Magnificent men in flying machines built air capital
By Nunzio Lupo
The Wichita Eagle
|This article originally appeared in the Eagle on Monday, October 8, 1984.
In 1930, journalist John T. Nevill asked the question:
“How is it . . . that this comparatively small mid-plains city ranks
alongside of New York, Detroit or Los Angeles in the manufacture of the
world’s newest vehicle of transportation?”
It’s a question still asked today. How is it that Kansas, a state known
for both its agricultural bounty and the Wizard of Oz more than anything else,
became a major producer of aircraft?
How, indeed? All it took was a handful of men possessing some vision, much
daring entrepreneurial spirit, a love of flying, and, importantly, money. From
their efforts an industry has grown that today employs some 37,500 Kansans who
make up almost 4 percent of the state’s non-farm work force.
According to the most recent figures from the U.S. Commerce Department,
almost 12 percent of the nation’s 146,200 aircraft production workers work in
Kansas. Together they earned almost $417 million in 1982. Kansas companies
shipped $2.6 billion worth of aircraft in 1982, about 9 percent of the total. More significant is Wichita’s role in general aviation. Manufacturers with
Wichita operations – Cessna Aircraft Co., Beech Aircraft Corp. and Gates
Learjet Corp. – account for about 60 percent of general aviation aircraft
delivered by U.S. companies and about 60 percent of general aviation billings.
These three lightplane manufacturers, along with Boeing Military Airplane
Co. and a number of support companies, together employ about 33,000 people in
the Wichita metropolitan area, about 16 percent of the non-farm workforce.
So Wichita claims the title, “Air Capital of the World.”
“We are the one spot in the world that manufactures more general aviation
aircraft than any other place,” says Jerry Mallot, president of the Wichita
Area Chamber of Commerce. “It doesn’t take more justification than that.
“It probably could have happened somewhere else,” Mallot says, “but the
right people were here, and they succeeded.”
“The right people,” by most recollections, include familiar names such as
Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech, Lloyd Stearman and, most importantly, oilman Jacob
“Jake” Moellendick, “The Father of Aviation in Wichita.”
Moellendick, described as a “rough and ready citizen,” had worked in
Pennsylvania oil fields before he headed west to try his luck in Okmulgee,
Okla., where he drilled for oil in wildcat territory. After striking oil, he
organized an oil company there and traveled to Wichita to be near producing
wells that he had drilled in Butler County.
Several stories circulate as to why he became interested in aviation. One
is that he needed some fast transportation to some wells near El Dorado and
hired a pilot to fly him there. Another has it that his associates, E.M.
“Matty” Laird and George “Buck” Weaver, persuaded a young Army Air Corps
lieutenant to take Moellendick up to interest him in aviation.
But all the stories have one common denominator, that a combination of
Moellendick’s interest in flying and his money have made Wichita the Air
“If you wanted to put it down to a single reason, it would be Jake
Moellendick,” says aviation buff Walt House, a charter member of the Wichita
Aeronautical Historical Association. “He was the guy who bankrolled the first
(manufacturing) company here, the E.M. Laird Co., which later became Swallow.
That’s what got other people here like Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman. Jake
was paying wages, and that’s what got them here.”
Not long after the Wright brothers’ historical flight near Kitty Hawk,
N.C., in 1903, people all over the country were enthralled with flying, and
Kansas certainly was no exception. Historical accounts say that Kansans were
trying to build airplanes as early as 1908.
There is some debate over who built the first successful airplane in
Kansas; some credit Harry Call of Girard while others say it was A.K. Longren
of Topeka. Clyde Cessna is credited with building the first airplanes in
Wichita, in 1911. He used them in flying exhibitions, but when World War I
intervened, Cessna ended his airplane building and returned to the farm.
During the war, about 200,000 men were trained as aviators, among them
Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman. After the war ended, many of these men wanted
to continue flying and bought their own planes, mostly war surplus aircraft
because that’s all that was available. They flew to earn money. They became
known as barnstormers, traveling from town to town selling rides, performing
stunts, teaching others to fly and providing taxi service.
In the spring and summer of 1919, two flying companies were formed in
Wichita by these men and businessmen backers. One of these was the Wichita
Aircraft Co., founded by Moellendick and Army Air Corps lieutenants J.B. Witt
and E.J. Mason and Witt’s stepfather, M.H. Wood. It was the root of the first
airplane manufacturing company in Wichita.
According to a 1962 Wichita State University master’s thesis by Sondra Van
Meter, Wood and Witt originally went to Albuquerque, N.M., to start their air
taxi service, but the climate was not to their liking. Wood, who had a friend
in Wichita, decided to move their flying company to Wichita instead, “because
of the favorable climate and topography,” according to Van Meter.
But the Wichita Airplane Co. began to falter late in 1919, and Moellendick
hired William “Billy” Burke, a barnstorming pilot from Okmulgee, as manager.
Burke is credited with traveling to Chicago in 1919 to see E.M. “Matty” Laird,
who had built an aircraft for Burke only a short time before.
