During the hot, Kansas summer of 1925, Lloyd C. Stearman needed another engineer to assist with design work at the infant Travel Air Manufacturing Company in the prairie city of Wichita. He contacted his old friend from college who hailed from Salina, Kansas, and asked him to accept the position. His name was Mac Van Fleet Short. He is one of Wichita’s many unsung heroes of aviation who played a key role in building the city into the “Air Capital of the World.”
Born in Wichita on December 25, 1897, Mac completed high school in 1916 and attended Kansas Wesleyan College. As with Stearman, Mac wanted to become an aviator, and when America entered the war in April 1917 he enlisted in the United States Army Signal Corps. Mac completed ground school training at the University of Illinois before being transferred to Houston, Texas, for flight instruction. After earning his wings, Short was assigned to a bombing squadron, but he did not see action before the Armistice was signed in November 1918.
In September 1919 Short enrolled in Kansas State Agricultural College to study mechanical engineering. He graduated in June 1922 with a Bachelor of Science degree. Later that year he was fortunate to be hired by the United States Army as a junior engineer at the prestigious McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio. At that time McCook was at the forefront of advanced technologies for America’s military aviation industry. Mac was involved in a broad variety of research projects and experiments that led to development of new fuels and lubricants, airfoil designs, drag reduction, superchargers, propellers and armaments, to name only a few. The experience he gained at McCook would serve him well in the decades ahead.
In 1924 Short resigned his position at McCook Field to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In June 1926 he obtained a degree in the new art of aeronautical engineering, and that summer he joined Stearman in designing the Travel Air “Special” – a racing biplane powered by a Curtiss engine rated at 160 horsepower. Walter H. Beech won a series of regional air races with the airplane before it was sold to a Travel Air dealer in California. Short returned to MIT to continue his studies, but in the spring of 1927 he accepted the chief engineer position at the new Stearman Aircraft Company based at Clover Field near Santa Monica, California.
Mac took Lloyd’s designs from the drawing board to the production line, but the company struggled to meet demand for its Model C2-series biplanes, and the decision was made to restart the company in Wichita. By September 1927 Short and his family had relocated to Wichita, followed later that month by Lloyd, his wife and two children. The reborn Stearman Aircraft Company thrived throughout 1927 and into 1928, and by 1929 was well established as one of America’s premier airframe manufacturers.
The company was absorbed into the massive United Aircraft and Transport Corporation in August 1929. Stearman remained until July 1931 when he resigned and relocated to California in October to lead the resurrected Lockheed Aircraft Company. Mac Short soldiered on as chief engineer of the company until 1937 when he resigned and went west again to serve as an engineer and later a vice president of the Lockheed Aircraft Company.
Mac Van Fleet Short died at age 51 on August 13, 1948, after a heart attack at his home in Burbank. He was survived by his wife Mae, a son, Richard, and two daughters, Mary and Sally. Short was a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and authored a number of technical papers for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the Society of Automotive Engineers, and was a member of the United Aircraft Technical Engineers Association; the Kansas Engineering Society and the National Aeronautic Association.
His contribution to Wichita’s legacy as a major, world-class aircraft manufacturing center has been almost totally overshadowed by other prominent personalities, but his decades of service to aeronautics and the City of Wichita deserve to be celebrated, not forgotten.
(Photograph courtesy Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum)