A year after the end of World War I, a talented aircraft designer from Chicago and a roustabout from the oil fields of Kansas transformed a sleepy city on the Plains into the epicenter of America’s general aviation aircraft industry
The question has often been asked, “Why Wichita?” What has made that city, long hailed by its residents as the “Peerless Princess of the Prairie,” the focal point of light airplane manufacture. There is no shortage of explanations: its central location in the United States, the ease of shipping raw materials into the town, aero-minded businessmen; the flat, nearly featureless topography that offered a natural landing field. Some people have attributed its fame to Walter H. Beech, or Lloyd C. Stearman, while some say it was the pioneering flights of Clyde V. Cessna. Although all of the above could be considered as valid factors in the city’s rise to fame, the author has his own opinion—oil, more than anything or anyone else, put wings on Wichita.
Nestled at the juncture of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers, the town had been settled by the Wichita Indians who migrated north from Texas and Oklahoma after the Civil War. During the years of the cross-country cattle drives that began long-distance treks from deep in the heart of Texas, the people of Wichita became accustomed to the presence and the smell of thousands of beef cattle. These animals were herded along for hundreds of miles by roughneck cowboys who, after months on the trail, were looking for a hard-earned good time on the town. Wichita soon became an important stopover point on the famous Chisholm Trail, and by the 1870s had expanded into a bustling trading center for livestock and agricultural products.
Of these, wheat was king and reigned supreme until the early 20th century, when the search for petroleum under the Kansas sod ignited an explosion of growth. When oil was discovered under the soil in 1915, demand for workers to build wooden rigs and labor in the oil fields caused the population to skyrocket, nearly doubling overnight to about 30,000 people. Soon, the local landscape was peppered with wildcat drilling sites piercing the earth in hopes of striking “black gold,” albeit with no guarantee of success. Among those speculating in the rush to cash in on crude oil was a Wichita resident and risk-taker named Jacob Melvin Moellendick, known as “Jake” by his friends.
Moellendick had worked as a tool dresser in the oil fields of Pennsylvania before moving to Oklahoma, where he established the Okmulgee Producing & Refining Company. He also drilled wells in Butler County, Kansas, east of Wichita. It was Jake’s oil money that would give birth to Wichita’s next big business—“aeroplanes.”
Flying machines, however, were nothing new to the town. In 1911 Wichita businessmen led by Orville A. Boyle sponsored an “air meet” that was held at Walnut Grove north of the city. A group of well-known aviators including Jimmy Ward, Eugene Ely, C.C. Witmer and R.C. St. Henry flew their fragile Curtiss biplanes in a series of daily exhibitions that thrilled the crowd of 11,500, but left Boyle and his co-sponsors with empty pockets. Despite Boyle’s red ink, many Wichitans thrilled to the sight of those brave men in their “aeroplanes” soaring so effortlessly through the air, and a large number were permanently bitten by the flying bug. As a result, in 1912 about 200 men formed the Wichita Aero Club that successfully hosted the National Balloon Races in 1913. The races returned to Wichita two years later when the lighter-than-air craft helped the town celebrate its annual Wheat Show.
Flying fever had reached such a high pitch in the city that by 1916, influential members of the Aero Club had approached Kansas aviation pioneer Clyde V. Cessna about relocating his aerial exhibition company to Wichita. In an attempt to sweeten the deal, they offered Cessna facilities in an automobile factory owned and operated by J.J. Jones. The factory built trucks known for their robust durability, as well as the popular “Jones Light Six” touring car.1
Cessna was well known in the Midwestern United States for the monoplanes he flew at local events as well as state and regional fairs, always assisted by his older brother, Roy. By 1910 Clyde was a highly successful Overland car salesman living in Enid, Oklahoma, but when he witnessed an aerial meet in Oklahoma City in 1911, he shifted his full attention to “aviating.” He quit selling automobiles and traveled to New York City where he worked briefly for a company that was building copies of the Bleriot IX monoplane (in 1909 Louis Bleriot became the first person to fly from France across the English Channel).
Cessna purchased a monoplane (less engine) and had it shipped to Enid. He installed an Aeromarine engine in the fragile ship and taught himself to fly on the broad salt plains of Oklahoma. After a tumultuous learning curve that saw him crash multiple times, in December 1911 he finally succeeded by taking off, flying a circular course and landing without incident. During the next few years Cessna built a new airplane each winter in preparation for the upcoming exhibition season, which proved lucrative as long as he was able to fulfill his contracts for flights. His chief adversary was the wind. If it was blowing more than 5-10 mph he was unable to fly because his monoplane was almost uncontrollable, particularly in the roll and yaw axes.
When he agreed to move to Wichita, Clyde’s exhibition business continued to earn significant amounts of money, but he was becoming increasingly interested in manufacturing and selling monoplanes, not only flying them. By 1917 Cessna had built two airplanes, both of which were the first to be constructed in the city. He attempted to build his monoplanes and sell them to customers in Wichita and the Midwest, but his efforts fell on deaf ears. In addition, it is important to note that Clyde opened a flying school with five eager students on the roster. The school was one of the first to offer flying lessons west of the Mississippi River.
