In the wake of E.M. Laird’s departure from Wichita,  Walter H. Beech, Lloyd C. Stearman and Clyde V. Cessna joined forces to create the city’s first major airframe manufacturer — the Travel Air Company.

When Billy Burke resigned from the E.M. Laird Company Partnership in 1920, Matty Laird lost a key mediator between himself and Jake Moellendick. Burke kept the company running smoothly and provided a welcome buffer against Jake, whose bullish and sometimes irascible personality was the exact opposite of the soft-spoken Laird. Whereas Matty avoided confrontation, Moellendick welcomed it. Jake was by nature impetuous, occasionally outright pompous, often authoritarian, and always believed that his way was always the best way to run the company. With Burke’s departure, the two men agreed to reincorporate the business as the “Wichita Laird Airplane Corporation.”

Although of poor quality, the photograph is one of only a few taken of the original Laird “Swallow” first flown in April 1920 by E.M. Laird, designer and builder. It was the airplane that launched Wichita into the aviation business. (Edward H. Phillips Collection)


Under the new arrangement, Laird split his duties between the North Hillside flying field and the downtown factory. As sales of the Swallow slowly increased, Matty began to focus his energies on reducing the amount of time required to fabricate and assemble the biplanes. Laird’s small workforce, however, included men who gradually devised innovative methods that promised to expedite construction of the entire airframe. In addition, Laird was interested in the cross-application of mass production techniques already in widespread use by America’s automotive industry. As a result of these initiatives, early in 1922 Laird was able to lower the price of the Swallow to $4,700 from $6,500, and sales increased.1

It is interesting to note that in 1921 there were only 21 airframe manufacturers officially registered with the United States Department of Commerce, and not all of those were building commercial aircraft. Some were tied almost exclusively to military contracts, which after the war were extremely difficult to obtain because Congress axed funding for new aircraft. In Sedgwick County where Wichita was located, officials recorded only one company—the Wichita Laird Airplane Corporation, along with six biplanes and six pilots. The manufacturing activity in Wichita, however, did attract the attention of organization that expressed interest in using the North Hillside flying field. The facility often received praise from civil and military pilots as one of the best aerodromes west of the Mississippi River. Examples included the Aerial Navigation and Engineering Company of Denver, Colorado, the Roosevelt Air Line in New York City, Larsen Aerial Navigation, Inc., and the United States War Department.2

Unlike Laird, Moellendick was always hungry for publicity, particularly the type of publicity that would benefit Wichita and its emergence as an early haven of civil aviation. Early in 1921 he informed the local press that the company was moving ahead with plans launch an air service that would fly passengers to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Kansas City, Kansas. It was a novel but premature idea, more akin to a fantasy than a viable initiative, and both Jake and Matty knew full well that the Wichita Laird Airplane Corporation lacked the means to make it a reality.

Despite growing tensions between Moellendick and Laird, the two men did agree to pursue the concept of a scheduled airline linking Wichita with the other nearby cities. Jake was ready to forge ahead with the project, but Matty was reluctant, claiming that the timing was not right for such an ambitious venture. While Jake told the press about the plans, often embellishing them to spice up their appeal to the public (and potential investors), Laird concentrated on designing and building an airplane he hoped would be worthy of the proposed airline. During the spring and summer of 1921 he completed detail design of the new airplane that he soon dubbed the “Laird Limousine.” Construction was slow, proceeding as money and materials became available.

E.M. Laird’s “Limousine” was photographed soon after its completion. The open-cockpit cabin biplane was powered by two Curtiss OX-5 engines and featured an empennage with three vertical stabilizers and rudders. The aircraft proved to be grossly underpowered and unsuitable for transporting passengers between Wichita and Kansas City. (Joan Laird Post)


Matty was always acutely aware of the company’s threadbare margin between profit and loss that depended entirely on the sale of the company’s only product—the Swallow. He did his best to restrain Jake’s penchant for spending money the business did not possess, as well as refuting his associate’s irritating exaggerations to the press. For example, contrary to Jake’s overactive enthusiasm for the new biplane, in 1962 Laird wrote that the Limousine was never intended to be a cargo transport, as Jake had proclaimed. In addition, Moellendick had told reporters that up to $1 million would be spent on the airplane—statements that Laird later condemned as not only gross exaggerations but blatant fabrications made by Jake without any input from Matty.

