Brief Swallow Company History
At the end of World War I, thousands of relatively inexpensive war surplus airplanes were available. More than 8,000 Curtiss JN “Jennies” had been built during the war and many survived to be used as trainers and to introduce the public to aviation through “barnstorming” rides. But the Jenny could only carry one passenger or a very limited amount of cargo. Aviation enthusiasts knew that an improved airplane was needed to realize aviation’s potential.
One such enthusiast was oilman “Jake” Moellendick. In 1919 he started the Wichita Airplane Company, planning to use three Canadian versions of the Jenny in an air taxi, flight instruction, and rides business. He knew he needed more capable airplanes and his friend, William Burke, suggested that a Chicago pilot and builder, Matty Laird might be able to build such planes. Moellendick and Burke convinced Laird to move to Wichita and offered funding to create the E. M. Laird Airplane Company.
Laird quickly designed a two-passenger model that closely resembled the Jenny and used the same OX-5 engine. He planned to call his new design the Laird Wichita Tractor. On April 8th, 1920, Laird made the first test flight. Among the spectators was a local hotel operator, William Lassen, who commented after the successful flight that “it flies just like a Swallow.” Laird liked the comment and promptly renamed the model as the “Laird Swallow.”
Word of the new design spread quickly and orders came in for a full year of production. To meet the need for employees, the company placed ads in the local Wichita newspaper. One who answered the ad was Lloyd Stearman, a former Naval Air Cadet and then an architect. Despite his aviation and design experience, Stearman along with his brother Waverly, was started on the factory floor, as was the custom of the time. In May of 1920, 30 employees were building Swallows and by September the factory had 45 men producing a new airplane every five days.
The production of Swallows in 1920 was small compared to the numbers of wartime Jennies, but the Swallow features commanded a premium price. Laird declared that the Swallow was “America’s First Commercial Airplane,” as opposed to prior military and experimental designs. His company was doing well on a business basis, but management conflicts began. Burke left the company at the end of 1920 to tend to his Oklahoma automobile dealership. Laird, the company president, now had to deal more directly with Moellendick, who was listed as treasurer and had provided much of the financial backing.
A national recession in 1921 put pressure on the company and Moellendick increasingly made expansionary business decisions without consulting Laird. One such decision was the hiring of Walter Beech as a demonstrator pilot. Laird felt Beech’s 250 hours of flying experience were insufficient, and wasn’t surprised when Beech crashed a Swallow shortly after being hired. But Beech soon developed into a skilled race pilot, earning the company money in regional air races. “Buck” Weaver, of Waco aircraft fame, was an early employee who left because of disputes with Moellendick.
Moellendick pressed for development of a much larger plane. Only a single copy of the 9-passenger “Laird Limousine” was built. It was never successful and was eventually ordered burned. Despite slow sales in a difficult economy, Moellendick decided to build a new factory, over Laird’s objections. By 1923 Laird felt he had to leave the company and insisted that his name not be used. Moellendick renamed the company as the Swallow Airplane Manufacturing Company and became its president. He made Lloyd Stearman the chief engineer and Walter Beech the general manager and head of sales.
Stearman substantially redesigned the Swallow, creating the “New Swallow” of 1924. His new design had many improvements and sold well. But Stearman wanted to do even better. He and Beech decided to create a model with a steel tube fuselage, a technique Anthony Fokker had used in Europe. They developed the design in secret on their own time. In December of 1924 they showed Moellendick their work and he was livid. He told then they could leave if they didn’t want to continue using wood fuselages. The argument came to a head with Stearman and Beech quitting. They took their new design and partnered with Clyde Cessna and Walter Innes to form a new company, Travel Air.
Wichita now had two major airplane manufacturers and Swallow continued making and selling airplanes in competition to Travel Air. The 1927 Swallow model, was redesigned with a steel tube fuselage, ironically by Lloyd Stearman’s brother, Waverly, who had stayed at Swallow.
Competition among the manufacturers was fierce, with many sales based on the results of air races. Moellendick decided to halt Swallow production to concentrate on winning one such race. In the summer of 1927, after Lindbergh’s successful crossing of the Atlantic, Dole Pineapple sponsored a contest from Oakland California to Honolulu. Several planes crashed before getting to Oakland. Eight airplanes made it to the start including two Travel Airs and an extensively modified Swallow, the “Dallas Spirit.” One Travel Air won the race and only one other plane completed the course. Two airplanes crashed on takeoff and two others were lost at sea. The Swallow entry was among the airplanes, which returned because of mechanical problems. Three days later, it made the attempt again, with a plan to look for survivors en route to Hawaii. It was never seen again.
Loss of the “Dallas Spirit” compounded financial problems at Swallow and the company went into receivership. But the Swallow legacy wasn’t just the fine airplanes it built, but also the aviation careers it launched. Matty Laird continued to build a limited number of high-end and racing planes through the 1930’s. Lloyd Stearman later founded his own aircraft company and became president of Lockheed Aircraft. Walter Beech and Clyde Cessna each stayed in Wichita and formed their own, well-known aircraft companies. But “Jake” Moellendick, the oilman who launched them all, died as a pauper in 1940.