Year of the Swallow

Year of the Swallow

Year of the Swallow

A century ago, the Laird Swallow launched Wichita, Kansas, on its way to becoming the “Air Capital of the World.”

In 1920 a number of significant events occurred: the Treaty of Versailles took effect, officially ending World War I; the 19th Amendment became law, giving women the right to vote and Adolf Hitler organized the Nazi Party.

That year, however, also marked the genesis of what became known as the “Roarin’ Twenties” – a decade of explosive economic growth accompanied by massive social change that affected every level of American life. In the wake of “The War to End All Wars,” jobs were plentiful, wages were on the rise, working conditions improved and the stock market, traditionally the domain of the rich and famous, became accessible to the working man and woman.

In the prairie city of Wichita, Kansas, however, the Roarin’ Twenties seemed light years away. Founded in the early 1870s when America was rapidly expanding to the west, by 1919 the town’s economy was largely based on agriculture and crude oil. Wheat was still king but an increasing number of wildcat wells dotted the landscape.

“Matty” Laird’s first airplane was elementary in design and construction. It featured wing warping for roll control and a four-cylinder engine for power. (Joan Laird Post Collection)

Although its citizens could not have known what the future held in 1920, the Peerless Princess of the Prairie stood on the threshold of a new era that would replace wheat with wings. In 1919 the Aviation Committee of the Chamber of Commerce had designated a large field north of downtown as Wichita’s official “aerodrome.” One member of that committee, Jacob Melvin Moellendick, believed fervently in the airplane as a vehicle for commercial transportation, and he was seriously interested in forming a company aimed directly at promoting air travel.

Fortunately for “Jake,” as he was known around town, he had the money to make that dream come true. Oil had made him a wealthy man. He often made “air trips” to his drilling sites east of the city flying in the front cockpit of a war-weary Curtiss Canuck (a Canadian version of the ubiquitous Curtiss JN-4 Jenny) operated by the Wichita Aircraft Company, of which he was a principal investor.

The company and its well-maintained airfield were located northeast of the city. Funded chiefly by Moellendick, the fledgling operation offered flight training, an air taxi service and planned to create a passenger/freight airline route between Wichita, Kansas City, Kansas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Thanks to Moellendick’s cash, four hangars were eventually erected on the airfield to house three Canucks.

By mid-1919 it was becoming painfully obvious to Jake that the public had little or no faith in aviation and investors refused to sink their money into what they believed was a high-risk venture with no future. Moellendick, however, refused to capitulate. He was unhappy with the company’s day-to-day management and decided to offer the job to his old friend and aviator, William “Billy” Burke. A native of Oklahoma, Billy accepted the challenge and relocated to Wichita, but he quickly realized that the decrepit Canucks had to be replaced.

Completed fuselages with engines and landing gear were moved to the final assembly area where wings were installed. Note the location of the propeller shaft in relation to the water radiator, and bungee cords wrapped around axles to absorb taxi, takeoff and landing loads. (Joan Laird Post Collection)

Burke shared Jake’s firm belief that aviation was the way of the future and realized that with Moellendick’s money combined with his flying and sales experience, a unique opportunity existed to build and sell airplanes on the Plains of Kansas. Both men seized upon the prospect, but they needed an airplane with good performance, low operating costs and room for two people in the front cockpit.

Burke informed Jake that he knew a young, self-taught designer and aviator in Chicago, Illinois, named Emil Matthew Laird. He knew that if Jake would bankroll Laird’s latest design for a three-place biplane, it could prove to be the right aircraft at the right time. Late in 1919 Burke traveled by rail to meet with Laird and offered him a proposition that would redirect Wichita’s destiny. It was a tempting offer, and “Matty,” as he was known by friends, agreed to meet with Moellendick and Burke in Wichita. After many long discussions, Laird realized he was being offered a chance to manufacture airplanes of his own design that dwarfed his previous efforts up to that time. The final agreement included an investment by Jake and Billy of $15,000 each. Laird’s contribution was his design for a new biplane, plus tools and woodworking equipment.

Matty was generally impressed with the manufacturing facilities that were made available to him in the city’s central business district, but instead of only one facility there were three separate buildings. Fabrication of the wood airframe would be housed at the Watkins Manufacturing Company, which had occupied the facility to construct agricultural equipment. Laird bought all of the woodworking machines from Watkins and leased adequate floor space for manufacturing his biplane. Final assembly of each ship would be accomplished next door in the Forum building before disassembly for transport to the airfield northeast of town. There, each airplane would be reassembled, rigged and tested on the ground and in flight before delivery to customers. Despite these inherent manufacturing limitations, by December 1919 the E.M. Laird Company Partnership was ready to build its first airplane.

The first Laird Tractor under construction in downtown Wichita. The biplane’s chief feature was the front
cockpit that could accommodate two or three people. (Joan Laird Post Collection)

Laird named his new design the Laird Wichita Tractor – a term meaning the engine was in front of, not behind, the pilot. There was nothing revolutionary nor evolutionary about the ship, except that its front cockpit could accommodate two people compared with only one for the aging Canucks. By standards of the era was a two-bay, wire-braced biplane of conventional wood and fabric construction with fixed landing gear and a tailskid (no brakes were fitted). It was larger than any of Laird’s previous airplanes with a wingspan of 36 feet, length of 23 feet and height of 8 feet, 8 inches. Maximum gross weight was a mere 1,700 pounds.

