|This article originally appeared in the Eagle on Monday, January 28, 1985.|
By Stan Finger
The Wichita Eagle
The warning signs began appearing during the summer of 1929.
Just a few months after posting an all-time record in airplane sales,
Travel Air – the undisputed king of Wichita aircraft manufacturers at the time
– was forced to lay off workers because of a sales slump.
There was a lot of belt-tightening going on as aircraft companies in
Wichita responded to a lull in the sales market. But everyone in the business,
from the largest firms to the tiniest of aircraft manufacturers, was convinced
that the boom days of the ’20s would return.
The boom they got instead – the shock waves from the stock market crash
that October and the Depression that followed – nearly wiped out the aviation
industry in a city that already was touting itself as the air capital of the
“They didn’t pay attention to the signals, and they were there,” said
Ed Phillips, author of “Travel Air: Wings Over the Prairie” and a Beech
historian. “Sales had begun dropping even that summer. But most of them, they
were still in a producing euphoria. They had no intention of slowing down.
They continued to go full bore, even though people were already beginning to
The stock market crash that began on Black Thursday, Oct. 24, 1929,
didn’t take long to be felt halfway across the country.
Within a week, aircraft companies in Wichita began feeling the squeeze,
and by early 1931, a city that at one time boasted as many as 29 aircraft
manufacturers had barely a handful still operating. The relatively small but
thriving plane manufacturing centers became industrial graveyards almost
“Lord, there was vacant buildings everywhere,” said Clyde Belden, who
was a welder for various Wichita aircraft companies during the Depression.
The small companies were the first to go. More than a dozen of the
aircraft companies in Wichita at the time of the crash were the products of
men with money who wanted to be a part of the exhilarating world of aviation.
“For men who had a lot of money to spend, aviation was the thing to get
into,” said Walt House, president of the Wichita Aeronautical Historical
Association. “Most of them didn’t have money for long.”
Mildred Burnham remembers the lure aviation had for moneyed men of the
era. Her father, C.V. Snyder, helped finance a pair of companies. Neither one
of them, Yunker and Knoll, ever really got off the ground, and they took
Snyder’s fortune down the drain with them.
“They thought that aircraft was the coming thing,” said Burnham, who
lives in Wichita. “I can remember the enthusiasm they had. I think he was just
like all the rest of them. They just didn’t want to give up. They were in it,
and they had to stay in it.”
There were various reasons why names like Yunker, Bowlby, Imblum or
Gessell never became household names, House said. Most of the aircraft
companies never built more than a handful of planes. And some existed only on
paper. What it boiled down to, House said, was that most of these firms had
neither the money nor the product to survive.
Some firms’ purse strings were so tight that one plane crash could
literally wreck the company. The Hilton Aircraft Co. went bankrupt when its
one plane spun into the ground while performing for a Sunday afternoon crowd
in February 1930.
It wasn’t from a lack of effort that some of the companies went under. A
company would try almost anything to spur sales. Al Mooney remembers flying a
plane from Burbank, Calif. to Fort Wayne, Ind. to drum up business for his
Wichita-based Mooney Aircraft Co.
“That’s a helluva long ways,” said Mooney, who now lives in Texas. “We
were trying to make enough noise to scare up some more money to keep going. We
would have been successful, too, except for the fact that some
. . . newspapers got a hold of it and made a big noise about it being a do-
or- die attempt from Burbank to New York.
“The engine pooped out on me just beyond Fort Wayne, and I had to land
in a field, and the newspapers and radio called it a failure. That ruined us.
We kept it goin’ for a little while, but not long after that.”
The crash didn’t spare the Big Four of 1920s Wichita aviation: Travel
Air, Cessna, Stearman and Swallow.
An incredible stroke of good fortune helped Walter Beech escape financial
ruin in the bleak days of October. That August, he had sold controlling
interest of Travel Air to the Curtiss-Wright Corporation of St. Louis. But one
of the best-known instances of good timing in the business resulted from luck,
not insight into the nightmare to come.
“They realized that the market was getting unstable, but that is not the
reason he sold out to Curtiss-Wright,” Ed Phillips said. “He needed the money
to keep expanding.”
But the expansion plans were not completed before the October crash, and
Beech was spared.
The other large companies were not as fortunate. Within a week of the
stock market collapse, the flying school that had contracted all of Cessna’s
production folded. The bottom fell out at Cessna, and on Jan. 31, 1931, the
plant doors were padlocked.
Bob Phelps still remembers the day he put the locks on the plant.