When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Clyde was forced to cease exhibition flying and close the flight school because of government restrictions on civil aviation activity, raw materials and gasoline. Despite the war’s unwelcome interruption, Clyde Cessna holds the distinction of not only being Wichita’s first resident aviator, but also its first airframe manufacturer.2
After the Armistice was signed in November 1918, Wichita’s aviation-minded men believed the city needed a flying field, and in 1919 the Aviation Committee of the Chamber of Commerce had designated the parcel of land adjacent to the J.J. Jones factory as the town’s first airport. The first pilots to fly into the makeshift, unimproved “aerodrome” were members of the Victory Liberty Loan Flying Circus that arrived on April 1, 1919, to officially dedicate the facility. The next month America’s foremost World War I ace, Captain “Eddie” Rickenbacker visited the airfield and gave an impassioned speech about aviation and its future, both militarily and commercially.3
Influential members of the Committee included local businessmen Walter P. Innes, Jr., J.J. Jones, Jack Turner and “Jake” Moellendick. All of these men were destined to play important future roles in the development of the city’s aircraft industry, but it was Moellendick who believed most fervently in the airplane as a viable, commercial transport vehicle. He took his unbridled enthusiasm to the next level by proposing the formation of a start-up company aimed specifically as promoting air travel. Such a bold venture would require significant funds, and that is where oil began to play its vital role in making Wichita “The Air Capital of the World.”
Thanks to profits flowing in from his oil wells, “Jake” had become a wealthy man and possessed the means to make his aviation dream a reality. He took the first step by becoming the principal investor in the Wichita Aircraft Company located about one mile northeast of the city. Flush with funds from Moellendick’s bank account, the company built hangars and acquired three Canadian-built Curtiss “Canuck” biplanes to serve a flight school and the air taxi operation. “Jake” was so optimistic about the company’s success that he envisioned an airline passenger service between Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Although Moellendick often used biplanes to visit his oil wells, the immediate future of the venture looked increasingly bleak, chiefly because of too few paying customers. It soon became apparent that the Wichita Aircraft Company was ahead of its time, perhaps too far ahead, and by late 1919 it was bleeding Jake’s bank account dry. He was unable to interest other businessmen to invest in the venture, and he slowly began to realize that the public was simply uninterested in aviation and had little or no faith in its future. Undaunted, Moellendick continued to pour his own money into an unprofitable business. In an attempt to change the color of the balance sheets from red to black, late in 1919 he hired an experienced businessman, pilot and friend from Oklahoma named Billy Burke, who operated the National Exhibition Flyers and sold automobiles in Okmulgee. Billy accepted Jake’s offer and relocated to Wichita. He took control of day-to-day operations and quickly reasoned that part of Moellendick’s problem were the decrepit old Canucks. Their Curtiss OX-5 engines were often unreliable, the front cockpit held only one person (thereby limiting profits), and the former primary trainers required constant maintenance and repair to maintain airworthiness. In short, Billy told Jake the ships were totally unsuitable and had to be replaced, but replaced by what?
Burke thought he had the answer to Jake’s predicament. Billy knew a self-taught pilot, aircraft designer and builder in the windy city of Chicago by the name of Emil Matthew “Matty” Laird. In June 1919 he had sold Burke the first Laird Model S two-place sport biplane powered by a 50-horsepower Gnome rotary engine flown by Burke on the airshow circuit. A young man his mid-twenties, Laird was blessed with a keen, inquiring mind that applied logical, scientific processes to solve problems associated with the design, building and flying of aircraft.
During 1912-1913, Matty constructed his first airplane in the attic of the Laird home in Chicago, and by 1915 he had built a number of lightweight airplanes that performed well on meager horsepower. His skill, both as a pilot and designer, soon earned him the respect of his fellow aviators who flew their ships from the epicenter of flying in Chicago at that time, the famous Cicero Field. Burke knew that Laird was designing a new airplane that featured a two-place front cockpit and a robust airframe. There was nothing revolutionary about the ship, but it represented a step forward compared to the Canuck. Laird, however, had little choice but to use the ubiquitous OX-5 engine to power his next design.4
Burke suggested to Jake that he offer Laird the opportunity to build his new airplane in Wichita. Jake seized upon the idea and dispatched Billy to Chicago. Burke explained to Matty that the combination of Moellendick’s oil money, adequate facilities in downtown Wichita to manufacture aircraft, and Laird’s promising design made the risk worthwhile. In the wake of Billy’s visit, Laird agreed to visit Wichita and meet Moellendick to better assess the situation. Matty needed money to build his airplane, and there was none forthcoming in Chicago. He soon realized that the opportunity being presented to him by Moellendick and Burke would allow him to manufacture airplanes on a scale that dwarfed his best efforts in Illinois. After much discussion, Laird accepted Jake’s offer and relocated to Kansas. The new business, to be known as the E.M. Laird Company Partnership, would succeed the impoverished and defunct Wichita Aircraft Company.5
In February 1920, Matty arrived in Wichita and began preparations to manufacture the “Laird Wichita Tractor” – a somewhat clumsy moniker more representative of a farm implement instead of an airplane. A small group of craftsmen skilled in woodworking were hired, and by March the first airplane was ready for final assembly. One month later the ship was transported by truck to the former Wichita Aircraft Company’s flying field north of downtown Wichita, and prepared for its maiden flight. In the late afternoon of April 8, Matty climbed into the aft cockpit and the engine soon roared to life.