A Curtiss OX-5 eight-cylinder, 90-horsepower engine powered the Tractor. Laird cleverly integrated the water radiator into forward cowling to reduce drag and improve cooling airflow. Matty chose the OX-5 engine because thousands were available after the war at rock-bottom prices, and he wanted to keep the price of the new ship below $7,000. He finally settled on $6,500 – a staggering amount at a time when surplus trainers were still available for as little as $500-1,000. Despite its steep price tag, the Tractor represented a logical step forward in postwar design and Matty believed it was worth every penny. It was up to salesman Burke to convince potential buyers that the ship would make them money in air taxi and flight training operations.

Laird selected the RAF No. 15 airfoil because it possessed good stall characteristics that contributed to a landing speed of about 38 mph. The four wing panels, all of which were interchangeable, had a chord of 58 inches and the two upper panels attached to a center section that was 30-inches wide. Only 1 inch of dihedral was incorporated to improve lateral stability. The main spars were built up from two laminations that formed a box-type configuration. Ribs were made of spruce battens screwed to basswood webs, and No. 8 hardwire was used to brace the wing’s internal structure. Cotton fabric was doped and sewn to the ribs, followed by two coats of pigmented dope.

The fuselage and empennage were of wood construction with wire bracing, but the elevators panels and rudder were made of welded steel tubing with brazed joints. The front cockpit was carpeted, featured a thick, well-upholstered seat and a footrest to improve overall comfort of the passengers. Flight controls used a conventional stick and rudder arrangement with steel cables to deflect the ailerons, elevators and rudder. Streamline steel tubing was used for the main landing gear.

The photograph taken in 1920 shows four fuselages under construction in Laird’s manufacturing facilities located in downtown Wichita. Simple jigs and fixtures were used to fabricate the wood fuselage. (Joan Laird Post Collection)

Fortunately for Laird, there was a good supply of skilled wood and metal workers in Wichita. Early in 1920 he hired a few men to begin fabricating the first airframe, and that number soon grew to 11 by February. Progress was swift, and in March all of the major airframe assemblies had been completed. Although working conditions in the makeshift factory were less than ideal, an air of anticipation began to sweep through the workforce as the airplane emerged in its final form.

Matty was not a trained engineer, but his years of designing and building aircraft provided him with a basic understanding of testing airframe structures to determine their ultimate strength. In 1920 the science of stress analysis was still in its infancy and Laird had little or no knowledge of the complex equations that were necessary to compute loads imposed on a structure, such as wings.

Instead, he employed an empirical standard test long used by the Army Air Service and the United States Navy. A fuselage with wings attached was inverted and suspended in a special jig only by the wing attach points. Cloth bags filled with sand at a specific weight were laid on the structure at intervals, beginning at the wing root and progressing outward to the wingtips. During the lengthy process, which often required days to complete, measurements were carefully taken and recorded to document how far the wings deflected from their original, static position. In addition, inspections of the spars, ribs and other components were made before increasing weight to the next level. According to Laird’s notes, 5,400 pounds of sand were applied initially, followed by more weight until the wings supported 10,028 pounds of load. That amount was equivalent to six times the airplane’s maximum gross weight of 1,750 pounds. The empennage surfaces were tested in a similar manner.

Early in April the first Laird Tractor was completed, disassembled and transported by truck to the flying field where the ship was reassembled, rigged, under-went engine runs and flight control systems checks in preparation for its first flight. Always the meticulous designed and cautious aviator, Matty scrutinized every inch of the biplane before pronouncing it ready to fly.

Ex-Army Air Service aviator Walter H. Beech posed for an informal photograph with a Laird Swallow. He went to work for Laird and Moellendick in 1921 and soon matured into an accomplished demonstration pilot, a skilled salesman and an effective factory manager. (Edward H. Phillips Collection)

Late in the afternoon of April 8, he donned his leather flying helmet, goggles and a jacket before climbing into the rear cockpit. Ground crewmen primed the OX-5 engine, a mechanic spun the propeller with all his might and the Curtiss powerplant came to life; its eight exhaust stacks spitting out puffs of smoke before the engine settled into a staccato rhythm. Matty checked oil pressure and water temperature before signaling the mechanic to remove the chocks. Satisfied that all was well, Laird advanced the throttle and began taxiing a short distance across the grass and turned the ship into a light, southeast wind.

At 5:43 p.m., the biplane accelerated steadily, its tail rising easily as it passed by a small group of spectators that were invited to witness the momentous event. After a takeoff run of only 200 feet, Laird’s creation lifted gracefully into the sky, and two minutes later had attained an altitude of 1,000 feet. Laird began a series of flight control checks and probed the ship’s basic handling characteristics. It flew well; Matty was pleased. He flew above the field for another 10 minutes before descending back to earth, setting his creation down gently on the Kansas sod.

