By Joe Earle
The Wichita Eagle
This article originally appeared in the Eagle on Monday, January 21, 1985.
Wichita just went airplane crazy in the late 1920s.
The city’s baseball team was called the Aviators. The Boy Scouts were
talking about flying troops. The newspapers carried airplane-related stories
daily; anything from the latest decisions of airplane company directors to
attempts for new flying records to Charles Lindbergh’s honeymoon was news.
On weekends, hundreds – sometimes thousands – of people packed the city’s
flying fields to buy $2 flights around town or to see stunt flying or watch
the newest planes pass by.
And all around Wichita, in converted garages or machine shops or tool
sheds or back yards, would-be millionaires stitched together new airplanes.
Once finished, they’d head out to the airport to try their wings.
Some flew. Some didn’t.
“It was booming,” said retired engineer John J. Clark, who designed
airplanes for several companies. “Airplane companies were springing up like
mushrooms on a warm morning.”
By June 1929, the Wichita Eagle reported, the self-christened Air Capital
was home to 100 aviation-related businesses, including 13 companies that built
planes, five engine factories and a dozen flying schools.
The ’20s were the years when airplane-building became a business. They
were also the time when successful companies started the beginnings of
assembly-line production in their factories.
Then the airplane business crashed in the Depression. Hundreds of
Wichita’s airplane builders were out of work as the money dried up and
factories closed. Workers scrambled to find other kinds of jobs. Some vowed
never to build an airplane again. Others held on, waiting to find jobs with
the few companies that survived.
Less than a decade before the crash, the aviation business in Wichita had
been a handful of people gathered together to build the plane that would be
called the Swallow.
When Bob Phelps started at the Swallow Airplane Manufacturing Co. plant in
1923, he was one of nine people building airplanes there, he said. In those
days, airplanes were built by hand, one at a time.
At Swallow, they’d take a stick and draw the outline of the plane in the
dirt outside the plant, and then take approximate measurements from that
sketch, Phelps said. Then they’d build the wings, the fuselage, the tail and
then put the whole thing together. “We’d get it all done and then go out and
watch (test pilot Walter) Beech fly it,” Phelps said.
There were few lines between workers and managers. Just about everybody in
the company built airplanes, Phelps said, and they learned about aviation from
their experience. “There was nobody watching anything,” he said. “We all had
In 1925, Phelps left Swallow and went to work for Travel Air Manufacturing
Co., the company that at one time included Beech, Lloyd Stearman and Clyde
Cessna as principals. By 1926, Travel Air had moved into bigger quarters and
people were coming down to volunteer for work, Phelps said.
“That’s the way the gang got started,” he said. “We had volunteers, so to
speak. Everybody wants to come in and work for nothing to get in on the ground
That same sort of excitement continued at smaller companies through the
later years. Clyde Belden, who worked for several companies, remembers when
the Knoll Airplane Co., in business from 1928 to 1929, finished its first
plane. “When we finished the Knoll,” Belden said, “they shut the factory down
and we all went out there (to the airport) and rode around in it.”
Clark got his start in aviation by visiting the Travel Air factory when he
was home from Kansas State University on summer vacation. Clark said that when
he walked in, Beech and the company’s new engineer, H.E. Weihmiller, were
sitting in the office. Beech asked Clark what he’d do if somebody gave him a
broom and told him to sweep the floor, Clark said. Clark replied he’d sweep
up. Clark was hired.
Clark, who was studying engineering in college, started work by “doping”
wings – painting the fabric with the dope used to stiffen them. The planes
were built by constructing wood frames for the wings and wood or metal frames
for the body, then stitching linen or cotton fabric over the frames and
covering it with dope and paint.
As the larger, more successful companies like Travel Air and Cessna
Aircraft Co. grew in the late ’20s, expanding sales led to the development of
assembly-line production. The factories were divided into welding areas, wood
shops and painting areas. By the peak of production, Travel Air was building
21 planes a week, Clark said. Phelps, who started work with Cessna in 1927,
said that Cessna eventually was building planes with fully interchangeable
parts and could build them 10 at a time.
Despite the rapid expansion of the successful companies, most of the
workers weren’t getting rich in the factories in the 1920s.
“I starved to death,” said Ray Brown, who started work for Swallow in
1926 when he was 20 years old. “I missed many, many a meal because they
couldn’t pay me.
“Through the ’20s, my friend, aviation was not the thing to be in unless
you had a rich father, which I didn’t. I got paid $12.50 a week. I think the
top salary was $17.50 a week. There wasn’t any money.”
Glenn Stearman, who in 1927 started work for cousin Lloyd Stearman’s
company, said starting wages were about 35 cents an hour – $14 a week – in
1927. “If you made 50 or 60 cents an hour, you were a pretty good man,” Glenn
But once the Depression started, aircraft jobs at any rate of pay were
scarce. Even the most successful companies saw their orders fall away to
nothing and laid off all but a handful of workers. At Cessna, Phelps said he
laid off 300 people in one day. Smaller companies just folded up.
Clark, who by 1929 was working in Travel Air’s engineering department, was
offered a $50-a-week job that summer as chief engineer for an Oklahoma
company. The company wanted him to design a new airplane.
“I wasn’t down there six weeks until the Depression hit,” he said. “I was
19 years old when I went down there. . . . All I knew was what I thought an
airplane ought to look like. I drew my pay for two months. That outfit sure
busted in a hurry.”
Clark was hired back by Travel Air, which stayed in business until 1932.
Finally, “they locked the door and closed it up,” Clark said. “I didn’t have
any more job.”
Finally the propeller company closed down, too. Clark had to look for
work outside the aircraft business. He found work as a pattern maker for a
company that made equipment to modify houses for natural gas heating, he said.
Clark wasn’t alone in looking outside aviation for some kind of work.
Mort Van Keuren, who’d started work at Travel Air in 1927 when he was 19
and had risen to head of the company’s inspection department, found a job
washing streetcars for 30 cents an hour, he said.
Phelps, who helped close up Cessna’s plant in 1930, found a short-term job
working on planes for an airline in Texas. But when that job ended, he was
unable to find any more aircraft work, he said, so he took a job as a cook at
the Veterans Administration hospital.
Belden kept on with the aircraft business, doing short-term jobs for
companies that were able to keep the doors open by selling one or two
airplanes. He’d work for two or three weeks, he said, and then be out of a job
“You could either do that or you could dig ditches,” he said. “You’d do
anything to make a buck."
©The Wichita Eagle