TRAVEL AIR MFG. CO. Nominated as Historic Aerospace Site by the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics!

March 13, 2005 by Carl Chance

The Travel Air Manufacturing Company made ‘Travel-Air’ planes from 1926-1932 in historic Wichita, Kansas, The Air Capital of the World, on East Central Avenue. On this site the Travel Air Airplane Manufacturing Company, Inc. produced some of the most famous aircraft in the 1920s, including the Travel Air 5000 and the sleek “Mystery Ship” air racer, winner of the 1929 Thompson Trophy.

The Travel Air Airplane Manufacturing Company, Inc. served as the incubator in which Wichita, Kansas’ present-day status as the World’s “Air Capital” first developed. The firm was among the first viable airplane manufactures to be established in Wichita (1925), with a longevity measured in years as opposed to the months typical of most early manufactures. The Travel Air firm was also responsible for four aviation legends firmly establishing themselves in Wichita and forming the nexus between Wichita and world aviation: Walter Beech, Olive Ann Mellor (later Olive Ann Beech), Clyde Cessna, and Lloyd Stearman. The structure on Wichita’s East Central Avenue marks Travel Air’s fourth, final and largest manufacturing facility in Wichita and is most emblematic of the early company’s products, its founders, and Wichita’s aviation heritage.

In 1999, the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics (AIAA) founded the Historic Aerospace Site program for the preservation and promotion of sites of significant accomplishments made by the aerospace profession both to industry and to the general public. This nomination was submitted to the AIAA Historic Sites Committee by the Wichita Section, American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics.

This nomination would not have been possible without the assistance and support of the following persons:

  • Raytheon Aircraft Company, Dana Aaby, graphic artist; Jackie Berger, Vice President of Corporate Affairs, and Sam Bruner, Director of Flight Sciences.
  • Wichita State University, Jay Price, Professor of History.
  • Kansas Aviation Museum, Walter House, Curator.

References Used in Preparation of Nomination Form:

  • Bissonette, Bruce. The Wichita 4: Cessna, Mollendick, Beech & Stearman. Destin, FL: Aviation Heritage, Inc. 1999.
  • Bowman, Martin W. Images of America: Stearman. Wiltshire, UK: Arcadia Publishing, 1999.
  • Phillips, Edward H. Travel Air: Wings Over the Prairie. Eagan, MN: Flying Books International, 1994.
  • Price, Jay M. and The Wichita Section AIAA. Images of America: Wichita’s Legacy of Flight. Wiltshire, UK: Arcadia Publishing, 2003.
  • Raytheon Aircraft Company. Unpublished photo archives.
  • Rodengen, Jeffrey L. The Legend of Cessna. Fort Lauderdale, FL: Write Stuff Enterprises, 1997.

History of the Travel Air Airplane Manufacturing Co., Inc.

By Jay M. Price, Professor of History, The Wichita State University

Early Wichita Aviation

Today known as the “Air
Capital,” Wichita is home to several major aircraft
companies, including Boeing, Cessna, and Beech, now called
Raytheon. The city is a center for general aviation.
Wichita’s legacy of aeronautics extends back to the 1910s and
1920s, when several aircraft companies set up shop in the city.
Then, companies were small and the aeronautical engineers and
fliers often were owners or managers of the companies as well.
Three of the most important aviation pioneers were Clyde Cessna,
Walter Beech, and Lloyd Stearman. While they eventually founded
their own companies which still shape the aviation world, in the
1920s in Wichita, they worked together under one company, a firm
known as Travel Air.

The catalyst for Wichita
becoming an aviation center was an entrepreneurial, strong-willed
oil man, Jacob Melvin Moellendick. Moellendick had made money from
oil investments in Oklahoma and later, the nearby community of El
Dorado, Kansas. He became interested in aviation as an investment
and in 1919 used his money to bring in E.M. “Matty”
Laird to form the Laird Aircraft Company. While not an aviator
himself, Moellendick hired some of the leading names in the
industry, including Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman. The
company’s best-known aircraft was the Laird Swallow, among
the first commercially-built aircraft in the world.

