Part One – Walter Beech is remembered as one of Wichita’s greatest aviation patriarchs, an aviation titan who not only put his name on the best airplanes money could buy, but also was driven by a never-ending quest for speed.
Wichita pilot Walter H. Beech sat in the cockpit of the Travel Air Special, patiently awaiting the start of the “Free-For-All,” 50-mile speed dash at the Tulsa Air Meet in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Beech was one of more than a dozen competitors hoping to cross the finish line first, but as he taxied his biplane to the starting line, Walter told officials that he would be the last to take off! Such an odd decision could only mean one thing – Beech was feeling confident that he was flying the fastest ship in the event.
Suddenly, the starter’s flag dropped, and the race was on! The gaggle of airplanes surged forward, kicking up clouds of dust, their engines making so much noise that spectators covered their ears. Crowds cheered for their favorite pilot as the flying machines banked to round the first turn pylon, sometimes flying perilously close to one another. Back at the starting line, however, sat Walter Beech and the Special.
As the last airplane rounded the pylon, Beech shoved the throttle full forward and the 160-horsepower Curtiss engine roared to life. A few seconds later the black and gold biplane was in the air. The competition had opened up a big lead on Beech, but he chose to ease back on the throttle, smoothly flying his steed around the home pylon and onto the back stretch. Walter had plenty of throttle left, but he was content to slowly catch the flyers ahead.
The crowds were on their feet as the sleek Travel Air began to overtake the field, slipping past one and then another of the slower ships. Walter kept a keen eye on the airplanes ahead as the slipstream slapped at his cheeks. He was about to overtake yet another ship, so he skillfully applied right stick and rudder, pushed the throttle farther forward and swiftly left the hapless pilot in his wake. For mile after mile and lap after lap, Beech just kept pushing the throttle forward, passing all but the lead aircraft.
As the last few laps began, Walter applied full throttle and the Special surged forward. He quickly caught the front runners and passed them easily to take the lead. His competitors were stunned by the Travel Air’s outright speed – nobody thought the little biplane from Wichita would be so fast! Walter soon found himself five miles ahead of the field and took the checkered flag after flying for 29:26 seconds. He took home a fist full of greenbacks and a handsome trophy for his efforts.
The race was sponsored by the Tulsa Daily World and drew large crowds to the city’s airfield outside of town. The team from Travel Air included not only Walter Beech, but company president Clyde Cessna and engineers Mac Short and Lloyd Stearman. Beech struck first by winning the 30-mile race for stock airplanes powered by Curtiss OX-5 engines and beating Travel Air’s chief competition, the WACO company based in Troy, Ohio.1
As the week-long airshow continued, pilots Mac Short, Stearman and Cessna won six races. Stearman was victorious in the “On-To-Tulsa” cross-country event for the heaviest load carried, and Short took first place in that race for stock (unmodified) airplanes, flying a standard Travel Air Model A. When the Tulsa Air Meet was over, the airmen from Wichita had won five events and placed second in two other races. The trophies awarded to the pilots were displayed proudly in the front window of the small Travel Air factory.
Stearman and Short had been friends for years and both attended the Kansas State Agricultural College (KSAC) before America’s entry into World War I in April 1917. When President Woodrow Wilson asked for a declaration of war against Germany and her allied powers, both young men were quick to enlist. Stearman chose the U.S. Navy and Short signed up for the U.S. Army. Although Short completed training as a bomber pilot, Stearman did not win his wings before the Armistice was signed in November 1918.
Short returned to KSAC and spent the next three years earning a degree in mechanical engineering. Upon graduation he became a Junior Aeronautical Engineer at the Army’s prestigious McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio. During his brief time at McCook, where he met several soon-to-be-prominent aviators including James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, Short was involved in many experiments with airfoil designs, drag reduction, engines of all types; supercharging and turbocharging systems, lubricants, fuels, propellers and armaments. Mac resigned from McCook and enrolled in the equally prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he earned a Master’s Degree in Aeronautical Engineering in June 1925.2
By contrast, after the war Lloyd Stearman went to work as an apprentice architect at a company in Wichita, but in 1919 he was hired by aviation pioneer E.M. Laird as an assistant designer. At that time Laird was beginning to manufacture a three-place, double-bay, open-cockpit biplane known as the “Swallow.” Lloyd finally learned to fly in 1920 and when Laird resigned and departed Wichita in 1923, Stearman was elevated to chief engineer.
