An Abridged History of Travel Air
by Edward H. Phillips
published in the March 2000 issue of the Travel Air Log
It has been 75 years since a group of talented and determined aviators and businessmen banded together to create the Travel Air Manufacturing Company in Wichita. Kansas. History remembers their names well: Lloyd C. Stearman, Walter H. Beech, Clyde V. Cessna, Walter Innes, Jr., and William R. Snook, who in January 1925 set up shop in a cramped 30x30-ft. space in the rear of the Kansas Planing Mill behind Broadview Hotel in downtown Wichita.
Assisted by a handful of highly experienced workmen, Beech, Stearman, and Cessna supervised construction of the company's first product, the Model A biplane.
Powered by the ubiquitous Curtiss OX-5 engine of 90 dubious horsepower, the two-bay biplane possessed trim lines and sported a full engine cowling that further streamlined the ship's appearance.
The airplane first flew in March 1925 and was deemed a success. Sales, however, came slow at first because of the Model A's $3,000 price tag. But the market soon realized that the Travel Air represented a quantum leap in design from the lethargic Curtiss JN4 and Standard J-1 biplanes that dominated the fledgling aero industry at that time. Travel Air built 19 airplanes in its first year, and in 1926 introduced the improved Model B and the powerful Model BW with its new Wright J4 air-cooled radial engine rated at 200 hp. A total of 46 airplanes were built that year, followed in 1927 by another 158.
With the national economy steaming ahead at full speed, Travel Air sales climbed steadily. Late in 1926 Clyde Cessna had convinced Walter Beech to market an enclosed cabin monoplane for use by small airlines. Cessna based the design on a monoplane he had built earlier that year, and when Beech flew it he was impressed. Working with company engineers Lloyd Stearman, Herbert Rawdon and others, Cessna helped to fashion the Type 5000 into a successful product.
Stearman left the company in 1926 to try his hand at building his own airplanes in California, but failed. He eventually returned to Wichita and established a successful company whose airplanes were renown for their strength and reliability. Stearman went on to have a brilliant career in aviation, and he never forgot his roots at Travel Air.
The Model B , introduced in 1926, featured redesigned landing gear win bungee cords. In 1927 it was redesignated as the Type 2000. More than 600 Model A, Model B, and Type 2000s were built. The airplane illustrated was a demontrator assigned to Travel Air salesman Truman Wadlow (right). Note navigation lights on upper wings and aft fuselage (Phillips)
Travel Air's first airplane powered by a static, air-cooled radial engine was the Model BW, shown here shortly after completion. Price was $9,800. Note the large rudder typical of early Travel Air biplanes (Phillips)
By 1927, however, Cessna had grown discontent at Travel Air and sold his stock and set out to pursue his dream--designing and building a full cantilever monoplane bearing Cessna's name. The result was called the ''Phantom'' and led to formation of the Cessna-Rocs Aircraft Company and development of the successful ''A'' and ''B'' series airplanes. Contrary to myth, Cessna did not leave Travel Air because of disputes with Beech about the merits of monoplanes.
He struck out on his own for one reason only--to build monoplanes of his own design and manufacture. In years of research into Travel Air as well as the Cessna Company, the author has found no evidence of any animosity between the two men. According to Cessna's son Eldon, in 1932 Beech approached his father about participating in the formation of the Beech Aircraft Company, but Cessna declined. Both men remained friends until their deaths.
With the departure of Cessna, Walter Beech took the reins at Travel Air and forged ahead. The small factory in west Wichita was bursting at the seams, and in 1927 Travel Air secured land and built the first of a five-unit complex on East Central Avenue. Production increased, and by 1928 the company had added a second building and was experimenting with a new cabin monoplane dubbed the Type 6000. Introduced in 1929, the new six-place ship was an overnight success and became popular with businessmen and corporations.
Riding a wave of unprecedented success, in August 1 929, Travel Air was absorbed into the giant aviation conglomerate known as the Curtiss-Wright Corporation. But 1929 also witnessed development of the high-performance Type R racing monoplane, developed in secret by Herbert Rawdon and Walter Burnham.
When it appeared at the 1929 National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio the Type R was a sensation. It won the Free-for-all event for the Thompson Cup at an average speed of nearly 200 mph., and defeated the best biplanes the U.S. Army Air Corps and the U.S. Navy could muster. Five of the sleek Type R ships were built, but the only example to survive in restored condition is the famed Texaco 13 that was flown by Frank M. Hawks. He set more than 200 intercity speed records with the airplane between 1930-1932. It has been on display in a Chicago museum since the late 1930s.
After the debacle on Wall Street in the autumn of 1929, the fortunes of Travel Air and other airplane manufacturers seemed to collapse in rapid succession. Sales ground to a halt, production was slashed, and dealer inventory of new airplanes soared. Faced with the grim reality of economic despair, Curtiss-Wright Corporation closed the Travel Air complex in 1931 and moved all activities to the St. Louis facilities.
With that decision, the famed Travel Air Company faded into the past. The machinery was sold, and the buildings sat empty except for storage of fuselages, wings and tail assemblies that would never become an airplane. In 1932-1 933 a part of the vacant Travel Air factory was rented by Clyde and Eldon Cessna to manufacture custom-built racers known as the CR-2 and CR-3. Flown by Johnny Livingston, the CR-3 won every race it entered before it was destroyed in 1933.
Walter Beech, who after the 1929 merger had been elevated to vice president status at Curtiss-Wright, quickly tired of flying a desk in St. Louis and New York City. Following in the earlier footsteps of Stearman and Cessna, late in 1931 Beech resigned from Curtiss-Wright to found the Beech Aircraft Company in Wichita. Ironically, he and his wife Olive Ann, along with engineer Ted Wells, leased a portion of the vacant Cessna factory to build Wells' negative stagger-wing biplane.
In its short but vibrant five-year history, Travel Air earned a reputation for building well-engineered, reliable and durable airplanes. Precisely how many air- planes the company produced is unknown, and probably cannot be determined with accuracy because many records have been destroyed by Cullies-Wright.
Estimates range from 1,300 to as many as 1,800, but the author believes the correct figure is about 1,700. Although no official company production records are known to exist, a notebook kept by factory manager William Snook provides an interesting glimpse into this mystery.
By 1929 Travel Air's biplane had reached their zenith of development. The type B4000 illustrated here (s/n 1000) featured a 200-225 hp. Wright J-5 engine. Note optional landing lights on interplane struts. (Phillips)
The Type 5000 monoplane transport introduced in 1927 was based on Clyde Cessna's Anzani-powered monoplane of 1926. National Air Transport operated a fleet of Type 5000s. The series was not issued an Approved Type Certificate. (Phillips)
According to Snook's notes, Travel Air had produced exactly 223 airplanes by January 1928. Later he wrote that "1,016'' Type 2000s and Type 4000s had been built by early in 1928, and that total production up to that point was ''1,239.'' Finally, Snook noted that ''1 ,696'' airplanes of all types had been built, but he did not indicate when that calculation was made, but it may have been late in 1928 or early in 1930.
The Type 6000 was a workhorse cabin monoplane at home on wheels or floats. Later versions featured a large windshield to improve pilot visability and comfort. A Type 6000B is illustrated. Note aging Travel Air Model B biplane in the background. (Phillips)
The author would be happy to assist anyone owning a Travel Air with information from Snook's notes, although most of the data is of a calendar nature. If the constructor number (serial number) is known, it probably can be traced back in the book to the week the airplane was set up and assembled.
You may contact the author at 817-477-1052 or a-mail to EHPHILLIPSIV @ CS.COM.
Let's keep the Travel Air's flying!