Topeka flight history rich

Pilot became legend with groundbreaking aircraft

By Chris Grenz
The Capital-Journal

Editor’s note: Topeka will celebrate its 150th anniversary next year — and there is much to learn about the city before then. “Our Town: Topeka,” a weekly series that will appear on Sundays through September, will explore Topeka’s rich history and the people who have made the city what it is today.

Wichita is the “Air Capital of the World.” Atchison can claim famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart.

But as the home of the first Kansas-built airplane to fly, Topeka’s place in aviation history shouldn’t be overlooked, says the Rev. Richard Taylor.

Taylor, a retired United Methodist minister and history buff who is best known for his campaign against the loosening of state liquor laws, has extensively researched Albin K. Longren, who with no training built and flew an airplane on Sept. 2, 1911, at a farm 7 1/2 miles southeast of Topeka.

Submitted:
Pilot J.C. Mars is pictured in his plane, the “Skylark,” which he demonstrated for thousands of Topekans on June 9, 1910. Shortly after the photo was taken, Mars crashed the plane. Albin K. Longren, a young Kansas National Guard soldier who had been present to help with crowd control, helped rebuild the plane, sparking a lifelong interest in aviation.

He built the plane in secret and took off at dusk so no one would see him. He was afraid he might crash and be embarrassed.

But far from embarrassment, Longren was designing, engineering, manufacturing and flying planes in Kansas before anyone else, Taylor said. And with many patents to his name — including some procedures still used today — he proved he was highly skilled in his approach.

“Longren deserves all the attention he can get,” Taylor said passionately. “Longren really is unique. That is not to criticize Wichita. They were good. But he was ahead of them.”

Crash landing

Albin Kasper Longren — “A.K.” to his friends — was born Jan. 18, 1882, one of eight children in a farm family that lived in a log cabin in Riley County, five miles northwest of Leonardville. Although he would grow up to be a pilot, designer, barnstormer, inventor and aircraft executive, he started as an auto mechanic with his brother, E.J. Longren. He later would marry a beauty queen, Dolly, to whom he was attracted in part because she could repair a plane as well as any man.

Longren didn’t become interested in learning to fly a plane until he watched one crash. A member of a Clay Center Kansas National Guard unit, Longren was dispatched to Topeka on June 9, 1910, to help with crowd control while a pilot named J.C. Mars flew a rickety, low-powered craft called “Skylark.”

Albin K. Longren stands beside one of the early airplanes made in his factory. His wife, Dolly, is sitting in the plane.

Photo Credit: Kansas State Historical Society

Mars took off from a farm field north of Garfield Park across Soldier Creek. But as Mars piloted his plane above a crowd of several thousand, a speeding Rock Island train approached, “sucking the air from underneath the ‘Skylark’,” the Topeka Daily State Journal reported.

The turbulence created was too much for the frail 24-horsepower plane. Mars tried to land in a field, but the recently plowed, wet ground swallowed a tire and the spindly aircraft toppled.

The next day, five of the guardsmen who had come to town helped Mars reassemble the plane, including an electrician, a plumber and the Longren brothers. The plane flew away on June 15. The Longrens said at the time that they thought they might like to build a similar plane — although they believed they could improve upon it in size and power.

‘Topeka I’

Longren eventually moved to Topeka, where he set to work in a factory at 420 S.W. Jackson. Newspaper accounts at the time described how Longren, his brother and their friend William Janicke began constructing a plane in secret.

After building the plane, they wanted to keep it under wraps while testing it. The men disassembled their creation, put it in boxes and carted it to a hay field 7 1/2 miles southeast of town — the Al Schmidt farm, which was southwest of 53rd Street and Berryton Road in rural southeast Shawnee County.

It took several days to reassemble the plane. To guard their plane from discovery, they hid it in a tent while reconstructing it. The men slept and ate in the tent to keep watch over the plane.

Why all the secrecy? Longren wasn’t sure the thing would work. He was worried about an embarrassing failure.

At dusk on Sept. 2, 1911, Longren and the others rolled out what was at that time the largest plane ever seen in Topeka, which Longren dubbed “Topeka I.” Under the cover of near-darkness, they fired it up for a test run.

Longren needn’t have worried. It flew six miles in its maiden voyage, reaching a top speed of 60 mph.

Perhaps the best-known Kansan to build and fly a plane was Clyde Cessna. He did it a few months earlier than Longren — taking off on May 11, 1911. But Cessna built his first plane in Enid, Okla., and tried to fly the plane along the Salt Plains of Oklahoma near Jet.

Cessna’s first 15 attempts ended with a crash landing. The 16th time he tried, the “wheels left the ground and Clyde soared higher,” according to “An Eye to the Sky,” a history of the Cessna company by Gerald Deneau, of Cessna Aircraft Co. “The airplane responded to his controls and turned at his bidding.”

Albin K. Longren gets ready to pilot his first airplane, “Topeka I,” in 1911.

Photo Credit: Kansas State Historical Society

After the flight, he landed and taxied over to his smiling brother, Roy. Clyde was smiling, too.

“It flies,” Clyde said.

“Like a hawk,” Roy replied.

Up in Topeka, Taylor proudly points out, Longren built a plane and, without any instruction, also set out to test fly it. Over the course of several days, he took off for several test flights aboard his plane.

“Longren never did crash in his early planes,” Taylor said in an interview.

Dangers of flying

Longren continued developing airplanes and manufacturing techniques. He soon patented the “hydraulic-stretch press” to pull aluminum over the forms of airplane fuselages, Taylor said. Variations of the practice still are in use today.