The “Limousine” was only slightly larger than the Swallow, with a wingspan of 47 feet and a length of 25 feet. The pilot and one passenger sat forward of the enclosed cabin in an open cockpit equipped with a small windscreen. Passengers entered the cabin through a door on the left side of the fuselage and sat on six thickly padded seats (arranged in club seating configuration) that were complemented by a fully upholstered interior featuring large windows on both sides. Laird calculated that with a useful load of 1,500 pounds and 180 gallons of fuel, the airplane would be capable of flying up to 400 statute miles at a cruising speed of 90 mph. Fully loaded with passengers, pilot and fuel, the double-bay biplane weighed in at a hefty 4,000 pounds. The airplane’s anemic power-to-weight ratio doomed it from the start, but Laird’s design was innovative for 1921. Unfortunately, it was grossly underpowered because a tight budget left Laird with no choice but to install two Curtiss OX-5 engines that together provided a meager 180 horsepower.

Front view of the rebuilt “Laird Limousine” shows single-bay design of the wing arrangement and installation of a 12-cylinder “Liberty” engine. Note large water radiators mounted on each side of the fuselage, and straight exhaust stacks. The photograph was taken next to the Laird company’s main assembly building for the “Swallow.” (Joan Laird Post)


It fell to pilot and employee George “Buck” Weaver to make the first flight of the much-ballyhooed Limousine, and in mid-summer he took the ship aloft and was surprised to find that its performance met, albeit barely, Matty’s expectations. Weaver quickly realized that despite operating at full throttle (1,400 RPM) the two hard-working Curtiss V-8 powerplants struggled mightily to keep the airplane aloft, let alone climb to an altitude sufficient for cross-country travel. Overall, the test flights served to confirm Laird’s opinion that in its original configuration, the biplane was incapable of providing passenger service. It was too heavy, too slow and too underpowered. In the end, Jake’s dream of starting an air service to Kansas City was temporarily shelved.3

Matty placed the airplane in storage where it remained until May 1922, when he decided to replace the two Curtiss engines with a water-cooled, 12-cylinder Packard powerplant that produced 250 horsepower. Workers, under the supervision of Bill Snook, began to rebuild the airplane in August. In addition to the engine change, a number of other modifications were made to the airframe: new, single-bay wings and a conventional empennage with a single vertical stabilizer instead of three used on the original ship; two large water coolant radiators were installed, one on each side of the forward fuselage, that Laird hoped would keep the Packard cool.

One of the men involved in reworking the Limousine was Lloyd Carlton Stearman. A native of Kansas, he had been hired by Laird in 1920. Stearman proved to be a hardworking employee and a competent draftsman, thanks to Lloyd’s earlier training as an apprentice architect. Although he had enlisted in the United States Navy in World War I and was accepted into pilot training, the war ended before he won his wings as a naval aviator. During the Limousine’s rebirth Lloyd had become friends with another company employee by the name of Walter H. Beech, who was hired by Moellendick in July 1921 (apparently without Laird’s knowledge or approval). Born and raised in Tennessee, Beech had served in the United States Army Signal Corps during the war and eventually was placed in charge of engine overhaul and repair at Rich Field, Waco, Texas. Sergeant Beech did not earn his wings until 1919, and when he resigned from the service he worked briefly for an air taxi service before relocating to Wichita. Beech was, in Laird’s own words, “a pilot of limited experience” who gradually developed into an excellent salesman and demonstration pilot.4

When the Limousine’s transformation was completed in February 1923, Walter took the ship aloft for a series of test flights. Although maximum speed had increased to 110 mph, the Packard’s insatiable thirst for fuel, coupled with problems associated with the cooling systems, continued to plague the airplane. Finally, Laird exchanged the Packard for a 12-cylinder, 400-horsepower “Liberty” engine, but the new powerplant fared no better than the previous one. Beech was able to make only brief, local flights before the Liberty overheated and lost power, forcing him to make an unscheduled landing. Moellendick ordered the ship flown to Arkansas City where it would be placed in storage to await its fate.