Burke persuaded Laird to move his small factory to Wichita, where he,
Moellendick and Laird could form a three-way partnership to manufacture
airplanes. Laird agreed, and together they founded the E.M. Laird Airplane Co.
to manufacture airplanes. Burke and Moellendick each invested $15,000, and
Laird provided the equipment and designs.
They began work immediately on their first airplane. Originally called the
“Wichita Tractor,” the first airplane flew on April 8, 1920. Hotel owner
William Lassen attended its maiden flight and is credited with changing the
name to the “Swallow.” He is supposed to have exclaimed that day, “There she
goes, boys, just like a swallow.”
The Swallow has been called the nation’s first commercial airplane. Before
the Laird Co. produced the Swallow, most airplanes flying commercially were
surplus left over from the war.
Attracted by the promise of wages and work in aviation, Walter Beech and
Lloyd Stearman of Harper joined the firm. Moellendick hired Beech, a former
Army Air Corps pilot, as a test pilot for the fledgling manufacturer. Lloyd
Stearman signed on in the shop and eventually moved up to chief engineer.
But by September 1923, a rift between Laird and Moellendick widened over
the building of a new plant. Moellendick went ahead with the plant after
Laird, who was on a business trip in California at the time, had asked him to
In her thesis, Van Meter wrote: “As Moellendick increased his investment,
he increased his advice on policy. He often wasted his money and time on
useless experiments and then outshouted anyone who disagreed with him.”
Laird left the firm, saying later in a 1961 letter that “it was impossible
to cope with Jake Moellendick’s antics.”
After Laird left, the firm was reorganized as the Swallow Airplane
Manufacturing Co., Jan. 22, 1924, with Moellendick, Beech and Stearman as
principals. That lasted until the end of 1924, when more disagreements with
Moellendick prompted Stearman and Beech to quit. Beech and Stearman both urged
Moellendick to give the Swallow a welded steel frame, something regarded as a
great advance in the industry. Moellendick disagreed, so they resigned.
Beech and Stearman formed another company in 1925 along with Cessna. The
company was eventually called Travel Air Manufacturing Co., Inc. Travel Air
was a success, producing 19 planes in 1925.
But after a short time, all three men went their own ways, too.
Stearman left the company in 1926 and moved to Venice, Calif., where he
founded the Stearman Airplane Co. in a partnership with Fred Hoyt. After only
a year, several Wichita businessmen and friends, including Walter Innes Jr.,
raised $60,000 and persuaded them to return to Wichita to build their planes. Controlling interest in Stearman was purchased by United Aircraft &
Transport in 1929. Stearman left the company to return to California, where he
became affiliated with several aircraft companies. He was president of
Lockheed Aircraft Corp. from 1932 to 1934. The company he founded in Wichita
was sold to the Boeing Co. in 1938 and was the forerunner of today’s Boeing
Military Airplane Co.
Cessna left Travel Air in April 1927 in a dispute with Beech over what
kind of wings to put on planes. Cessna wanted to build a one-wing monoplane,
and Beech wanted to continue building two-wing biplanes. Cessna set up shop in
1927 at 1520 W. Douglas to build his four-seat monoplane.
Travel air, with Beech at the helm, continued its booming pace. In 1928,
Beech needed money to expand in order to meet the demand for Travel Air’s
airplanes. He found it in a New York investment firm, Hayden-Stone Investment
Co., which also had interests in the Curtiss Aeroplane and Engine Co. and the
Wright Aeronautical Corp.
Later, in 1929, it was announced that controlling interest in Travel Air
had passed into the hands of a combined Curtiss-Wright organization. Beech
still headed the local firm and became vice president of the Curtiss-Wright, a
job that often took him to New York. Wichitans reacted negatively to the
merger that removed Travel Air from local control.
But the move proved to be the salvation of the present-day Beech Aircraft
Corp. The stock market crashed Oct. 29, 1929, and Travel Air hung on another
two years before becoming another victim of the Depression in 1931. Beech
himself fared better, having made a tidy sum on the sale of Travel Air to the
Rather than save it in those Depression days, he decided to take a chance.
With his secretary and wife from Travel Air, the former Olive Ann Mellor,
Beech founded the Beech Aircraft Corp. on April 1, 1932.
By the time World War II started, the toddler aircraft industry in Wichita
was ready to really grow. Boeing in Wichita built the B-29 Superfortress as
well as military trainers. Beech and Cessna both built trainers as well.
During the war, 10 percent of all military planes were manufactured in
Today, the Wichita companies, even in the current depressed state of the
general aviation industry, sell millions of dollars worth of aircraft every
year. And yet ironically enough, Jake Moellendick, who started it all, died on
March 23, 1940, without a penny to his name. Only contributions from
successful aviation businessmen prevented him from being buried by the county.
Moellendick had banked his fortunes in 1927 on a plane called the “Dallas
Spirit” in the hope that it could win a $25,000 prize in the Dole Air Derby
sponsored by the Hawaiian pineapple family. He stopped production on all other
orders so he could build the plane for his friend, Bill Erwin.
The plane crashed in 1927, and took his future with it. Moellendick tried to make a comeback but never did.
“It could have happened somewhere else,” says aviation buff House. “You know, he was down in Oklahoma for a while, and it could have happened there.” But it didn’t.
©The Wichita Eagle