To fund his operation, Longren took up barnstorming, earning the nickname “Birdman” as he embarked on numerous flights throughout the Midwest from 1911 to 1914.

His barnstorming days — and nearly his life — ended on Sept. 24, 1915. Longren was in Abilene to demonstrate the third plane he had built on the second floor of the building at 420 S.W. Jackson. It was a “pusher” plane, with the propeller engine in back. “Tractor” planes, which are pulled through the air by front-mounted props, quickly became more common.

Although the windy conditions weren’t favorable for flying, Longren, who hated to disappoint a crowd, decided to take his plane up anyway. He ended up crashing his plane and was seriously injured.

However, he repaired the airplane and later sold it to Philip Billard. In 1912, Longren had taught Philip Billard to fly. His flights around the capital city were frequently mentioned in Topeka papers. This attention was due in large part to the public’s fascination with the new invention. But Billard also was the son of Topeka Mayor J. B. Billard. The mayor was quoted in 1912 as being “opposed to his son purchasing the racing biplane, because of the dangers of flying, but Phil wanted something that was faster than an auto.”

His father’s concerns about the dangers of flying were well-founded. Many pilots had accidents in these early aircraft, and tragically, Philip Billard was no exception. In 1918, while serving as a test pilot and instructor during World War I, he died when his plane disintegrated over France.

A gift from the Billard family in 1938, the plane that nearly killed Longren in 1915 now hangs in the Kansas Museum of History on permanent display. It remains in excellent condition because the plane was stored by Billard’s family in a four-car garage in Oakland after Philip was sent overseas in 1916.

What could have been

The first plane to be successfully flown in Kansas was built in Albin K. Longren’s factory in Topeka.

Photo Credit: Kansas State Historical Society

Perhaps Topeka could have become the airplane capital of the world, but the city and Longren missed their chance. In 1917, the military approached Longren about building warplanes, but he didn’t have the funding to crank out planes at the rate it required.

In June 1919, Longren had grand schemes to try again to make Topeka a center for aircraft manufacturing. He set up the Longren Aircraft Corp. with plans to build the New Longren, a 1921 model that would take off and land in a short space and could travel at 100 mph.

“With a three-cylinder, 60-horsepower radial Lawrence engine, it won contests and set records,” according to promotional materials distributed when Longren was inducted into the Kansas Aviation Hall of Fame on Nov. 21, 1997.

The two-seater with side-by-side seating would sell for $2,500 each. It truly would have been the Model T of the skies, media reports boasted. The plane was sometimes referred to as an “air flivver,” a take-off on the Model T’s nickname.

“Like the Model T Ford of 1908-1927, the New Longren Airplane of 1921 was light-weight, simple, strong, dependable, practical, easy to repair and maintain, with great performance, low-priced and had a special beauty all its own,” Taylor wrote in his book.

But what made Longren’s 500-pound biplane so special was its wings. By simply removing four pins, the wings easily and quickly could be folded back along the length of the aircraft, making the plane much narrower. Pilots could hitch the plane to a car to tow it to an airfield, and storage in a standard Model T garage was a breeze.

“The folding wing feature, developed after considerable study and exhaustive experiments, is by far the best solution to the housing problem ever offered,” read a review of the airplane that was published in the Sept. 26, 1921, issue of Aerial Age Weekly, a trade magazine.

As a moderately priced airplane, Longren believed the New Longren, the 10th model he built, would be the air vehicle for “the doctor, the ranchman, the traveling man and the farmer.” Henry Ford had used the same words to pitch his Model T.

“His planes in 1921 were way ahead of anything built in Wichita. Wichita was building things that looked like sticks and wire,” Taylor said. “He was way ahead at the time. He was probably one of the greatest early aeronautical engineers.”

Longren invested much of his barnstorming income into his Topeka factory, eventually manufacturing several planes at the Oakland “woolen mill,” a two-story building at 1401 N.E. Winfield, next to what today is Philip Billard Municipal Airport in northeast Topeka.

Longren hoped to churn out eight New Longrens a day. But once again, lack of funding ended his dreams. When Longren tried to sell the plane commercially, he discovered customers were buying the Jenny, an American plane manufactured during World War I. The Jenny was being sold as surplus for only $500.

Despite widespread praise of the plane, without the money needed to launch large-scale production, Longren’s company went bankrupt after Longren had manufactured only eight to 12 New Longrens, three of which were sold to the U.S. Navy in 1923.

“Maybe,” Taylor wrote, “it was too far ahead of its day.”

Epilogue

After his company went bankrupt, Longren moved from Topeka to the Kansas City area. In 1934, he became a vice president for Clyde Cessna in Wichita but later had a factory in Torrance, Calif. During World War II, Longren was a subcontractor, using the hydraulic-stretch press to manufacture bulkheads and fuselages for plane manufacturers.

In fact, Longren spent 20 years as a consultant for other manufacturing companies after his own business failed. Longren died on Nov. 19, 1950, in California at the age of 68. The aviation pioneer is buried in Leonardville, four miles from the cabin where he was born.

Chris Grenz can be reached at (785) 296-3005 or chris.grenz@cjonline.com.

RESOURCE LIST

To learn more about A.K. Longren and his airplanes, check out these publications:

  • “I Love Kansas,” by Richard Taylor, 2001
  • “Henry Ford of the Air” by Richard Taylor, 1996
  • Aerial Age Weekly, Sept. 26, 1921.

For more information on Longren’s biplane, go to the Kansas State Historical Society’s Web site, www.kshs.org/cool2/biplane.htm.

Article courtesy of the Topeka Capital Journal.