|This article originally appeared in the Eagle on Monday, February 25, 1985.|
By Jean Hays
The Wichita Eagle
In 1929, Wichita was the self-appointed air capital.
It boasted 11 airports with 1,640 acres of flying fields. It had close to
100 aircraft-related businesses, including 16 factories, six engine factories,
25 accessory firms, seven service firms, nine air transportation firms, 12
flying schools and two manufacturers of flying togs.
The 2,000 men and women employed in the aircraft plants were capable of
producing 120 airplanes a week.
Wichita’s municipal airport had a square mile of good landing fields. Its
brick and steel hangar could hold 30 planes, including any plane being built. Wichitans had a lot to brag about. And brag they did.
The Wichita Daily Eagle ran daily stories about aviation. The Wichita
Chamber of Commerce printed booklets about Wichita’s future as an aviation
In 1928 the Kiwanis Club sponsored a contest to come up with a logo to be
used in promoting Wichita as the air capital. Ted Young submitted the winning
design, a circle with a sunflower in the middle, sprouting wings.
The logo appeared on flour sacks that were shipped all over the United
States. Firms printed their business correspondence on stationery showing
airplanes soaring over oil wells. Even the outside of the envelopes touted the
“It was very common for local merchants to sponsor races and bring in the
hottest military aircraft,” said Craig Miner, professor of history at Wichita
State University. “They offered trophies. There was the Lassen trophy, the
The chamber sponsored festivals and air tours to promote aviation. At the
chamber’s urging, merchants treated their out-of-town visitors to free
Wichita had some competition. Tulsa was claiming to be the Air Capital of
the World. The Wichita Chamber of Commerce and its 100-member aviation
committee, chaired by Marcellus Murdock, set out to secure Wichita’s claim as
the air capital through such promotions as the All-Kansas Air Tour.
David “Deed” Levy, a test pilot for Stearman Aircraft, piloted one of 20
some planes that made a swing through Kansas City, Olathe, Garnett, Chanute
and other towns in eastern Kansas in early 1928. Later that year, the air tour
visited Dodge City, Garden City, Great Bend, Lyons and other towns in western
“Local townspeople came out in large numbers to see the airplanes,”
recalled Levy. “It was fairly new then. The tour was just to stir up interest
in aviation and try to get the airports established in small towns.”
In August 1929 the chamber printed 3,000 copies of a booklet called,
“Wichita, The Air Capital.”
The booklet was paid for by advertising.
Perry Eash, 87, who still operates a tailoring business on West Douglas,
was among the advertisers and aviation supporters.
It didn’t take much to convince him to buy an ad.
Back in 1911, he said, he bought a quart of oil from Clyde Cessna on the
salt plains of Oklahoma. He double-dated with Lloyd Stearman and boxed with
Jake Moellendick. In a town where everything centered around aviation, the
chamber dubbed him the aeronautical tailor, a title which both delighted and
surprised him since there were two firms that manufactured airplane togs.
Almost everyone who bought an ad received a special title. There was also an
aeronautical insurance salesman and an aeronautical securities company.
The Chamber’s plans were slowed by the stock market crash that began on
Black Thursday, Oct. 24, 1929.
By early 1931, a city that at one time boasted as many as 29 aircraft
manufacturers had barely a handful still operating.
Many of the businessmen who had supported aviation in the 1920s were
worried about their own survival.
“The ’30s was a down period, compared with the ’20s,” said Craig Miner.
“In the 1930s, Wichita aircraft companies were no longer able to sell such a
high percentage of airplanes. They lost a lot of commercial business. The
California airplane companies began to get the upper hand with large
commercial aircraft.” The chamber wasn’t about to give up. In January 1930
it set out an ambitious promotion program for the year which included
dedicating the municipal airport; establishing an aerological station at
Wichita, a weather station dealing especially with the air; encouraging
gliding, a more affordable form of aviation, in Wichita and the surrounding
communities by forming a Wichita Aviation-Glider Club; establishing a National
Air Academy in Wichita; and taking a lead in the safety movement developing
mechanical safety features which would attract national attention to Wichita.
In the summer of 1930, the chamber did stage the “Fiesta of the Air.” The
air show by Army fliers and ground-breaking ceremonies for a new airport
administration building, which the chamber claimed would make Wichita’s
Municipal Airport “the most noteworthy in the Middle-West,” attracted 30,000
to 50,000. There was a dinner, too, to honor Stearman, Walter Innes Jr. and
J.E. Schaeffer for bringing the Stearman plant to Wichita. The chamber proudly
called the Fiesta “Wichita’s most significant aeronautical celebration.”
Wichita’s reputation received another boost, in the chamber’s opinion,
when Woodbury College in Los Angeles set out to decide for itself where the
air capital should be located. It selected Wichita because of its improved
airports, aircraft factories and aviation schools. Tulsa, the college said,
came in second.
But by April 1932 – when Walter and Olive Ann Beech returned to Wichita
to start Beech Aircraft Co. – the chamber had almost stopped promoting
aviation. The chamber had few activities until 1935, when the Wichita Air
Club revived the All-Kansas Air Tour. The chamber ended the tour with an
old-time air show with free-for-all races and acrobatic exhibitions.
Wichita aircraft companies were already forming an important alliance with
the military. In 1931 the Army had bought six Stearman Model 6s, the prototype
for thousands of Stearman trainers used by Army and Navy pilots in World War
II. By the fall of 1939, the world would become aware of the importance of
©The Wichita Eagle