During 1921 he had become friends with Walter Beech, who served not only as general manager of the Swallow Airplane Manufacturing Company, but also developed into a successful salesman, demonstration and exhibition pilot. In 1922-1923, Walter flew various types of Laird airplanes in air races, including one or two that were highly modified Swallow biplanes featuring clipped wings and powered by war-surplus 150-180-horsepower Wright-Hispano Suiza V-type, eight-cylinder engines.
During the late summer of 1925, Short and Stearman approached Walter Beech about building a biplane for speed. Initially Beech was reluctant because the priority was building biplanes for customers, not air racers, but he had an insatiable thirst for speed and soon gave his approval. Dubbed the “Special” by Short and Stearman, the new ship would be smaller than production airplanes and feature an entirely different empennage. The fuselage and tail section were fabricated from gas-welded, chrome molybdenum steel tubing for strength and durability. The front cockpit could accommodate two passengers with the pilot seated in the aft cockpit.
Spars and wing ribs were made of spruce, with the upper wing panels spanning 31 feet six inches and the lower panels 25 feet two inches. A positive stagger existed between the wings and all fittings for the landing and flying wires were installed within the wing structure as much as possible to reduce parasite drag. Streamline flying and landing wires, although more expensive than standard wires, were installed. In addition, a small airfoil was fitted between the fixed main landing gear and further reduced air resistance.
The two engineers chose to power the Travel Air with a Curtiss C-6A, inline, six-cylinder engine rated at 160 horsepower. The engine’s narrow width and small frontal area would promote smooth airflow, and as a final touch, the powerplant was fully enclosed in hand-made, sheet metal cowling. The coolant radiator was suspended under the firewall and could be raised and lowered mechanically to control water temperature as well as reducing drag. To make the Special just a little more special, the fuselage was painted a high gloss black while the wings were gold, providing a stunning contrast. To accent these colors, the interplane and cabane struts were given a bright, nickel plate finish.
Soon after the Special’s triumphs in Tulsa it was flown by Walter Beech in the inaugural National Air Tour for the Edsel B. Ford Reliability Trophy. Henry Ford’s son, Edsel, believed in the future of aviation and in 1925 donated a special trophy to the Detroit Board of Commerce. The Board planned an aerial tour of different states aimed at demonstrating to the public that air travel was becoming a reliable form of transportation, and the trophy would serve as a symbol of that event.
Although not an air race, the first “Ford Tour,” as it became known, was held in 1925. When the tour ended, 11 pilots had amassed the most points by flying between designated checkpoints. Pilots who landed first won more points, and speed proved to be the key asset throughout the event. In addition to winning cash, the name of each pilot was permanently engraved on the Ford trophy – a monumental object standing four feet high and made of pure gold and silver. Walter Beech and two other pilots flying Travel Air biplanes were among the top finishers, and the trophy was displayed briefly in the Travel Air factory before it was returned to Detroit.3
Four years later in 1929, two other engineers at Travel Air created the Type “R” – a single-seat monoplane powered by a nine-cylinder static, air-cooled radial engine rated at 420 horsepower. The engine was manufactured by Wright Aeronautical Corporation specifically for the new racer. The chief designer was Herbert Rawdon, and he was assisted by Walter Burnham. The two men convinced Walter Beech to allow them to build the speedster on their own time but with company money. Chief pilot Clarence Clark flew the Type R for its maiden flight on August 18.
A week later the team from Travel Air arrived in Cleveland, Ohio, for the 1929 National Air Races (NAR). On September 1, Labor Day, the thousands of spectators in the grandstands waited anxiously for the start of Event 26 – the free-for-all race sponsored by the Thompson Products. A story persists to this day that before the race began Walter Beech visited the competition and took bets that the Type R would easily defeat not only the highly-modified military fighters fielded by the U.S. Army and Navy, but the best of the commercial competitors, too.
