Kansas Aviation Legacy
Wichita's Wee Wooden Wonders
How Culver & Mooney Became Wichita Airplanes
Copyright 2003, 2008
by Richard Harris
Originally published in InFlightUSA, 2003
Revised for WingsOverKansas.com, 2008
Comments and corrections are invited.
This is the first in our series "Wichita's Wee Wooden Wonders", about the Wichita roots of Culver and Mooney Aircraft Companies, tracing the career of their creator, Al Mooney.
Kansas's most famous general aviation plane-makers of today are Cessna, Beech (now Hawker-Beechcraft) and Learjet (now a division of Bombardier).
But there is another legendary general aviation airplane manufacturer
-- still very much alive today -- that started in Wichita, as well: Mooney Aircraft.
In fact, the Mooney company started in Wichita twice -- and, in between, its namesake founder brought another remarkable planemaker to Wichita: Culver, who would quietly build a thousand tiny military planes in secret, and over a hundred civilian planes as well.
And all the Wichita Culvers and Mooneys -- extraordinary
performers for their size and power, and powerful trend-setters --
would be made of wood. This is the story of the pioneering genius
behind them, and how his remarkable craft came to be "Wichita's Wee
Wooden Wonders." And along the way, many other Kansas aviation names
come into play, in shaping a legendary career.
As a boy, young Al Mooney, on his own, studied aircraft
engineering by burrowing into the books of the Denver Public Library.
Raised by a Rocky Mountain railroad bridge-builder, and having spent
time building such things with his own hands, big, husky Al had an
ingrained fascination with engineering -- and airplanes were the most
fascinating engineering puzzle of the times.
Four Laird Swallows, in 1920, waiting for delivery in
Wichita. The one in the foreground appears to be the same model Swallow
as the first plane owned by the 'Alexander Aircraft Co.' Note
the short wings, which gave the Swallow a speed advantage at low
altitudes (because of reduced drag), but severely limited its lifting
ability at high altitudes and airport elevations, like Denver's.
Longren barnstorming poster (Kansas State Historical Society photo)
In 1925, he chased an airplane to a local airstrip, where it
landed, and correctly diagnosed a rigging problem that was handicapping
its flight. It was a Wichita-built "Swallow" biplane [NOTE: There seems to be a bit of confusion as to whether it was an original 1920 "Laird Swallow" (designed by Matty Laird), or a later "New Swallow"
(designed by Lloyd Stearman and manufactured under the supervision of
Walter Beech). Photos seem to indicate a 1920 Laird Swallow.
The boy's aeronautical acumen impressed the Swallow's owner,
who asked the bright boy to come to work for him -- beginning one of
the most diverse and legendary careers of American aviation.
The impressed owner of this particular Swallow was Denver
movie-ad tycoon J.Don Alexander. It was the first of a handful of
planes that Alexander would try to use to put his national team of
movie-ad salesmen in the air, something never done before by any
sizeable sales force. At this time, in the early 1920s, Americans
didn't have TV -- they had the movies, and everyone went to them, every
week, spending a whole afternoon at the theatre watching movie after
movie, punctuated by commercials. Alexander Film Co. had become the
nation's leading supplier of those movie ads, and its huge sales force
traveled constantly back and forth across the country.
J. Don Alexander had the outlandish idea of buying
several-dozen aircraft (one for everyone in his sales force) in a time
when even the government wasn't placing aircraft orders of that size --
and all the leading aircraft-makers turned him down, unable to meet
Alexander's massive airplane needs in his time frame, or unable to
believe the sincerity and sanity of his "order."
Alexander's Swallow, designed in Wichita (where the elevation
was a scant 1,300 feet above sea level) was simply too short of wing
for effective flight in the thin air of mile-high Denver. And in any
case the entire production of the Swallow factory couldn't keep up with
THE LONGREN "SOLUTION"
Alexander decided to solve the problem by starting his own
aircraft manufacturing firm -- by buying up the designs and assets of
the defunct Longren Aircraft Co. of Topeka, in 1924.
Longren AK / Fibre Sport Plane / New Longren Sport / Commercial, first "composite shell" airplane: its hollow streamlined fuselage
was made of fibres reinforced with vulcanized rubber. Shown with its
short wings folded back, and an extra pair of wheels under the tail,
for towing to a garage. This was the approximate state of the art in
Longren planes, about the time Alexander acquired the Longren company's
assets. (Courtesy of
Longren was a bit of Kansas history. In Topeka in 1911, Albin K.
Longren developed the first flying airplane built in Kansas -- the
first of hundreds of thousands of Kansas-built planes that would
someday fly from Kansas soil. And Longren developed some exotic and
pioneering ideas (including the first "composite"-shell aircraft, today
considered the wave of the future).
But after producing a handful of two-seat biplanes (some of them rather
remarkble), Longren went bankrupt in 1924, and wandered off into an
almost anonymous life as one of the great unsung pioneers of aircraft
manufacturing technology -- a role he would develop at Spartan Aircraft in Oklahoma, then for Cessna Aircraft in Wichita, quietly creating manufacturing techniques that would someday revolutionize airplane building.
Meanwhile, J.Don Alexander hauled off four Longren airplanes and
various other assets, and set up shop in Denver under the banner
"Alexander Aircraft Co." The Topeka-designed Longren Flyer "fleet" (four planes) was reassembled in Denver with the help of former Longren engineer Dan Noonan. They were re-named Alexander Eaglerock
biplanes (for the company's pet eagle, and the surrounding Rocky
Mountains). But, alas, the low-land Longrens, like the low-land
Swallow, flew poorly, or not at all, in the thin air of mile-high
Denver. Renaming the Longrens for an eagle in the Rocky Mountains just
couldn't make them fly like one.
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