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Brief Travel Air Company History

In the early 1920’s, hundreds of small airplane companies sprang up, similar to the flurry of Internet start-up companies at the end of the twentieth century. The early airplane companies were often formed in garages by enthusiasts barely out of their teens and eager to be part of the exciting new world of aviation. The Travel Air Company in Wichita, Kansas, was just such a company. Though it lasted less than a decade, Travel Air quickly became a major airplane manufacturer in the United States and laid the groundwork for a series of aviation companies in Wichita.

Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman were officers of the Swallow Airplane Manufacturing Company, but were snubbed by its owner when they tried to develop a new airplane design. In December of 1924, they left Swallow and joined with Clyde Cessna to form a new company, Travel Air.

The Travel Air Company started with six employees in a 900 square foot factory and was an almost instant success, quickly expanding and developing many variations on a single, versatile design. Travel Air aircraft used a welded steel tube fuselage and tail assembly with wood wing spars and ribs. The planes were fabric covered and had two open cockpits, one for the pilot and another for two passengers. First designed for the WW I surplus 90 hp, water-cooled OX-5 engine, the planes were also configured with almost twenty different engines. Travel Airs later converted for crop dusting used engines as large as the 450 hp Pratt & Whitney Wasp Jr.

Travel Air aircraft also offered wing options. The original design used upper wing ailerons that had a large aerodynamic balance area beyond the wing tips. These ailerons were later nicknamed “elephant ears.” In 1929, a more streamlined aileron was developed, using an offset hinge line and located completely within a newly designed wingtip shape. These were called “Frieze ailerons.” For buyers wanting a faster airplane, a shorter “speedwing” was offered. All three wing types were interchangeable and buyers could switch between the types without needing a new type designation. Clyde Cessna was a proponent of monoplanes and Travel Air did build a few planes using only a single wing, such as the famous Travel Air “Mystery Ship”, but most Travel Airs built were biplanes.

Travel Air was very active in the racing circuit, where prospective buyers sought the latest designs. On Ford National Reliability Air Tours, the good handling and ruggedness of Travel Air airplanes were demonstrated across the country. At its peak of production in 1929, the Travel Air Company had 650 employees working two shifts a day. Few records were kept of the aircraft sold, and estimates vary from about 1,200 to 1,800 airplanes built before the Great Depression caused the demand for new airplanes to plummet. Without new aircraft orders, Travel Air could not pay its bills. The company was absorbed by the Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical Corporation and most of its facilities were closed.

But that wasn’t the end of the Travel Air influence on aviation. Company principals Beech, Stearman, and Cessna had gained valuable experience at Travel Air and each later formed their own aircraft company. The dominance of their Wichita-based companies carried on long after the Travel Air Company built its last airplane.

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