What happened next put the finishing touch on what had been a highly successful flight of the first Laird Tractor. Although the story has undergone many modifications during the past decades, apparently William “Buster” Lassen, a former Army Air Service pilot who operated the Lassen Hotel downtown, was among the group who witnessed the flight. As Matty was climbing down out of the cockpit, Lassen is reported to have run up to Laird and exclaim, “She flies just like a Swallow!” His statement struck Laird like a brick: “Swallow” was the perfect name for an airplane that flew so well. He quickly exchanged the name “Tractor” for “Laird Swallow.”

Despite the rapidly waning daylight, Burke took the ship up and after climbing to about 2,500 feet performed a series of aerobatic maneuvers that included loops and spins before landing. According to Laird, Burke then took four passengers aloft on two separate flights before darkness ended any further flying that day. In the wake of those flights, Laird and Burke agreed to proceed with the manufacture of 10 of the biplanes and made further plans to build and sell 25 ships by the end of the year – an ambitious goal for a fledgling company.

Word about the Swallow spread rapidly through the Midwest and gradually to the East and West coasts. Within a few weeks of the first flight, Laird began receiving letters of inquiry and telegrams from air taxi operators seeking more details. Although Matty and Billy welcomed interest in the aircraft, what they needed was sales. Among the first customers was the Heddon Aviation Company based in Michigan that bought three Swallows, and by early summer orders were flowing in from New York, New Jersey and Colorado, selling out production for the remainder of 1920.

Four factory-fresh Swallows awaited flight tests before delivery to customers. The Laird company flying field was flat and expansive and hailed by local and transiting pilots as one of the best facilities in the Midwestern United States. (Joan Laird Post Collection)

As business increased for the E.M. Laird Company Partnership, Burke was busy demonstrating the biplane and signing up dealerships while Laird supervised production. By the end of August workers were completing one airplane per week and Matty had high hopes to build two per week by December to meet demand. Laird’s success did not go unnoticed by the local press that embraced the city’s latest industry: “Our 1920 pride in our production of one plane per week doubtless will serve for a humorous little commentary. In the present state of the aircraft business a factory producing one plane per week is a large factory … and the future of the business looks bright.” As autumn settled in, the payroll had increased to 45 men. They had already built 10 ships and were building another 10.

Although the E.M. Laird Company Partnership claimed that the Swallow was “America’s First Commercial Airplane,” a surprising variety of new, non-military airplanes were already available as early as 1919. These included the Ordnance Engineering Company (ORENCO)  Type F Tourister that accommodated three passengers and the pilot; the Dayton-Wright O.W. 1 Aerial Sedan and the K.T. 1 Cabin Cruiser that had seating for up to four occupants; the two-place Vought VE-7, Thomas-Morse Type S6 and the Boeing and Aeromarine seaplanes, to name only a few. In response to the loss of military contracts after 1918, airframe manufacturers attempted to win new business by developing commercial aircraft. These companies’ aircraft, along with the E.M. Laird Company Partnership, were the first attempts to serve what they hoped was an emerging marketplace.

The 1921 Biennial Census of Manufacturers compiled by the Department of Commerce reported that there were 21 companies building commercial and military aircraft in the United States. Of these, only the E.M. Laird Company Partnership was listed as active in Sedgwick County, Kansas, where Wichita was located. Laird was correct to state that the Swallow was not a rebuilt, ex-military machine, but he was quick to point out that what set his design apart from other would-be competitors was that it was built specifically to address the “exacting requirements of commercial aviation,” according to Matty. By “exacting requirements,” Laird meant that the Swallow would make money for its owners.

A letter from Reed E. Davis, sales manager for the North Platte Aircraft Company in Nebraska, reflects the Swallow’s success:

“Arrived OK with the Swallow and made the trip from Wichita here in three hours 30 minutes using 26 gallons of gas. The first Swallow we got grossed us about $3,000 in the two weeks we have had it and I believe business will be equally as good for the next few months. The planes are certainly giving satisfaction to us and the performance is surprising everyone who has used the OX-5 motor in Canucks and JN-4Ds. We have no difficulty getting in and out of small fields carrying two passengers and full tanks of gas, and we have flown the Swallow at altitudes as high as 4,500 feet.

During his first two years in Wichita, Matty Laird had achieved a number of important goals. The Swallow was in limited production and selling well, the factory had sufficient orders to remain busy into the early months of 1921, and most important, the company had sold every airplane built and the business was on a firm financial footing. According to the 1920 annual report of the E.M. Laird Company Partnership and its manufacturing subsidiary, the Wichita Laird Airplane Corporation, Laird and Moellendick each held 122 shares of stock and the company was capitalized at $25,000.

The Laird Swallow was the genesis of Wichita’s phenomenal growth into America’s centerpiece of the early commercial airplane industry. Looking back 100 years later, it should never be forgotten that the city owes an incalculable debt of gratitude to E.M. Laird, Jacob Melvin Moellendick and William “Billy” Burke for recognizing the town’s potential to become a major hub of aircraft manufacturing that continues unabated.

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