“That big building was just setting there, empty,” Phelps said. “I laid
off 300 people there in one day, just lowered the boom on them. I was feeling
pretty low that day. Everybody was.”
About 1,000 people lost their jobs as the aircraft plants closed their
doors one after the other, most of them from Travel Air and Cessna. But the
city, then sporting a population of 114,000, hardly blinked at news of the
The city’s relative indifference to the plight of the aviation industry
during the depression would change in coming years, but during the 1930s word
of a business closing down wasn’t unusual. All over the city, in all types of
businesses, workers were losing jobs and leaving town to find new ones.
Between 1930 and 1935, more than 11,000 people left Wichita in search of
Most people, however, couldn’t afford to leave. Clyde Cessna and his son,
Eldon, rented out space in an abandoned Travel Air plant – which was closed
down in 1930 – and scraped out a living by building speed planes and entering
them in races around the country.
Cessna also kept afloat by renting out its plant to whoever could pay
money to use it. A pair of fledgling aircraft companies rented plant space in
1932. One of them, called the Straughan Aircraft Co. built only a few planes
before being purchased by an Oklahoma City firm and fading into history.
But the other firm stuck around. Beech Aircraft Corporation, formed by
Walter Beech in April of 1932, was destined to become a landmark in the
aviation industry. In opening his company, Beech was defying incredible odds.
The year Beech Aircraft opened its doors, there were less than 600 commercial
aircraft built in the United States – a figure Travel Air could top all by
itself in six months during the peak days of the late ’20s.
But the dogged Beech remained, and the Beech Model 17 “Staggerwing”
biplane he would introduce later that year would carry the company through the
depths of the Depression.
Cessna, too, would eventually rebound. Eldon Cessna and an aeronautical
engineering graduate fresh from the University of Wichita named Dwane Wallace
spearheaded a drive that acquired enough proxy votes to re-open the Cessna
plant on Jan. 10, 1934.
It would be late 1934 before the aircraft economy would begin stirring
again, thanks in large part to government contracts. Contracts awarded that
year by the military would save Stearman Aircraft, which had avoided shutting
its doors by paring its staff to a handful of employees that did little more
than keep an eye on the plant grounds.
Wichita airplane and engine companies of 1926-1934
Excluding -Swallow, Travel Air, Stearman, Cessna and Beech)
|Firm name||Year Formed||Year Folded|
|Ace Aircraft Manufacturing Corp.
1016 S. Santa Fe
|Associated Aircraft Corp.
821 Central Building
|Air Capital Manufacturing Co.
|Beach Aviation Co.
|Blue Streak (Motors),
529 W. Douglas
|Bowlby Airplane Co.
|Braley Aircraft Co.
6400 Franklin Road
|Buckley Aircraft Co.
6628 E. Central
|Continental Aircraft Co.
704 E. Douglas
|Geselle Aircraft Co.
First and Hydraulic
|Hilton Aircraft Co.
621 W. Douglas
|Wichita Imblum Aero Corp.
Wichita and Lewis
|Jayhawk Aircraft Co.
915 E. Lincoln
|Knoll Aircraft Co.
471 W. First
|Laird Aircraft Co.
471 W. First
|Lark Aircraft Co.
217 E. Lincoln
|Lea Aircraft Co.
|Lear Aircraft Co.
|Metal Aircraft Corp.
|Mooney Aircraft Co.
600 E. 35th N.
|C.M. Mulkins Co.
|Okay Airplane Co.
|Poyer Motor Co.
840 N. Main
|Quick Air Motors,
|Roydon Aircraft Co.
33rd and North Lawrence
|Red Bird Aircraft Co.
31st and Oliver
6628 E. Central
|Shilberg Aeroplane Co.
|Self Aircraft Corp.
Lewis and Wichita
|Steamboat Aircraft Corp.
|Straughan Aircraft Corp.
Pawnee and Woodlawn
|Swift Aircraft Corp.
33rd and N. Lawrence
|Sullivan Aircraft Manufacturing Corp.
630 E. Gilbert
|Supreme/Stone Propeller Co.
1016 S. Santa Fe,
915 E. Lincoln
|Vanos Aircraft Corp.
|Wichita Airplane Manufacturing Co.
716 W. First
|Watkins Aircraft Co.
2300 E. Douglas
|Winstead Bros. Airplane Co.
East Central Airport
|Yellow Air Cab Co.
621 W. Douglas
|Yunker Aircraft Co.
115 N. Osage
|Source: Walt House, Wichita Aeronautical Historical Association|
©The Wichita Eagle