In 1921, Wichita, Kansas, was still coming to grips with an economic recession that had swept across the nation following the end of World War I. Although not severe, the downturn did affect many of America’s mainstream industries but had relatively little impact on the fledgling aviation business. There was essentially no interest in new commercial aircraft and a parsimonious Congress kept a tight grip on budgets, forcing the United States military to make do with war-weary, obsolete airplanes.
According to the Biennial Census of Manufacturers compiled by the Department of Commerce, there were only 21 companies building aircraft in the entire country, and not all of those were building commercial airplanes. As for Wichita’s Sedgwick County, only one builder was recorded: the E.M. Laird Company and its subsidiary, the Wichita Laird Airplane Corporation that boasted a total of six airplanes and six pilots.
Despite a pessimistic Wall Street, pioneer flier and aircraft designer “Matty” Laird forged ahead with plans to expand production of the “Swallow” biplane to meet growing demand for the three-place, open-cockpit ship. By early 1921 about 15 Swallows had been built but sales remained sporadic. During the summer of 1921 Laird’s business partner J.M. Moellendick decided to streamline manufacture and production of the Swallow by relocating all production operations to the airfield at Hillside Avenue and 29th Street north of the city.
“Jake,” who had a reputation for being impetuous, apparently reasoned that building airplanes at the field would reduce costs by eliminating the need to transport completed airframes from the facilities in downtown Wichita. He wired Laird, who was in California demonstrating the Swallow to potential customers and dealers, about his plans but Matty strongly disagreed. He replied that any capital improvements would have to wait until the company’s balance sheets were strengthened. Moellendick, however, ignored Laird’s opinion. By the summer of 1921 had approved the design of a new factory building and signed contracts worth $16,000 to launch construction.
The multi-story facility would be 120 feet long, 66 feet wide and 15 feet high. Only the ground level would be occupied initially and the floor would remain sod to reduce costs (early in 1922 the floor was paved in concrete). In December 1921 contractors turned over the building to Moellendick and Laird. As the year came to a close manufacturing downtown was gradually brought to a standstill. Materials and equipment were moved north to the airfield as quickly as possible. Laird remained most displeased with Jake’s impetuous act and he made every effort to quickly restart production, and by March 1922 Swallows began to roll off the assembly line in the new factory.
Fortunately, business was brisk. An increasing number of orders kept the small workforce busy, often laboring in 10-hour shifts, seven days a week in an attempt to regain momentum and keep pace with revised delivery schedules. Despite a growing animosity between Jake and Matty, Wichita’s third airplane factory proved to be a success and the future looked bright for the company. Unfortunately, both for Wichita and America’s aviation heritage, many years later the campus and airfield at Hillside and 29th Street fell victim to the bulldozer’s blade and disappeared forever. As of 2020 the historic site and flying field are covered by homes and streets. Only a lone plaque honors the men and machines that first put wings on Wichita and launched it on a path to become the “Air Capital of the World.”