab screaming at the top of its lungs. Minutes later, surrounded a growing crowd of onlookers, Johnny walked over to the smoking hulk that had buried itself in the ground. In less than 60 days since its first flight, the CR-3 had won a special place in history as one of greatest designs of air racing’s “Golden Age.”

The CR-2, however, was still alive and well as Clyde and Eldon worked more magic in an effort to gain more speed from the racer. After 30 days of hard work, “Miss Wanda” emerged from the workshop sporting a new paint job, a completely revised cockpit enclosure that included a canopy and small, metal panels (identical to those installed on the CR-3) that covered the wheels when the gear was retracted. A redesigned cowling featuring blisters to clear the engine’s rocker boxes were another attempt to reduce drag. The changes warranted a change in the designation to CR-2A. Late in August Roy Liggett completed a series of test flights before flying north to compete in the upcoming 1933 air races held at the Curtiss-Reynolds Airport near Chicago. “Miss Wanda” showed her tail to the competition during qualifying heats and it looked as though the racer would enjoy great success and a lot of prize money.

In the summer of 1933, racing pilot Johnny Livingston (center) posed with well-known aerobatic pilot Tex LaGrone (right) and a friend on the new CR-3 that was custom-built by Clyde and Eldon Cessna for Livingston. The yellow and red monoplane won every race Johnny entered but was destroyed in a crash only 60 days after its first flight. (Textron Aviation)

On September 2, as strong winds blew across the airport, Liggett climbed aboard the CR-2A and took off in an attempt to set a speed record. With the Warner engine at full throttle, Roy leveled off at about 300 feet after a shallow dive to gain speed when suddenly a section of the cowling blew off the engine and struck the left wing, breaking it off near the root. As Clyde Cessna watched in horror, the airplane snapped into rapid rolls to the left and crashed into a cornfield in an explosive ball of flame, scattering wreckage over a wide area. Liggett was killed instantly. According to Eldon Cessna and others who knew Clyde well, the accident stripped the pioneer aviator of his enthusiasm for racing and for flying itself. Never again did C.V. Cessna possess that dynamic drive and determination to succeed that had served him so well for the past 22 years. Liggett was survived by a wife and two children whom Clyde supported financially for an undisclosed period.

The Cessna CR-2 and CR-3 racers were a special breed of airplane flown by a unique breed of pilots who were not afraid to fly those machines to their limits. Perhaps more importantly, the speedsters of Clyde and Eldon Cessna brought Wichita not only fame but embellished the prairie city’s already solid reputation as the undisputed “Air Capital of the World.”


1. Clyde Cessna was confident that the Model AW would win the Class A division chiefly because in service it had consistently demonstrated a fuel economy of 21 miles per gallon while averaging more than 110 mph – excellent performance for 1928.

2. Sales of the speedy Model AW continued unabated until the Wall Street debacle in October 1929. During 1930 production slowed to trickle and only 50 of the popular monoplanes were delivered to customers. The Cessna Aircraft Company locked its doors in 1931 after manufacturing about 240 cabin monoplanes (Model AW, DC-6A and DC-6B, and custom-built air racing ships) from 1927-1931.

3 The building was initially built to house Quick Air Motors, but Curtiss Quick failed to occupy the facility. The Swift Aircraft Corporation was the next resident, but the stock market crash forced the company into receivership. Last, none other than the talented designer/engineer Al Mooney used the building to construct his advanced Mooney A-1 cabin monoplane before leaving Wichita.

4 At 2,700 RPM the engine was producing about 175 horsepower. Modifying engines to operate at higher RPM than a stock powerplant was common within the air racing community during the 1930s.

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