According to eye witness accounts of the race, the free-for-all speed dash unfolded as follows: “Then the start! All eyes focused on the Army’s Curtiss Hawk biplane piloted by Captain R.G. Breene as he jumped into the lead. Close behind him was Navy Lieutenant Commander J.J. Clark in another highly-modified Curtiss Hawk. One by one, all seven of the speed demons flashed past the scattering pylon as the crowds stood, cheering at the top of their lungs. Suddenly, they saw the little red Travel Air monoplane flown by Doug Davis catch up with Breene’s biplane and pass him to take the lead. Davis kept the throttle all the way forward as the roaring Wright radial gave all it had to keep the racer at the front of the field. The Type R’s glossy and highly polished red and black wings strained under the high G-forces imposed by 90-degree banks around every pylon along the course. Lap after lap the Travel Air slowly expanded its lead. ‘Only three more laps to go,’ thought Davis as he rounded another pylon and streaked down the backstretch at more 220 miles per hour (mph). Then disaster struck! Davis had ‘cut a pylon,’ meaning that he turned too soon and too tight, flying just inside of the marker. If he did not circle the pylon again he would be disqualified. The time spent correcting that mistake allowed Breene to quickly close the gap, but Davis held onto the lead and soon lapped Colonel Roscoe Turner flying his Lockheed Vega. Minutes later Doug and the speedy Travel Air took the checkered flag after flying for 14 minutes and posting an average speed of more than 194 mph.”
While Davis was busy in victory circle addressing the crowds and accepting the Thompson Trophy for his stunning victory, Mr. Beech walked around the field, puffing on his ubiquitous pipe and grinning ear-to-ear as he collected bets that reportedly exceeded $8,000.4
In addition to the little red monoplane’s triumph, other Travel Air pilots added to the company’s growing list of achievements at the 1929 NAR. These included engineer Ted Wells, who piloted his Type D-4000 equipped with “speed wings” to first place in the Portland-to-Cleveland race, and Louise Thaden, who flew her Type D-4000 biplane from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland (a distance of 2,500 miles), winning the inaugural Women’s Air Derby.5
Travel Air’s string of victories at the 1929 NAR quickly brought an order from the Shell Oil Company for a
Type R custom-built to the specifications of their chief pilot, James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle. The airplane, painted in its dazzling red and yellow scallop scheme, was delivered to Doolittle on March 22, 1930 and cost the oil company a whopping $16,900. Upon Doolittle’s arrival at the Travel Air factory, he inspected every detail of the monoplane to ensure that it complied with the specifications. He flew the airplane and, in a letter to the author dated 1982, Jimmy wrote that the Shell Mystery Ship, as it was called by the company, was one of the best airplanes he ever flew.
Shell entered the racer in the 1930 NAR where it was flown by James Haizlip, another well-known pilot of the era and an associate of Doolittle’s. In the Thompson Trophy Race Haizlip placed second behind Charles “Speed” Holman flying the Laird Solution biplane – the only biplane to win the coveted trophy. During the remainder of 1930 and into 1931, Doolittle and Haizlip took turns flying the Type R until it was badly damaged when it collided on the ground with an Army training airplane. Declared as salvage by Shell late in 1930, Doolittle bought the wreckage in March 1931. He planned to sink all of his savings into rebuilding the ship into a powerful air racing warrior.
The reborn Type R was powered by a nine-cylinder, static, air-cooled radial engine built specifically for Doolittle by Pratt & Whitney Aircraft. In its modified form, the Wasp Junior was rated at 560 horsepower. Doolittle flew the rebuilt monoplane for the first time on July 18, 1931. The takeoff was spectacular as the ship seemed to leap off the ground and hurled through the air at speeds exceeding 200 mph. A few minutes later, while leveling out barely 100 feet above the ground from a high-speed dive, Jimmy felt the ailerons yank hard on the stick, then the right wing became heavy.
Concluding that he could not regain control of the airplane, Doolittle pulled back hard on the stick, climbed to about 500 feet and bailed out of the crippled ship, which had rolled over on its back. He pulled the parachute’s ripcord immediately after jumping clear of airplane. The parachute had barely inflated when he hit the ground. Seconds later the ground shook as Jimmy’s expensive racer buried itself into the Illinois sod. Investigation revealed that an aileron push-pull tube had failed. Bruised but not seriously injured, Doolittle walked up to the smoking wreckage, much of it scattered around the area for hundreds of feet and found his ripcord. He considered it a good-luck charm, as he had just made one of the lowest and most dangerous bailouts on record.6
Only one other Type R was built to race – the Texaco No. 13. It was specifically constructed to specifications set forth by Captain Frank Monroe Hawks. He took delivery of the ship on July 5, 1930, but an accident occurred on July 11 that put Hawks in the hospital and Texaco No. 13 in Travel Air’s repair shop. By late July the monoplane was deemed ready for flight and Hawks departed Wichita without incident. Anxious to set a new transcontinental speed record, Hawks and Texaco No. 13 took off from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on August 6 and landed in California after flying 14 hours, 30 minutes 43 seconds and establishing a new east-west record. A week later Frank pointed the Travel Air speedster eastward from Los Angeles, California, and landed at New York City’s Curtiss Field a mere 12 hours, 25 minutes three seconds later. Hawks had set two transcontinental records in one week. The Travel Air’s speed soon gave rise to the statement, “Don’t send it by mail, and send it by Hawks!”
