|This article originally appeared in the Eagle on Monday, November 5, 1984.|
Laird’s paper models financed real planes
By Jean Hays
The Wichita Eagle
From the moment the first plane soared over Chicago in 1910, people were
inspired to build contraptions that other people swore would never fly.
Did you hear about the 15-year-old on the South Side who attached glider
wings to his bicycle? Someone saw him pedaling frantically into the wind.
Chicagoans may have laughed at Matty Laird back then, but he went on to
design the Rolls-Royce of airplanes – the Swallow. As the man often credited
with opening Wichita’s first airplane factory, he changed Wichita’s history.
Emil Matthew Laird, a quiet, modest man who trusted everyone, built 43
Laird Swallow planes in Wichita before he left in 1923, saying he’d been
swindled by oilman Jake Moellendick.
Laird’s short career in Wichita influenced two other aviation pioneers.
Lloyd Stearman, who founded Stearman Aircraft Co. which later became part of
the Boeing Co., worked on Laird’s assembly line. Walter Beech, the founder of
Beech Aircraft Corp., was a pilot.
Laird officially launched his 30-year career as a pilot and planemaker at
17 when he got his first plane 10 feet off the ground.
His obsession with flying had started in 1910.
Laird’s father, a carpenter, died soon after Laird finished elementary
school. The young Laird quit school and went to work as an office boy at the
First National Bank in Chicago, earning $4.50 a week to help support his
mother and five brothers and sisters. It was from the bank’s 18th floor that
he saw Walter Brookins soaring across the Chicago skyline.
Laird’s reaction to that flight was recorded in an interview conducted in
April 1978 by Sondra Van Meter, who wrote her master’s thesis at Wichita State
University on the aviator, and Dale Schrag, curator at the university library.
Laird had returned to Wichita for a Matty Laird Day celebration. He died in
“From that time on, I made up my mind that I wanted to have some part of
the situation,” he said. “It really thrilled me to no end, and I decided that
I wanted to be able to fly some way, some how.”
He drew plans for his first rubber-band-powered model airplane on brown
butcher paper. From those models, he learned about balance and stability,
which he credited for his success in full-size airplanes.
The model airplanes provided the money for Laird’s first full-size
airplane. He was demonstrating his model airplane in the bank lobby when the
bank’s president rushed out of his office. Laird thought he would lose his
job. Instead, the president ordered a model plane for his son’s Christmas
present. Laird sold between 30 and 40 models, for $5 each.
With that money, and barrel hoops, redwood scraps and automobile and
motorcycle parts that he had begged at Chicago’s Cicero Field, Laird set out
to build his first plane.
On Sept. 15, 1913, it was ready for flight. He got 10 feet in the air,
changed his mind and tried to land, breaking the wing.
Four months later, Laird got the plane 20 feet off the ground. By the
spring of 1914, he had built – and flown – the Baby Biplane. By 1915, he was
making $350 a month performing at county fairs.
At the start of World War I, Laird went to San Antonio to test Curtiss
Jennies. There he flew an exhibition plane that stalled and crashed. He was
hospitalized for nine months with a smashed elbow, a broken right leg and a
injured left knee. His injuries kept him out of the war, but not out of an
airplane. He moved back to Chicago and hobbled on crutches out to his current
exhibition plane, nicknamed the Boneshaker because of the engine vibrations.
His injuries eventually influenced Laird to move to Wichita.
Laird had sold an exhibition plane William Burke, who Van Meter credited
with getting Jake Moellendick, a wealthy Wichita oilman, interested in flying.
Moellendick was part owner of the Wichita Aircraft Co., which serviced planes
and offered joyrides. Burke managed the company.
In 1919, Burke put a deposit on Laird’s fourth airplane, the Laird Model
S. Later that year, Burke asked Laird to move his manufacturing plant to
Wichita. Thinking of his knee injury, Laird agreed.
“I was rather sensitive about my physical condition at the time,” Laird
said in 1978. “Because naturally everybody would ask, well, how did that
happen, and I didn’t want to be connected with the sales end of the business.”
He also was attracted to Wichita’s terrain, central location, and support
from two newspapers.
What he didn’t realize was that, although some Wichitans – including Clyde
Cessna – were already building aircraft, most had little experience working
with canvas and woodwork. Laird hired and fired a lot of employees in the E.M.
Laird Co.’s early days.
The firm produced the Wichita Tractor. Everything but the OX-5 engine was
made in Wichita. The plane had an air speed of 85 mph, an empty weight of
1,075 pounds, and carried enough fuel for a two-and-a-half hour flight, said
the March 14, 1920, Wichita Eagle.
During the Tractor’s test flight, former army aviator William Lassen
commented that the plane flew just like a Swallow. The Tractor had a new name.
Laird set out to manufacture one Swallow a week in the factory at the corner
of Wichita and English.
Under the agreement, Moellendick and Burke each invested $15,000 in the
company. Laird provided the designs and equipment.
What they didn’t tell him, according to Laird, was that the company would
buy the field at 29th and Hillside, four hangars, three biplanes for $19,000.
They named the field Laird Field and formed a second company, the Wichita
Laird Airplane Corp., a field and flying operation.
The companies started out in debt. Their problems continued during the
recession after World War I. The firms bought 50 Curtiss OX5 engines at $650
each. If they had waited a few months, they could have bought surplus engines
from the government for $25.
In the interview, Laird blamed most of the problems on Moellendick.
Moellendick decided to build a $15,000 factory while Laird was away on
business. Laird sent a telegram in protest, but construction began before he
To add to the company’s financial problems, pilots wrecked four aircraft –
valued at $4,000 to $6,500 each. Laird blamed that on Moellendick, also.
“Anybody that would come up and tell him they could fly an airplane, why,
he’d let them fly it,” Laird said. “If they cracked it up, why, he had enough
money. It didn’t worry him, but that affected the books of the company.”
Moellendick kept pouring money into the company and demanding more
After a disagreement with Moellendick, Burke left. Moellendick also
demanded the resignation of Laird’s younger brother, Charley.
“Finally, he seemed to think that he had the upper hand and decided that
I shouldn’t be in the company anymore,” Laird said. “We finally agreed to
disagree, and it was a case of me buy him out or him buy me out.”
Laird took two airplanes and $1,500 and returned to Chicago in September
Moellendick’s company went into receivership in 1927. Moellendick died
penniless. Laird started another business in Chicago and built racing planes
for Jimmy Doolittle and Roscoe Turner.
“His only interest was working with airplanes,” said Laird’s widow,
Elsie, in an interview from her home in Lake Placid, Fla.
Laird retired while in his 50s. Even with a stiff knee, he kept flying
until his death at age 87.
Jake Moellendick is considered the Father of Aviation in Wichita, a title
Van Meter said was largely attributable to Laird’s efforts.
Moellendick provided money and enthusiasm. Laird provided designs and
ideas. Laird helped give Lloyd Stearman and Walter Beech their starts in
©The Wichita Eagle