The Birth of Travel Air

Moellendick was a difficult man
to work with and his blunt style irritated the independent-minded
aviators on his staff. E.M. Laird had enough and in 1923 moved back
to Chicago. A year later, further disagreements emerged between
Moellendick and Beech and Stearman over a number of issues
including aircraft design. Beech and Stearman favored the new
welded metal framing while their boss felt that wood was still
acceptable. In late 1924 Beech and Stearman had enough and left
what had become the Swallow Aircraft Company to form their own
enterprise. They persuaded fellow aviator Clyde Cessna to join them
in the venture and local businessman Walter Innes to provide some
of the financial backing. In January 1925, a new aircraft company
known as Travel Air formed with Innes as President, Cessna as vice
president, and Beech as secretary.

It was a promising and yet risky
time to get into airplane design and manufacturing. The 1920s was
the heyday of the small aircraft company and dozens opened shop
during the decade. Except for the two big leaders of the industry,
Curtiss-Wright in New York and St. Louis and Boeing in Seattle,
most companies were small operations and many produced only one or
two aircraft. At first, Travel Air was just one upstart among many.
Production was small scale: facilities needed included an office
for business, a place for engineers to produce the latest designs,
a production area to build aircraft, and a field to fly and test
the finished products.

Travel Air constructed its first
aircraft in the former home of the Kansas Planing Mill on North
Waco Street in Wichita. Clyde Cessna supplied the woodworking tools
although the heart of Travel Air aircraft construction from the
outset was steel tubing. The company set up shop officially at a
location at 471 West First Street, along the Arkansas River,
initially producing biplanes based on a design that had been
developed while Beech and Stearman were still part of
Swallow.

In 1925 Walter Innes stepped
down as president and Clyde Cessna assumed that position,
contributing $25,000 of his own money to support the company. Lloyd
Stearman’s role tended to be that of designer and many of the
first aircraft showed evidence of his ideas. Walter Beech worked on
the assembly line and was also a flier, showing what Travel Air
“ships” could do in the era’s popular air races.
Within a year, the company had 30 employees. Among them was a
secretary, Olive Ann Mellor, who later became the wife of Walter
Beech.

By late 1925, Travel Air was
gaining orders. Production and business required a larger facility.
In November 1925 the company leased a storefront at 535-7 West
Douglas that housed the J. H. Turner Coal and Building Materials
Company. J. H. “Jack” Turner agreed to a five year
lease and Travel Air moved across the river to its new home,
vacating both the West First and Waco buildings. The front of the
building housed the woodworking area, the back was for metal parts,
and there was a section for painting parts the signature Travel Air
blue and silver.

Like all aircraft companies,
Travel Air needed a place to test and fly its products. Swallow,
for example, had its own landing field next to its factory on North
Hillside. Travel Air’s lease with Turner included a large
strip of land adjacent to the West Douglas building to be a
downtown flying field. However, like most other companies in town,
Travel Air opted for space at a flying field on the far east side
of town at Central and Webb roads. In 1925, the Wichita Booster
Building Association had purchased 160 acres for $35,000 as a
location for aviation events. In 1927, after the state legislature
passed a bill allowing cities to purchase land more than one mile
from the city limits, the City of Wichita acquired the flying
field, which became an important airstrip on the air mail route
from Chicago to Dallas.

Travel Air was looking for new
and larger quarters almost as soon as it moved into the West
Douglas facility. In late 1926, Travel Air purchased six acres of
the East Central landing field from the Wichita Booster Building
Association (the rest of the field would not become a municipal
field for several more months). Design and construction of the new
Travel Air facility could begin.

Travel Air Prospers

Clyde Cessna had long championed
the monoplane design and in late 1926, the company introduced a
monoplane to supplement the regular biplane production. The Model
5000 became popular with one of the first of the nation’s
airline companies, National Air Transport.

1927 was a pivotal year for
Travel Air as well as Wichita aviation. Work began on the
construction of the Travel Air facility on East Central. color="#000000">In August, a Travel Air
monoplane, the Woolaroc, won the Dole Race from California
to Hawaii. In September, Travel Air acquired additional land and
started construction for a second factory building just to the east
of the first one. It was also in 1927 that Wichita’s Chamber
of Commerce dubbed the community “The Air Capital.” At
this time the city was home to seven aircraft companies and was a
thriving center of aircraft production.

