History of EAA’s Travel Air E-4000 (NC648H)
EAA’s Travel Air E-4000 was among the last airplanes built by the Travel Air Company. It bore serial number 1224 and was powered by the popular Wright J-6-5 engine with 165 hp. Robert F. Shank, operator of Hoosier Airport in Indianapolis, Indiana, purchased the plane at the Wichita factory on July 30, 1929. Shank held Commercial Pilot license number 1448 and A&E Mechanic license 2394. The plane would stay in the Shank family for more than 30 years.
The first flight of our Travel Air was its delivery from Wichita to Indianapolis, taking almost eight flying hours. Early engine problems required installation of a heavier case after two months of use. By the end of 1929, the Travel Air had flown 71 hours. The engine case was replaced again in 1930 and the plane was flown another 133 hours.
In June of 1931 the Travel Air was turned on its back in Wolcott, Indiana, requiring replacement of the propeller blades and repair of the wing struts, rudder, fin, and fuselage. The plane was quickly repaired and put back in operation. Chilly Indiana winters and the lack of a starter didn’t prevent the open-cockpit plane from being flown every month in its first three years of operation.
Details of the plane’s early uses are sketchy, but carrying passengers appears to have been its primary role. It was also used for flight instruction and the plane was a familiar sight at air shows and fly-ins in northern Indiana.
In 1940 the plane was sold to Muncie Aviation, but was bought back about a year later by the Shank family at Hoosier Airport. World War II stopped most US civil aviation, but this Travel Air was used extensively in the Civilian Pilot Training program for cross-country navigation training. The plane was flown almost daily in the summers of 1943 and 1944. That heavy use took a toll on the airplane and in November of 1944, Robert Shank dismantled the plane and removed it from service.
In 1957, ownership of the plane was transferred from Robert Shank to his son, William, then operating as Shank Aviation. The plane was extensively rebuilt and a top overhaul performed on the engine. New Grade A fabric covering was painted a dark green. The Indianapolis airport was now renamed Bob Shank Airport. Over the next two years, the plane flew about another 60 hours. In 1959 William Shank sold the plane to Edward N. Wolf, also of Indianapolis. Little flight time was logged by Mr. Wolf who sold the plane to Florida Airmotive Sales after about two years. In September 1961, the plane was flown on a twelve-hour, two day, four-stop trip to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Three months later, the plane was purchased by LeRoy and Wanda Brown of Miami. Mr. And Mrs. Brown flew the Travel Air only eight hours in the next three years and then sold it to John Chesney, also of Miami. Under Mr. Chesney’s ownership, an engine failure occurred in April of 1967. Some time later the plane was disassembled. In December of 1969, Mr. Chesney donated the airplane to EAA. New fabric was put on some parts of the plane in 1970 and then the disassembled plane and two engines were shipped to the EAA Museum in Burlington, WI.
In 1977 the plane was assembled and recovered by the EAA Museum staff and volunteers. The fuselage was painted Tennessee Red and the wings painted Diana Cream. Gene Chase, who was then director of the museum, made the test flights that resulted in some rigging adjustments. After about six hours of flight time, the aircraft was put on display in the museum.
In the early 1990’s, a dedicated group of EAA employees and volunteers, including Gene Chase and Jim Barton, undertook a major restoration of the plane. It was completely disassembled and the Wright engine was replaced with a Continental 220. The plane was then recovered using the Stits fabric process. A paint scheme of Lemon Yellow wings and Travel Air Blue fuselage was applied and many improvements, including a banner tow hook were added to the plane. The aircraft was placed on active flying status at the Pioneer Airport which is part of the EAA AirVenture Museum experience. This fine example of an open-cockpit biplane from the Golden Age of aviation provides museum visitors with a trip back in time to that wonderful era.