Hungry for more glory, Hawks entered the racer in the 1930 Thompson Trophy Race but was forced to land on the third lap because someone had inadvertently taped over a vent on the fuel cap, eventually starving Wright radial engine of aviation gasoline. Hawks flew the Texaco monoplane until April 7, 1932, when the engine failed near North Grafton, Massachusetts. The forced landing seriously injured Hawks and the Travel Air was damaged beyond economical repair. Eventually, it was repaired for static display only and transferred to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois, where it remains on exhibit in the Transportation Gallery.6
During the late 1930s Walter Beech remained very interested in air racing, although his days of competition flying were history as he and co-founder/wife Olive Ann Beech focused their efforts on expanding Beech Aircraft Corporation. In 1940, however, Mr. Beech entered the prototype Beechcraft Model 18S in the “On-to-Miami” Race for the Macfadden Trophy. Company pilot H.C. “Ding” Rankin flew as pilot-in-command with Walter serving as co-pilot in the right seat.
On the bitter cold morning of January 6, the duo took off in the 18S from snow-covered Lambert Field in St. Louis, Missouri, and flew 1,084 statute miles to Miami in four hours, 37 minutes and 50 seconds, speeding across the finish line to the cheers of 10,000 spectators. The Model 18S had easily beaten second place finisher Russell Holderman flying a Lockheed Model 12A Electra Junior. Walter Beech and Tex Rankin pocketed $3,000 in prize money for their flight.
The two pilots had flown the Beechcraft at an average speed of 234 mph – the best performance made by a certified commercial airplane in any event sanctioned by the National Aeronautical Association up to that time. Throughout the flight the Beechcraft’s two Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior static, air-cooled radial engines were operated at a power setting of 52 percent of the powerplant’s rating of 450 horsepower. Both engines already had accumulated 330 hours of flying time before the race. Total oil consumption was a mere 1.5 quarts for both engines and 208 gallons of fuel were consumed. Three days later the airplane was entered in the Congress Cup Race from Miami to Havana, Cuba. The duo of Beech and Rankin prevailed once again, this time setting a new speed record between these cities by covering 233 statute miles in only 59 minutes.
By the time of his death in November 1950, Walter Beech had long since established his reputation as an aviation entrepreneur, businessman and pilot with more than 10,000 hours in his logbook. It was, however, Walter’s enthusiasm and skill as an early air racing pilot that fueled his never-ending desire for speed, speed and more speed.
- Weaver Aircraft Company, universally known as simply “WACO” but renamed the Advance Aircraft Company late in 1923, manufactured an excellent product line of airplanes that often competed head-to-head with Travel Air. The WACO Model 9 biplane was a direct competitor of the Travel Air Model “A.” The company survived the Great Depression and designed the famous CG-4A troop gliders used in the D-Day assault against the Nazi’s “Fortress Europe” in June 1944. Advance Aircraft Company ceased airframe manufacture in 1947, and in 1963 rights to the company’s name were sold to the Siai-Marchetti company in Italy.
- In the mid-1920s MIT was one of only a few universities in the United States that offered a thorough course of education specifically designed to graduate aeronautical engineers. Mac Short excelled in that field and later was recognized as one of the best engineers in America. In 1927 he would join forces with Lloyd Stearman again, this time at the Stearman Aircraft Company, located first in Santa Monica, California, and later in Wichita. In the early 1930s Lloyd Stearman resigned from the company and Stearman Aircraft was absorbed into the Boeing Airplane Company.
- As of 2018, the trophy is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, as part of the Heroes of the Sky gallery.
- In 1981 a Travel Air mechanic, who had been working at the races, recalled that later that day Walter Beech split his winnings with all of the team.
- Famed American humorist and newspaper columnist Will Rogers dubbed the event the “Powder Puff Derby” and the name stuck.
- Doolittle would go on to fame flying the Granville Brother’s Gee Bee to victory in the 1932 NAR, and in April 1942 led the famous Doolittle Raid on Tokyo flying North America B-25 Mitchell medium bombers. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his leadership of that mission. He died in September 1993.
- Of the five Type R airplanes manufactured, only Texaco No. 13 survives.