1928 and early 1929 were a good time for Travel
Air, with production at one point reaching 25 aircraft each week.
Its model 6000 monoplane, known as the “Limousine of the
Air,” was a popular luxury aircraft for the wealthy such as
movie star Wallace Beery. The Model “R” monoplane, the
“Mystery Ship,” was a hit at air races. Companies such
as Texaco and Shell purchased mystery ships to sponsor as
promotional venues at these races.

Meanwhile, construction continued at the Travel Air
factory on East Central. The factory consisted of several units
lettered A, B, C, D, and E for the order of their construction.
Units A and B were completed by 1928. Factory A was where fuselages
were assembled and painted. Factory B was where wing assembly tool
place. Factory C, constructed in 1929 to the south of A, was the
location for experimental work as well as work on the Model R
mystery ships. Factory D was to the south of B and was completed in
1929 as well. While Factories A through D were hangar structures
with curved roofs, Factory E, the last unit completed in summer
1929, tied the other four together and could be identified by its
rows of clerestory windows. An administration building was located
north of Factory A. The complex eventually became known as
“Travel Air City”

The Curtiss-Wright Years

As in many industries in the 1920s, the aviation
world saw several companies join together to form larger
corporations. One such arrangement was the merger of Curtiss and
Wright with Travel Air in 1929. The new corporation, called the
Aviation Credit Corporation, was made up of Wright Aeronautical,
Keystone/Loening, Curtiss Flying Service, and Travel Air. Travel
Air had by this time expanded to include a network of
distributorships around the country and world wide. Late in 1929,
Walter Beech became president of Curtiss-Wright Flying Services and
left Travel Air for New York and St.
Louis.

The Great Depression wiped out nearly all the
aircraft companies of Wichita. Travel Air was one of them. Even as
early as the summer of 1929, sales had started to sag.
Curtiss-Wright decided to close the Travel Air plant in Wichita to
concentrate their resources in St. Louis. In 1932, Travel
Air’s aeronautical legacy ended.

The Founders Continue

Lloyd Stearman left Wichita in 1926 after
accidentally hitting and killing George Theis, president of the
Arkansas Valley Interurban, while taxiing an aircraft at an airshow
at the East Central Avenue air field. Fortunately Stearman returned
to the Wichita aviation fold by forming Stearman Aircraft
Corporation in 1927. In 1929 Stearman was acquired by United
Aircraft & Transport Co., a holding company that included
Boeing Airplane Company and that would, in short time, lead to
Boeing’s influential presence in Wichita throughout World War
II and on to the present day.

In early 1927 Clyde Cessna sold his shares in
Travel Air and struck out on his own, forming the manufacturing
company that would eventually evolve into the present-day Cessna
Aircraft Company in Wichita. Now principly located on the West side
of Wichita and sharing runways with Mid Continent Airport, Cessna
is one of the world’s preeminent business jet
manufacturers.

Not entirely pleased as an executive at
Curtiss-Wright, and ever the entrepreneur, Walter Beech still felt
that there was a market for luxury personal aircraft. He left
Curtiss-Wright in 1932 to form his own company with his wife, Olive
Ann. He returned to Wichita, taking up shop initially in a part of
the Cessna plant. In 1934, Beech returned to the former Travel Air
plant, which became the core of Beechcraft. From this plant came
the innovative Staggerwing of the 1930s and the V-tailed Beech
Bonanza after World War II. When Walter died in 1950 Olive Ann
confidently stepped up to the role of Beechcraft President and led
the company as “First Lady of Aviation” for the next 18
years. In 1980 Beechcraft became a division of the Raytheon Company
and continues to this day to produce aircraft, under the name of
Raytheon Aircraft Company, from the East Central location in the
very structure that once housed Travel
Air.

The Travel Air Legacy

Travel Air was the home of all four of
Wichita’s main aerospace leaders, Clyde Cessna, Walter and
Olive Ann Beech, and Lloyd Stearman. Its surviving structures are
emblematic of Wichita’s early years of flight and represent,
in part, Wichita’s significant contributions to aerospace
history. The founders and employees of Travel Air helped launch
general aviation, encouraged the development of personal aircraft,
promoted early development of steel-tube construction and developed
the monoplane into a safe, viable design. Moreover, the connection
of Cessna, Beech, Stearman and other aviation entities such as
Boeing and Curtiss-Wright, makes Travel Air a significant
contributor to early aviation development worldwide. Moreover, the
East Central site has had a long connection to aviation history as
the site of several airshows and Wichita’s first municipal
airport.

