In 1925 famed automaker Henry Ford created a national air tour to increase public awareness and fuel interest in aviation. Wichita’s Travel Air Manufacturing Company was among 17 companies nationwide that signed up to participate.
As enthusiasts and preservationists of Travel Air airplanes, the company that built them and the men who guided it to great success, we tend to concentrate on the evolution of the Kansas company that played a major role in putting commercial aviation on the map in the 1920s. Although our never-ending quest to ascertain the exact number of airplanes that were manufactured, how they were designed and built and the importance of restoring these ships to their former glory is certainly of great import, it is easy to overlook other accomplishments early in Travel Air’s existence that helped propel it to the forefront of American aeronautics.
For example, in 1925 the infant company was building only a small number of airplanes in the cramped shop in downtown Wichita and was struggling to meet growing demand for the Model A, which was available with either the Curtiss OX-5 or OXX-6 of 90- and 100-horsepower, respectively. Company officials, led by vice president Walter Beech, realized that additional income was essential to help keep the balance sheets in the black. As a result, Travel Air soon began offering flight instruction at the flying field in East Wichita, about five miles from city center. A lease agreement was arranged and two Model A ships were located at the field and housed in makeshift hangars that were crude but functional. These airplanes must have been among the first batch of ships built, but the lack of any reliable manufacturing records before 1926 precludes identifying them by specific construction numbers.
In addition to giving flight instruction to those student pilots who could pay the price, Travel Air operated an air taxi service at the field that was kept busy flying people to points within Kansas and beyond. The company also gave “joy rides” to the curious souls who wanted to experience soaring above the earth. According to company information provided to the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce of America, Inc., in 1925 the two hard-working Travel Airs made about 3,200 flights carrying an estimated 6,500 passengers a total of 75,000 miles. The revenue gained from these flight operations went into the company coffers and contributed substantially to paying the bills.
It is important to remember that the birth and growth of commercial aviation in the United States after World War I was a slow and laborious affair. To create public awareness and fuel interest in aviation, automotive mogul Henry Ford created the National Air Tour for the Edsel B. Ford Reliability Trophy, managed by his son Edsel. The aerial tour resembled automobile activities such as the Glidden excursions that began in 1904 expressly to educate the public, promote use of the “horseless carriage” as well as construction of paved highways as a means of reliable transportation. The concept of airplanes flying a pre-determined course between cities actually originated with the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce soon after the Armistice ending World War I was signed in 1918, but when proposed it met with silence. The tour was a sound idea but was ahead of its time, chiefly because in 1919 a commercial aviation industry did not exist to support it.
By the early 1920s, however, the situation had changed. By 1925 there were at least 290 commercial operators in 41 states flying 676 airplanes. Only a handful of small, would-be airframe manufacturers existed, many of them (including Travel Air) tucked away in make-shift facilities across the nation. These aviation visionaries were building a limited number of ships per year, including seaplanes and float planes, while others managed to create a niche market by modifying war-surplus biplanes to meet specific customer requirements. Travel Air was among those early pioneers along with Waco, Curtiss, Laird, Martin, Swallow and many others.
As the momentum for private and commercial flying accelerated during the early 1920s, the climate was finally ripe for an air tour. When the Ford event was announced, Walter Beech, Lloyd Stearman and Clyde Cessna, management’s “top guns” at Travel Air that year, were quick to enter three airplanes. The trio of biplanes easily met the entry requirements stipulated by Ford, which included a maximum speed of more than 80 mph carrying the pilot and a payload of 0.5-lb. per cubic inch of engine displacement. The payload could consist of a passenger, ballast or a combination of both.
The inaugural “Ford Tour,” as it became known, was sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and the Detroit Aviation Society managed the event. The Tour was flown over a 1,000-mile course divided into 10 individual legs from Detroit to Chicago, to Omaha, St. Joseph, Kansas City; thence to St. Louis, Indianapolis, Columbus, Cleveland and back to Detroit. The Travel Air Model A (assigned Tour number “0”) was piloted by E.K. Campbell, one of the original Travel Air distributors, and the two other ships were flown by Walter Beech (Tour number “4”) and “Chief” Bowhan (Tour number ”2”), a local pilot who often flew for the company. Campbell and Bowhan each carried two passengers but Beech carried only one. Total payload for each airplane included 335 lb. for Campbell, 315.5 lb. for Bowhan and 286.5 lb. for Beech.
When the Tour was completed, 11 of the 17 entrants finished with a perfect score, including the three Travel Airs that flew the route without any mechanical malfunctions. Each of these entrants was awarded $350 and their names were engraved on a massive trophy provided by Edsel Ford. In 1926 Walter Beech and Brice Goldsborough (Pioneer Instrument Company) teamed up to win the Ford Tour flying a Model BW powered by a 200 horsepower Wright J-4 static, air-cooled radial engine. Events such as the Ford Tour helped to thrust the reliability of the airplane into the public arena. In addition, it provided small manufacturers such as Travel Air the opportunity to demonstrate the design and performance attributes of their airplanes, and to shine the spotlight on the infant aviation manufacturing business in Wichita, Kansas.