In 1929, Omaha, Nebraska, native Theodore Arthur Wells graduated from Princeton University in New Jersey with a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering. From an early age, Ted – as he was known by his friends – was so inspired by the airplanes of famed engineer Guiseppe Bellanca that in 1924 he designed and constructed his own single-seat monoplane powered by a small static, air-cooled radial engine.
When Ted left Omaha to attend college in New Jersey the airplane disappeared and its fate remains a mystery. Badly bitten by the flying bug, Wells learned to fly in a war-surplus Curtiss JN-4D biplane he and a friend bought for $600. Ted soloed the temperamental “Jenny” after a mere four hours and 20 minutes of dual instruction. His association with Walter H. Beech and the Travel Air Company began in 1928 when Wells signed on for a summer apprenticeship under the tutelage of company engineers Herbert Rawdon and Walter Burnham.
In July 1929, he placed an order for a Type 4000 biplane (serial number 626, registered 6128 and later X6128 and NR6128) powered by a Wright Aeronautical J5-series static, air-cooled radial engine rated at 200 horsepower. According to Ted, when he arrived at the factory to take delivery, he was surprised to learn that his ship was being used as a flight-test platform for a new, special set of wings featuring a low-drag airfoil section.
Dubbed Speed Wings by Travel Air, the new design increased maximum speed of the Type 4000 to 150 mph from 130 mph. Ted and Walter Beech came to an agreement that allowed Wells to accept the ship with the new wings, changing its designation to D4000. During the late summer and autumn of 1929, Ted and his biplane speedster won many local and regional air races in the midwestern United States, including a number of speed and climb contests. Wells soon modified the ship to accept a NACA pressure cowling around the Wright powerplant to further increase speed. He also made a series of minor drag reduction alterations to the fuselage, wings and landing gear.
Ted’s major victory flying the Type D4000 came in 1929 when he won the Portland-to-Cleveland cross-country race held in conjunction with the National Air Races. Unfortunately, after a very brief but successful career as a racer, in October the D4000 was destroyed in hangar fire at Kansas City, Missouri.
As for Wells, in April 1932, he joined forces with Walter and Olive Ann Beech to form the Beech Aircraft Company and build Ted’s negative-stagger cabin biplane designated as the Beechcraft Model 17R – the first airplane to bear Walter’s name. Wells held Private Pilot certificate Number 1963 and, by 1942, had logged more than 1,000 hours in the air. Ted, who died on September 25, 1991 at age 84, should be remembered not only as one of Wichita’s early aviation pioneers and a talented designer, but also as one of the city’s highly respected citizens that helped put wings on Wichita – the Air Capital of the World.