Edward H. Phillips, "Barnstorming Wichita's Aviation Past"
E.M. LAIRD - AVIATION PIONEER
The “Swallow” became popular with air taxi operators and barnstormers chiefly because it had room for two passengers in the front cockpit. These two airplanes were sold to the Nourse Motor Oil Company.
Laird introduced the “Commercial” model in 1926. Powered by a Curtiss OX-5 engine, the Commercial led to production of the LC-B that used a Wright J-4 radial engine.
Charles “Speed” Holman was photographed in the cockpit of the Laird “Solution” shortly before the Thompson Trophy Race in 1930. Holman won. The Solution was the only biplane to ever win the prestigious event.
Laird’s talent for designing graceful biplanes reached its zenith in the powerful LC-RW-450. The two-place ship was capable of 200 mph. Only two were built.
E.M. Laird in 1945 when he worked for the Metal Door and Trim Company, LaPorte, Indiana. Laird’s accomplishments in aviation are legendary, and he is especially remembered his sleek, fast and powerful racing biplanes that grabbed headlines in the 1930s.
By: Edward H. Phillips
When Emil Matthew “Matty” Laird came to Wichita, Kan., in 1919, he began the city’s transformation from the “Wheat Capital” to the “Air capital of the World.” Laird, who hailed from Chicago, had been designing and building biplanes for eight years. His latest machine, a three-place, open cockpit biplane powered by a Curtiss OX-5 engine, featured room for two passengers in the front cockpit.
Laird had been wooed away from Chicago by an offer he found tempting - money and a place to build “aeroplanes.” The offer had been made by Jacob Melvin Moellendick, a Kansas oil field tycoon who believed there was a commercial market for airplanes and Wichita was an ideal location for to manufacture flying machines.
Matty decided the risk was worth the opportunity, and he was soon busy hiring workers for his facilities in downtown Wichita and at the flying field north of the city. The new airplane was dubbed the “Swallow” and made its first flight in April 1920. It flew well and Laird began preparing to commence production. Within weeks of the flight news about the Swallow had spread through the Midwest. Soon orders from air taxi operators began to arrive at the main office.
By 1920 there was growing demand for a new commercial airplane. The World War I-era Curtiss JN-4 and other surplus trainers were obsolete by the end of the war, and although there were small companies in the U.S. building new airplanes for commercial sale, the Swallow represented a significant value despite its high price of $6,500.
During 1920-1924 more than 40 Swallows were built and gave reliable service. Although his airplanes were selling well, Matty’s business relationship with Moellendick was gradually eroding and by the summer of 1923 the situation became intolerable for Laird. In October he departed Wichita and returned to Chicago where he quickly reestablished himself as a manufacturer of airplanes.
Early in 1924 the E.M. Laird Airplane Company was doing business in rented facilities near Ashburn Field. Matty knew the venerable Swallow was an aging design and could no longer compete in an increasingly competitive marketplace. He designed a new biplane designated the Laird “Commercial” - a three-place, open cockpit machine powered by an OX-5 engine enclosed in a streamlined, all-metal cowling.
The Commercial was well received by pilots but demand was low, with only a few airplanes built in 1924-1926. Laird lost money in all three years but sweeping changes began to affect the fledgling aviation industry in 1926, including enactment of the Air Commerce Act. It required licensing of pilots and mechanics and the registration of aircraft. In addition, the law required that all aircraft comply with specific minimum airworthiness standards and receive certification by the federal government.
In May 1927 the U.S. aviation industry was catapulted to new heights when an obscure air mail pilot named Charles Lindbergh flew a Ryan monoplane across the North Atlantic Ocean to Paris, winning the Orteig Prize and $25,000. As with many other small airplane companies, in the wake of Lindbergh’s flight Laird’s business grew and production accelerated.
During the late 1920s the company introduced new models such as the LC-B and LC-1B, the powerful LC-R and special racing ships, specifically the LC-DW-300 “Solution” that won the 1930 Thompson Trophy Race with “Speed” Holman at the controls. In 1931 Laird built the LC-DW-500 “Super Solution” that was flown to victory in the Bendix cross-country race by James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle.
The last new designs produced by Laird before the stock market crash of 1929 were designated as the LC-DE. These were smaller airplanes than the LC-B and LC-R proved to be popular with sportsman and amateur air racing pilots. Following the debacle on Wall Street, sales of new airplanes plummeted and the nation fell into the grip of the Great Depression. Many aviation companies closed their doors, but Laird help on by a thread by building custom biplanes.
In 1931 Matty introduced the LC-EW-450—a six-place cabin sesquiplane featuring an all-metal, semi-monocoque fuselage. Despite being an advanced design, the airplane was not successful in the marketplace and only one was built. During the mid- and late 1930s Laird kept busy with component repair work from American Airlines, TWA, Braniff and United Airlines.
Laird, however, never lost his interest in air racing and speed. In 1937 he teamed up with flamboyant aviator Roscoe Turner and rebuilt his special racer powered by a Pratt & Whitney Hornet, 14-cylinder radial engine rated at 1,000 hp. Laird designated it the LTR-14 (LTR for “Laird/Turner Racer”). In 1934 Turner won the famed Thompson Trophy Race in his Wedell-Williams monoplane, and planned to win again with the new LT-14. Turner only placed third in the 1937 Thompson event, and he blamed Laird’s work on the airplane as the chief reason for his failure to win.
As a result, Laird and Turner parted company. Turner and the LTR-14 won the 1938 and 1939 Thompson races, but Laird was not given any credit publicly for his work on the airplane and the Laird company logo was removed from the vertical stabilizer.
During World War Two Matty Laird worked as an engineer for the LaPorte Corporation that built tail sections for the Martin B-26 bomber and assemblies for the Consolidated B-24. After the war Laird considered building a four-place, high wing monoplane, but he decided against the plan and in 1945 his direct involvement in aviation came to an end. E.M. Laird died in 1982. He left behind a legacy of speed and a reputation for building superior custom airplanes that earned the respect of both customers and competitors.
All photos courtesy Joan Laird Post Collection.
Back to the Edward H. Phillips, "Barnstorming Wichita's Aviation Past" page.