Another view of the ill-fated “Limousine” showing the cabin entry/exit door on left side of the fuselage, and redesigned empennage with a single vertical stabilizer/rudder arrangement. Walter H. Beech is in the cockpit. Laird was not able to resolve problems associated with installation of the Liberty or Packard powerplants. Note two factory-fresh “Swallow” biplanes parked behind the “Limousine.” (Joan Laird Post)


Another pilot named Irl Beach (no relation to Walter Beech) was chosen to ferry the airplane but was forced to land soon after takeoff. He managed to put the ship down safely near Wichita’s Fairmount College (now Wichita State University), and telephoned Jake for instructions. Moellendick sent a crew to strip the airplane of all useable equipment, then ordered them to burn what remained of the airframe. Thus ended the checkered existence of the Laird Limousine.5

Selling airplanes in 1922 was essentially the same as it is in 2022 — demonstrate the airplane to potential customers. Laird and Buck Weaver often flew Swallows in opposite directions, with Matty flying north to his old stomping ground near Chicago, while Weaver went west to California. Selling the Swallow was never an easy task, and perseverance, tempered with diplomacy and tact, became the standard modus operandi for both pilots in their dealings with prospects. They had plenty of competition, too, from other small manufacturers who flying their ships to the same cities in hopes of drumming up sales to keep their business alive.

Late in 1921 Laird had tried in vain to sell the Swallow to the United States Army as a replacement for the aging Curtiss JN-4 trainer, but without success. The reason was simple: the Army had little or no budget for new aircraft and made do with the antiquated ships already in service. Matty also flew a factory-fresh Swallow to Dayton, Ohio, where he made a series of demonstration flights to officials of the United States Postal Service. The officials were judging various airplanes for potential airmail contracts. Although Laird impressed the post office personnel with the Swallow’s performance that drew their praise, no orders were forthcoming. Laird was disappointed because he firmly believed his airplane was the one best suited for the mission.

In addition to sales, Laird and Walter Beech participated in “aerial meets” and aerobatic competitions throughout the Midwestern United States. Both men flew a specially-modified Swallow featuring a wingspan of only 20 feet and powered by a Wright-Hispano engine rated at 150 horsepower. The little racer was fast and highly maneuverable, often achieving speeds approaching 125 mph. The chief purpose of the racer was to earn extra money and keep Laird’s company in the black. By 1923 Beech had become a seasoned airman and his fame as an aerobatic and racing pilot was spreading beyond Kansas. In 1921 alone, Laird and Beech together won 14 air racing events and gave countless “joy rides” over Wichita to help meet the payroll as well as pay the bills.

Walter H. Beech posed with a “Swallow” at an airshow sometime in 1922 or 1923. During World War I Beech attained the rank of sergeant in the U.S. Army Signal Corps and was responsible for airplane engine overhaul and maintenance at Rich Field, Waco, Texas, during 1917-1919. He learned to fly in 1919 and after resigning from the Army went to work in 1921 for Moellendick and Laird demonstrating the “Swallow” to potential customers. He became friends with Lloyd Stearman and late in 1924 the duo resigned from Jake’s company to build an airplane of their own design. (Mary Lynn Oliver)


The first serious breach between Laird and Moellendick occurred in 1921 when Matty was away demonstrating the Swallow. Jake suddenly decided to expand facilities at the flying field, chiefly by relocating production from downtown to the airfield. He reasoned that because orders for the Swallow were increasing steadily, the change was warranted and would streamline the production process. He wired Matty about his plans, and Laird quickly replied that he was against making any such capital improvements until sales increased further. In typical fashion, Moellendick ignored his associate’s opinion and forged ahead with design and construction of a large building to accommodate manufacturing. In December 1921, all of the equipment and materials were trucked north to the new facility. The move, however, came at a high price: it quickly became apparent that the company would not meet existing orders, alienating customers and damaging Laird’s reputation. Worst of all, the stand-down crippled the company’s financial condition for the next three months.

By March 1922, the production line was beginning to regain the momentum it lost from the relocation. Fortunately, the order books swelled that winter and as the new flying season approached, customers took delivery of their ships and put them to work. During the winter an unexpected alliance evolved between Laird Beech that would prove beneficial for both men and the company. Although Matty had disliked Beech initially, he soon came to realize that Walter possessed talents that were sorely needed in the wake of Buck Weaver’s decision to return to Chicago. As a result, Beech was appointed manager of sales and supervised operations at the flying field. Whereas Walter was gregarious, Matty was quiet and content to remain in the background, but there was never any question that he was in overall charge of the Wichita Laird Airplane Corporation.

