THE SAGA OF “SMILIN’ THRU”: Travel Air S6000B NC677K

By Edward H. Phillips

Travel Air "Smilin’ Thru" parked in front of its custom-built hangar in 1929. Fore more than two years Harry Ogg used the monoplane extensively to market and sell his automatic washing machines.

Of all the Travel Air monoplanes built by the factory, (more than 150 airplanes were produced between 1928-1931), constructor number 6B-2012 was unique in being the "flying office" of washing machine entrepreneur Harry L. Ogg. Hailing from Newton, Iowa, Ogg was president of the Automatic Washer Company that later evolved into the Maytag Corporation.

Ogg was quick to realize the advantages of the airplane in promoting his business, and in the summer of 1929 he contracted with the Travel Air Company for a specially-equipped cabin monoplane. The ship, powered by the reliable Wright J6-9 static radial engine rated at 300 hp, was delivered on August 20, 1929, and accepted by Wilford Gerbracht, Ogg’s agent and pilot for the new ship.

It is interesting to note that the factory’s S6000B designation for "Smilin’ Thru" is puzzling, chiefly because DOC records indicate that Ogg never installed Edo floats on the monoplane for seaplane operations. Perhaps that was his intent, but there is no known evidence that the ship ever operated on water.

To Ogg, the Travel Air was a business tool. He had the factory install a number of office machines, including an Ediphone for dictation, typewriter, folding table and an interphone that allowed him to talk with Gerbracht in flight. The interior was furnished with carpeting, window curtains and a seat belt for every seat as well as the optional lavatory with hot and cold running water. In addition to Gerbracht, Ogg he hired Katherine McBride to be his "aerial secretary." 

Painted with the words "Smilin’ Thru" on the fuselage sides, the big monoplane was originally licensed and approved by the Department of Commerce (DOC) to carry a pilot, four passengers and 135 pounds of office equipment. As part of the licensing process the DOC required Ogg to sign an affidavit swearing that he would operate the airplane in accordance with those limitations.

When delivered by Travel Air the S6000B had an empty weight of 3,030 pounds and a maximum gross weight of 4,620 pounds. For weight and balance purposes, the airplane’s license mandated that if Ogg flew the ship with the office equipment removed, at least 45 gallons of fuel had to be carried. As with the A6000A built for actor Wallace Beery the year before, Ogg’s ship was equipped with wings that carried 80 gallons of fuel and featured an increased span of four feet to help carry the extra weight.

Ogg occasionally flew "Smilin’ Thru" with the equipment and seats removed, instead carrying up to four washing machines in the cabin to demonstrate to prospective customers. Travel Air has installed a special plug-in power supply circuit that allowed the washing machines to operate during demonstrations on the ground. One other novel piece of equipment was installed-a siren. Ogg would have Gerbracht fly low over a town and operate the siren to draw the attention of the residents who would flock to the airport to see what all the commotion was about. That’s when Harry Ogg would unload the machines for a demonstration and deliver his well-prepared sales pitch.

Ogg’s obsession with flying, however, did not stop with his Travel Air. To house his pride and joy he had a special hangar built of steel and painted bright orange to match his flying office. Constructed at a grass airfield on the north side of Newton, the hangar served as Ogg’s base of flight operations for two years.

During its brief but active time in service to Ogg, NC677K is reported to have flown more than 900 hours and carried at least 9,000 people aloft while flying to 43 of the 48 states in the union. In the wake of "Smilin’ Thru’s" frenetic flying schedule, the nine-cylinder Wright J6-9 engine underwent three major overhauls.

The "crew" of "Smilin’ Thru" (left to right): Harry Ogg, owner and president of the Automatic Washer Company; Katherine McBride, Ogg’s aerial secretary; pilot Wilford Gerbracht. The badge on Gerbracht’s hat says "PILOT."

On January 26, 1930, the airplane suffered major damage to the right wing, lower right fuselage longeron and the right main landing gear in an accident. The damage was repaired and the ship was inspected and approved by the DOC. In mid-February NC677K was back in the air, and in August of that year the airplane was flown to the Travel Air factory to have a new, stronger vertical stabilizer installed.

The stock market crash of October 1929 gradually had an adverse effect on Ogg’s flying activities. Sales slowed as the Great Depression tightened its grip on the American economy. Ogg eventually had the monoplane placed in storage and allowed its license to expire. Throughout late 1931 the monoplane remained in storage awaiting annual inspection and installation of a new set of control cables. The ship was inspected and approved in April 1932, and soldiered on in service to the Automatic Washer Company. By October of that year "Smilin’ Thru" had a total flight time of 1,185 hours.

In June 1933 the airplane was sold to Floyd Davis of Des Moines, Iowa, without the special office equipment (except for the folding desk), who in July promptly sold the ship to G.G. Herrick of the Iowa Airplane Company, based in Des Moines. During operations with the Iowa Airplane Company the S6000B was damaged in another accident. In January 1935 F.C. Anderson, president of the company, sold the ship to C.W. Siehl of Sherburn, Minnesota, who bought the monoplane in its damaged condition for $1,100.

Repairs were made to two upper longerons forward of the tailpost, the right landing gear and the ship was completely recovered. At the time of repairs the airplane had accumulated 1,471 hours total time. According to DOC records, NC677K was reported to be in "fair condition" when it was inspected for relicensing in June 1936, by which date the ship had a total time of 1,693 hours.

C.W. Siehl retained ownership through 1936, but in November 1936 sold the Travel Air to Les Mauldin, Brownsville, Texas, for $1,950. In January 1937 he sold the ship to Cia Aeronautica del Sur S.A. in Mexico, and by April the monoplane had been imported into that country, according to a letter from the Departmento De Aeronautica Civil.

The paper trail of "Smilin’ Thru" goes cold in May 1937 when the DOC cancelled the NC677K registration, indicating only that the ship has been "exported into Mexico." The fate of Harry Ogg’s airborne office and a unique Travel Air remains unknown, but the airplane’s sturdy steel hangar has survived.

After Ogg and his company sold the ship, the hangar was dismantled and relocated to downtown Newton where it was used by Jasper County as a maintenance garage for many years. In February 2000 the old hangar, which had taken a beating over the decades but still was sound structurally, was sold to the Mid Iowa Chapter 456 of the Experimental Aircraft Assn.

Jim Jones, who helped to spearhead efforts to save "Smilin’ Thru’s" aged habitat, says the 71-year old building was disassembled piece by piece, with each panel numbered sequentially for reassembly later. The panels were reconditioned and minor repairs made as required, and eventually the panels and steel frame to the Newton Municipal Airport, the hangar was rebuilt and was completed in November 2006.

A special dedication ceremony was held on August 2, 2007, to celebrate the hangar’s resurrection and to honor the memory of Harry Ogg, Wilford Gerbracht, Katherine McBride and the legacy of "Smilin’ Thru." Chapter 456 has preserved the Travel Air’s heritage through displays of photographs, movie clips, logbooks and artifacts applicable to the history of NC677K, its crew and the monoplane’s visionary owner.


Photos Courtesy Jim Jones