The prototype Cessna C-34 as it appeared in July 1935, after receiving certification from the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Authority. (Robert Pickett Collection, via Kansas Aviation Museum)

By Edward H. Phillips

Dwane Wallace’s Cessna C-34 was the right airplane at the right time, and offered good performance at an affordable price that made it successful in the Great Depression market.

By 1933 Wichita’s once proud aviation industry had been humbled by the Great Depression. Airplane factories that had been bustling with activity in 1929 had long since fallen silent. But a young aeronautical engineer name Dwane L. Wallace was about to make history.

Tall and lanky, Wallace was the nephew of famed aviator and airplane builder Clyde V. Cessna. Unfortunately, the Cessna Aircraft Company had been forced to close its doors early in the 1930’s, but Dwane had formulated ambitious plans to resurrect the business and introduce a new airplane designed to sell in a depressed marketplace. Wallace, who had graduated from a Wichita college in May 1932 with a degree in aeronautical engineering, also earned his pilot license in a Travel Air biplane. Like his famous uncle, aviation was in his blood.

After graduation Dwane worked for Walter H. Beech at the struggling Beech Aircraft Company, where he performed stress analysis on the powerful A17F biplane with its unique, negative-stagger wing configuration. During this time, Wallace began initial design work on a new airplane that was similar to Cessna’s popular Model AW cabin monoplane, of which nearly 50 had been built in 1929-1930.

Cessna introduced the improved C-37 in 1937. It featured electric wing flaps and a wider cabin. (Robert Pickett Collection, via Kansas Aviation Museum).

The most challenging problem Dwane faced, however, was not creating a new airplane but wresting control of the defunct Cessna company from its shareholders. Allied with his older brother Dwight, who was a successful attorney and shared his brother’s desire to revive their uncle’s business, the two men began accruing the nearly worthless stock. They enlisted the help of Clyde Cessna, who signed a proxy letter written by the brothers that was sent to hundreds of shareholders. Cessna urged shareholders to oust the old guard and install the Wallace brothers. He also promised that the new airplane under development would be a commercial success and would reward their confidence.

In December 1933 Dwane resigned from the Beech Aircraft to prepare for the upcoming annual stockholders meeting of the Cessna Aircraft Company, which would decide the fate of Dwane’s dream. The event proved a momentous one, with the Wallace boys winning control by only a slim margin. With the toughest battle finally won, Dwight focused on the legal aspects of the new enterprise while Dwane centered his efforts on an airplane.

Dubbed the Cessna C-34 in honor of that fateful year, the latest Cessna featured a full cantilever wing, a four-seat cabin, and was powered by a Warner Super Scarab radial engine rated at 145 hp. Although Wallace conceived the C-34’s overall design, the majority of detail engineering work and stress analysis was accomplished by Jerry Gerteis and Tom Salter. It was these two men who took the airplane from the drawing board to first flight on August 10, 1934, piloted by respected Wichita airman George Harte.

The C-145 (shown) and C-165 were the final production variants of the Airmaster series. (Robert Pickett Collection via Kansas Aviation Museum).

It is important to note that although Clyde Cessna’s son Eldon later claimed to have been responsible for the C-34, he was not. Eldon played only a minor role in its design evolution. He had been retained as an engineer in the company at the behest of his father, and Dwane had agreed to the arrangement. The younger Cessna was a talented engineer as well as an accomplished pilot. He left the company in 1935 in the wake of a disagreement with Dwane Wallace over pay.

Following nearly a year of exhaustive flight tests, in June 1935 the C-34 was certified by the Civil Aeronautics Authority. The little monoplane had a maximum speed of 162 mph., cruised at 145 mph., and sold for $4,985. Dwane, who had become general manager of the Cessna Aircraft Company, placed the airplane into production and orders began to trickle in to the factory on East Pawnee Avenue.

In autumn 1935 the first C-34 (NC12599) won the prestigious Detroit News Trophy Race for overall efficiency, and in November the first production airplane was delivered to a customer. By the end the year nine C-34s had been built, and by mid-1936 more than 40 airplanes had been produced.

Despite its growing success, the C-34 begged for improvement and Wallace tasked engineers Gerteis and Salter to rework the airplane. In 1937 an upgraded version appeared, designated the C-37. It featured a wider forward fuselage, electric wing flaps, and sold for $5,490. After building 46 C-37s, the company introduced the C-38 for the 1938 model year. It boasted a number of key improvements, including a new, wide-track main landing gear, rubber engine mounts, and a single, large flap under the forward fuselage that acted chiefly as a speed brake. In addition, the C-38 was the first of the breed officially known as the Airmaster. It sold for $6,490.

Beech & Wallace
Dwane Wallace (left) and Walter H. Beech pose in front of a Cessna Airmaster and a twin-engine Beechcraft C-45. (Raytheon Aircraft Company)

Final versions of the airplane were the C-145 and C-165, reflecting a choice in engine horsepower. Introduced in 1939, these airplanes had a lengthened fuselage but were nearly identical in overall performance. The C-145 sold for $7,875 while the C-165 was priced at $8,275. Cessna built 42 C-145s and 38 C-165s and in 1941 offered the C-165D fitted with a constant-speed propeller. Only three were built that year before the outbreak of hostilities ended Airmaster production. During seven years 186 airplanes were built. Of these, 23 were converted into platforms for aerial photography.

The spunky little C-34 had put wings on Dwane Wallace’s dream. His classic Airmaster occupies not only a distinctive niche in aviation history, but kept the fledgling Cessna Aircraft Company airborne during the bleak years of the late 1930s.

By Edward H. Phillips, Cessna and Travel Air Historian