As with Billy Burke and Buck Weaver before him, by the summer of 1923 Laird’s patience with Moellendick had run its course. Relations between the two men continued to deteriorate. After weighing his options to remain or return to Chicago, in October Laird chose to sever his business arrangement with Moellendick. That month Laird and another pilot took two Swallows and $1,500 cash and headed north. Matty allowed Jake to retain all technical drawings for the Swallow in exchange for Moellendick’s promise to no longer associate Laird’s name with the business. At the time of Laird’s departure, the Wichita Laird Airplane Corporation had built and delivered about 45 airplanes since 1920. By early 1924, Laird had reestablished himself in Chicago and formed the E.M. Laird Airplane Company. He became a highly respected builder of custom airplanes for the wealthy sportsman pilot and commercial operators.

In October 1923 “Jake” Moellendick took the reins of the company after E.M. Laird’s departure and return to Chicago, Illinois. Laird claimed that his decision to leave Wichita was solely due to irreconcilable differences between Laird and Moellendick regarding how the business should be managed. (Edward H. Phillips Collection)


As 1924 wore on, Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman began to think about upgrading the Swallow, which was beginning to show its age in the face of increasing competition from other manufacturers. The two men, with Moellendick’s approval, created the “New Swallow” that featured a redesigned landing gear, single-bay wing configuration, and a cowling that completely enclosed the OX-5 engine. The ship was an improvement over the Swallow, both technically and aesthetically, and gradually replaced Laird’s machine on the production line. The next step, at least in Walter and Lloyd’s thinking, was to further improve the New Swallow by using a welded steel tube fuselage instead of wood.  The use of steel tubing was not new, having been introduced in World War I and used in a number of German fighter aircraft, particularly the Fokker DR-1 “Dridekker” (of Baron von Ricthofen fame) and the later Fokker DVII biplane. The Curtiss PW-8 and Boeing PW-9 postwar fighters built for the United Sates Army Air Service both featured a welded steel tube fuselage.

In the wake of Laird’s resignation, Moellendick appointed Lloyd C. Stearman chief designer for the renamed “Swallow Aircraft Company.” In 1924 the “New Swallow” made it debut featuring a redesigned landing gear arrangement and cowling that fully enclosed the Curtiss OX-5 engine. Wichita airman Irl Beach (no elation to Walter Beech) posed with the first “New Swallow” built. (Edward H. Phillips Collection)


What occurred next is still subject to conjecture, but as best can be determined from sources available at the time, when Walter and Lloyd approached Jake about using steel instead of wood for the fuselage, their boss flatly rejected the idea. As far as Jake was concerned, the Swallow would continue to be built of wood. Dissatisfied with Jake’s position, by December 1924 Beech and Stearman had contacted Clyde Cessna to assess his interest in forming a new company. The story goes that Lloyd, and possibly Walter as well, traveled to Clyde’s home in Rago, Kansas, to make their proposal in person. Clyde agreed with their idea, and before Christmas Jake had lost two of his best employees.6

In 1916 Clyde Cessna completed the first airplane manufactured in Wichita and was a strong supporter of the emerging commercial aviation industry. He contributed large sum of money from his custom wheat threshing business as well as woodworking equipment to help the new Travel Air initiative succeed. (Textron Aviation)


The January 26, 1925, issue of the Wichita Eagle newspaper carried a small article tucked away on a back page near the advertising section. It mentioned Walter P. Innes, Jr., a longtime resident and prominent businessman in the city, who announced the formation of “Travel Air, Inc.” Mr. Innes was named president and treasurer, Cessna put in $5,000 and contributed woodworking equipment; Walter Beech invested about $5,000 and Stearman injected $700 and his plans for a new, three-place biplane. The infant company’s first facility was a cramped workspace at 471 West First Street in downtown, nestled close to the Arkansas River that flowed through central Wichita. That same day one of America’s oldest aeronautical magazines, “Aviation,” published a brief article about the new company. Beech was referred to only as a “pilot in the Wichita area” but Stearman was described as a “well known aeronautical engineer.” Cessna, however, was hailed as a “pioneer flier from Rago, Kansas.”