Attachment B: Maps of the Site


FIGURE 1: Wichita, Kansas
Travel Air, and present-day Raytheon Aircraft Company, location in East Wichita. Original Travel Air factory is located at SE corner of Webb Road and Central Avenue.

FIGURE 2: Raytheon Aircraft Company Campus (2005)
The present-day Raytheon Aircraft campus still shows signs of the original Travel Air facility that would eventually become Beechcraft. Plant I consists of the four legacy Travel Air manufacturing units lettered A, B, C, D, and E.

Attachment C: Photos of Significance

FIGURE
3: Walter H. Beech standing in front of a Travel
Air Model A (Sept. 4,
1925)

Beech was
the founding secretary of the Travel Air Airplane Manufacturing
Co., Inc. in 1925. The Model A was one of Travel Air’s
earliest production models. (Raytheon Aircraft
Company)

FIGURE 4: Clyde Vernon Cessna (left) with his nephew Dwane Wallace(c.1930s).
Cessna was the founding
Vice President of the Travel Air Airplane Manufacturing Co., Inc.
in 1925. Wallace would become president of Cessna Aircraft Company
in 1936. (Legend of Cessna, Rodengen)

FIGURE 5: Lloyd Carlton Stearman (c.1960s).
Stearman’s main role with Travel
Air was as acting Chief Engineer and influential designer of the
company’s world-famous aircraft. (Stearman, Bowman)

FIGURE 6: Olive Ann Beech (nee Mellor) (c.1960s).
Among the earliest employees of Travel Air, Mrs. Beech
took the helm of Beech Aircraft Company in 1950 upon the death of
her husband. O.A. Beech was to be known as the “First Lady of
Aviation” for her 18 years of contributions to general
aviation. (Raytheon Aircraft Company)

FIGURE
7: Aerial view of 1930 Travel Air manufacturing
facilities (Feb. 17,
1930)

Travel
Air manufacturing units A, B, C, D and E are noted. (Raytheon Aircraft
Company)

FIGURE 8:
Aerial view of 1994 Raytheon Aircraft Company Plant I facility
(Dec.
1994)

Original Travel Air
manufacturing units A, B, C, D and E are noted in the present-day
facility. (Raytheon Aircraft Company)

FIGURE 9: Travel Air
“Mystery Ship” (c. August
1929)

The Travel Air “Mystery Ship”
became one of the most popular racing aircraft of its day. Piloted
by Doug Davis it won the 1929 Thompson Trophy at the Cleveland Air
Races shortly after this photo was taken. In the photo R614K sits
outside Factory D with Factory B in the background. (Raytheon Aircraft
Company)

FIGURE 10: Travel Air East Central Avenue factory interior (c. 1928)
Wood working department. (Raytheon Aircraft Company)

FIGURE 11: Travel Air East Central Avenue factory interior (c. 1928)
Fabric department. (Raytheon Aircraft Company)

FIGURE 12: Travel Air East Central Avenue factory interior (c.1928)
Engine assembly. (Raytheon Aircraft Company)

FIGURE 13: Travel Air East Central Avenue factory interior (c. 1928)
Pictured is the assembly of a Travel Air
6000. At right is Richard “Dick” Beech (Walter
Beech’s brother). Far left is J. Jack Clark (drafting
engineer). Middle figure is unknown. (Raytheon
Aircraft
Company)

FIGURE 14: Beech, Mac Short, and Stearman (c.1925)
Walter Beech (left) congratulates co-designers of the
Travel Air “Special” (pictured in the background) Mac
Short (middle) and Lloyd Stearman (right). The
“Special,” piloted by Beech, won the 50-mile
“Free-For-All” race at Tulsa, OK in August, 1925. Mac
Short, an MIT graduate, would go on to work with Stearman after he
left Travel Air. (Wichita 4,
Bissonette)

back to top
  • facebook
  • Aviation Blog
  • Wolf Aviation Fund
  • flying with Walter Boyne
  • Kansas Aviation Museum