Walter H. Beech loved a good fight, and he was a frequent visitor to the boxing matches held in downtown Wichita, Kansas. On September 23, 1926, Beech was listening to radio station KFH as it broadcasted the heavyweight bout between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey. Tunney whipped Dempsey in the early rounds, but Walter knew if Travel Air Manufacturing Company failed to find more space quickly, it may go down for the count! Fortunately, early in December a solution was found. In 1925 the city’s Booster Building Association had purchased 160 acres on East Central Avenue, and its members agreed to not only sell six acres to Travel Air, but help finance the transaction, too. The entire deal was made possible by a bill introduced in the Kansas legislature by Representative Bert Lindsley that allowed a city, such as Wichita, to own property located more than one mile from city limits. In fact, the bill was intentionally aimed at paving the way for Wichita to buy ground on East Central Avenue, and that would prove to be a blessing for a growing company such as Travel Air.
Company president Walter P. Innes, Jr., along with Jack Turner and C.L. Henderson, crafted the financial package and a stock issue of $30,000 was to be sold by Howard V. Wheeler and Harry A. Dillon (both men were experienced stock brokers). Beech and company vice president Clyde V. Cessna were pleased with the site, and with input from factory manager William “Bill” Snook, proceeded with detailed planning aimed at optimizing use of the interior space. The new building would be constructed of stressed concrete and measure 275 feet in length and 75 feet in width. Local architect Glenn A. Thomas drew up the plans that centered on Beech, Cessna and Snook’s suggested placement of machinery and equipment, including the dope and fabric department, final assembly, engine installation, rigging, welding and woodworking.¹
In February 1927, the Henrion Improvement Company began working on the site and by the second week that month had the ground cleared, graded and prepared for the pouring of concrete foundations that were completed two weeks later. Henrion officials estimated that Travel Air could begin installing equipment in July. The move to East Central Avenue could not come soon enough because by springtime the factory workforce at the cramped facility on West Douglas Avenue had reached 50 men working day, night and weekend shifts in an attempt to meet growing demand for aircraft. The factory had rapidly become severely handicapped for lack of work space, but it would be another 40 days before Henrion could release the new building for occupancy. Thanks to a lot of hard work and overtime, however, Henrion managed to release the factory on June 15. Total floor space was 21,650 square feet. The factory, now designated as “Building A,” had cost a whopping $32,000 to construct. In addition to generous room for manufacturing and production, there were five offices at the west end for the use of Beech and other officials. The engineering department was located on the second floor. By late June the facility was humming with activity and both manufacturing and production were proceeding at full throttle to catch up with delayed delivery schedules.
The author’s research indicates that as of June 1927, the Travel Air Manufacturing Company had built and delivered 80 biplanes since beginning operations in January 1925. The company had come a long way from the tiny Kansas Planing Mill, yet Beech and other officials could not have dreamed that the company was on the cusp of an explosion in the popularity of its airplanes. The year 1928 would be a banner year for Travel Air as orders for new ships poured into the office—enough orders for one airplane per day all year!
1. Lloyd Stearman had left Travel Air in October 1926 to start his own company in California, and in January 1927 Clyde Cessna resigned and organized the Cessna-Roos Aircraft Company, leaving Walter Beech as the new president and CEO of Travel Air. He held that position until late in 1929 when the company was absorbed by the Curtiss-Wright Corporation.