…Louise McPhetridge von Thaden! She was photographed in the cockpit of her Travel Air Type D4000 after placing first in the 1929 Women’s Air Derby. What makes this photograph even more interesting, however, is the presence of Walter Beech, president of the Travel Air Company, standing next to the airplane preparing to congratulate Louise on her victory. The Derby was flown between Oakland, California, and Cleveland, Ohio, site of the 1929 National Air Races.
Mr. Beech was a busy man at the event that year. Although the Women’s Air Derby was a great success for Travel Air, Walter was looking forward with great anticipation to the major attraction of the week-long races: the free-for-all competition for the Thompson Cup. Beech intended to claim that prize, and to make that happen the company brought a speedy Type “R” monoplane powered by a Wright radial engine. It was built in secret, and Walter made sure it remained hidden from prying eyes at Cleveland until race day arrived.
According to one eyewitness, Walter was so confident of victory that he walked around the airfield taking bets from the United States Army and Navy race teams as well as other competitors. When the Wright-powered Type “R” easily won the race at a speed of more than 200 mph, Beech arrived to collect his bets. The eyewitness, who worked for Travel Air as a mechanic, reported that his boss had a smile on his face and a wad of bills in his hand that amounted to $60,000! The 1929 National Air Races had been good to Walter Beech and to Travel Air.
A month earlier the company had been absorbed by the gigantic Curtiss-Wright Corporation. In the wake of that momentous change, Mr. Beech was elevated to vice president of the Curtiss-Wright Airplane Company based in St. Louis, Missouri, with additional offices located in New York City. Air racing was always in Beech’s blood, but Travel Air’s triumph at Cleveland was the last act of fame and fortune for the company.
The stock market crash in October 1929 began a rapid and unrecoverable nosedive in sales of new light airplanes, and by 1931 worsening conditions forced Curtiss-Wright close the Travel Air factory in Wichita, Kansas. That decision, coupled with no hope for a sales recovery at Curtiss-Wright, eventually led to Walter Beech’s brave intention to start his own airplane company in the midst of the worst economic downturn in America’s history.
Walter and Olive Ann Beech’s decision to risk everything to pursue their dream of establishing the Beech Aircraft Company is just one of so many stories of entrepreneurial courage that made Wichita “The Air Capital of the World.”