The first airplane, designated the “Travel Air Model A,” flew in March 1925. It featured a welded steel tube fuselage and empennage but was powered by the ubiquitous Curtiss OX-5 engine, primarily for the same reason Laird chose it in 1920 for the Swallow: cost and availability. Just as Matty Laird knew in 1920 that it would be difficult to sell an expensive, new airplane in a postwar market crowded with war surplus aircraft, Walter Beech faced the same challenge in 1925. Using the sales skills he had learned and polished selling the Swallow, Walter sold the first Travel Air to a businessman in St. Louis, Missouri. As word of the Model A’s performance spread from coast to coast, the company’s new secretary, Olive Ann Mellor, was busy trying to keep pace with a flood of orders for the “Model A.” During its first year in business, Travel Air had sold 19 airplanes and held orders for more. By the beginning of 1926 the company was firmly established as one of the leading manufacturers of small commercial aircraft in the United States. Its chief competitor was the Weaver Aircraft Company, better known as “WACO,” based in Ohio.

Beech (left) and Stearman (right) urged Moellendick (center) to upgrade the aging Swallow’s design with a welded steel fuselage instead of wood, but Jake refused. Undaunted, Walter and Lloyd secured the help of pioneer aviator Clyde V. Cessna along with Wichita businessman Walter Innes, Jr., and a few other investors to form the Travel Air Manufacturing Company late in 1924. (Textron Aviation)


Travel Air relocated to a larger, but still inadequate, building on West Douglas Avenue in 1926 and remained there until the summer of 1927, when manufacturing was moved five miles away to a spacious new building on East Central Avenue. That summer Walter Beech flew a specially-equipped Type BW to victory in the second annual Ford Reliability Tour, assisted greatly by skilled navigator Brice Goldsborough of the Pioneer Instrument Company. Next, Travel Air won a contract from National Air Transport for eight Type 5000 cabin monoplanes for service on NAT’s short-haul routes in the Midwestern United States. Impetus for the Type 5000 came from none other than Clyde Cessna. In June 1926, Cessna built a high-wing cabin monoplane at his own expense and on his own time. Walter Beech later flew the ship and believed it had potential as a small transport. Cessna, along with chief engineer Stearman and his assistant Herbert Rawdon, reworked Clyde’s design into a larger aircraft.

The first Travel Air series developed by the company were designated Model “A.” The biplane shown was ordered in 1926 by the Pioneer Instrument Company to test and evaluate new engine and navigation instruments, including the advanced Earth Inductor Compass. Note the long exhaust stacks designed to carry fumes away from the both cockpits. (Textron Aviation)


Travel Air lost its chief engineer late that summer when Lloyd Stearman resigned and moved his family to Santa Monica, California, where he began building airplanes under the name “Stearman Aircraft Company.” Lloyd’s departure was matched by Cessna when, in January 1927, he resigned to start the “Cessna Aircraft Company” in a small, rented building on the west side of Wichita. He was intent on realizing his dream of building monoplanes with fully cantilevered wings, and by spring of that year he had completed his first design—the “Cessna Phantom”—and the future of his infant company looked bright. The resignations of his two friends left Walter Beech temporarily in charge of Travel Air. Later that year he would be elected president of one of the nation’s fastest-growing commercial airframe manufacturers. For Beech, Cessna and Stearman, however, the best was yet to come. The success of their individual companies in 1928 and 1929 further reinforced Wichita’s claim as the “Air Capital of the World.”



  1. McCoy, Sondra Van Meter; “The Primary Contribution of E.M. Laird to the Aviation Industry of Wichita;” University of Wichita, 1962, Page 9.
  2. Biennial Census of Manufacturers”, Department of Commerce, 1921.
  3. It should be noted that although the concept of a passenger-carrying air service early in the 1920s was actually legitimate, the idea was far ahead of the technology, financing, facilities and public acceptance required to make it a reality.
  4. M. Laird letter to the author. Contrary to myth, Beech was not a flight instructor during the war. He did, however, earn the highest respect from his commanding officer for his diligent work overhauling and maintaining Curtiss OX-5 engines for Curtiss JN-4 primary trainers.
  5. The only assemblies and equipment salvaged from the Limousine were the Liberty engine and its mount, wing center section panels, outer wing panels and the empennage.
  6. After Beech and Stearman resigned, Moellendick placed Lloyd’s brother, Waverly, in charge of engineering. The company soldiered on under a new name until the summer of 1927, when Jake stopped production to build a monoplane, “The Dallas Spirit,” for the Oakland-to-Honolulu Dole race. The airplane and both occupants went down somewhere in the vast Pacific Ocean, never to be seen again. Moellendick and Laird’s old company soon went bankrupt and entered receivership.