Satisfied that the OX-5’s vital signs looked good, Laird taxied out to the grass-covered flying field, turned the “Wichita Tractor” into the wind and applied full throttle. The ship lifted off the ground after a takeoff run of about 200 feet. Two minutes later Laird leveled off at an altitude of 1,000 feet, checked the ship’s basic handling qualities and descended slowly back to the airport, landing without incident. What happened next is a part of Wichita’s fascinating aviation folklore. William Lassen, owner of the city’s Lassen Hotel, commented to Laird that the biplane flew more like a Swallow than a “Tractor”! The name hit Matty like a brick – it was perfect for an airplane that flew so well, and he quickly renamed his creation the “Laird Swallow.”6
In the wake of the first flight, Jake was ready to put the Swallow into full production, but Burke and Laird chose to proceed slowly. Initial plans called for building 10 airplanes with the goal of selling 25 by the end of 1920 – an ambitious goal, considering that a market for new airplanes essentially did not exist. There was a market for hundreds of aircraft offered by the United States government at bargain prices, many of them with near zero flying time, and these served to suppress demand for airplanes such as the Swallow.
It is important to note here that the Swallow, contrary to “hearsay history” that has spread far and wide for decades, was not the first “new” commercial airplane in the United States to be introduced after the war. There were a plethora of small and large airframe companies from coast-to-coast building fresh designs hot off the drawing boards, or converting war-surplus aircraft such as the de Havilland DH-4 and Curtiss JN-4 biplanes, for a multitude of missions that included air mail, medical evacuation, light transport and private flying.
In an effort to set Wichita’s historical record straight and to underscore this important point, four examples can be given as evidence: First, and perhaps the best case is the Orenco “Tourister” that made its debut in May 1920, the same month the Swallow flew for the first time. The biplane accommodated two passengers in the spacious front cockpit, while the rear cockpit accommodated another passenger and the pilot. The ship used a Wright-Hispano engine rated at 150 horsepower. Second, in 1919 the Thomas-Morse Aircraft Corporation based in Ithaca, New York, offered a two-place conversion of its wartime S-4 fighter dubbed the “Sociable S-7” powered by an 80-horsepower Le Rhone rotary engine. Another example, designed by engineer Giuseppe Bellanca, was the “Bellanca Two-Seater” powered by a six-cylinder Anzani radial engine. The ship was hailed as the perfect mount for the “Progressive Merchant, the far-sighted businessman, the stunting exhibition flier; the thrill-loving sportsman, the efficient passenger carrier, and the steady-going average man.”
A fourth example is the “Ace”– a single-seat biplane designed and built by the Aircraft Engineering Corporation in New York City. In its advertisements the company was quick to point out that the Ace was “neither a freak nor a worn-out, second-hand ship – a small, modern, thoroughly tested scout that lands slowly, climbs quickly and has excess power – making it as practical on a small field, golf course or bathing beach as on the biggest of army airdromes.”7
Therefore, contrary to hearsay, the fact is that Matty Laird’s Swallow was only one of many postwar designs that could accommodate more than one passenger. Other than that important feature, its state-of-the-art airframe and engine technology brought nothing new to an almost nonexistent commercial aviation marketplace. Although Laird realized that only a miniscule demand existed for new aircraft, Mr. Moellendick saw only the bright side of the situation. After the Swallow’s first flight he was ebullient about the airplane’s future, so much so that he informed local reporters that, “Mr. Laird is very optimistic about the manufacture of commercial machines, and maintains that his machine is not inferior to any for commercial purposes.” Fortunately, word about the new ship spread rapidly across the nation, and soon letters of inquiry were pouring into the downtown factory along with an increasing number of visitors bent on examining the Swallow.
The only missing ingredient in Laird’s recipe for success was sales. Among the first companies to plunk down a deposit for one airplane was the Heddon Aviation Company in Michigan. By late summer the E.M. Laird Company partnership was awash with orders from customers in New York, New Jersey and Colorado, and Matty declared that production was sold out for 1920. Meanwhile, company manager Billy Burke was kept busy flying far and wide making demonstration flights with an early production Swallow, appointing dealerships in Oklahoma, Massachusetts and Illinois, and selling the Swallow as an obvious replacement for war-weary surplus aircraft. It was, however, a hard sell because a new Swallow sold for about $6,500 when a Curtiss JN-4 trainer in good condition could be bought for $500-1,000.
By August, Laird’s workers were completing one airplane per week and Matty hoped to double that number by December. One local Wichita newspaper reporter summed up the situation well: “Our 1920 pride in our production of one plane per week doubtless will serve for a humorous little commentary. In the present state of the aircraft business, a factory producing one plane per week is a large factory…and the future of the business is bright.”8
An indication that the Swallow was well built and performed as advertised is expressed in a letter from Reed E. Davis, sales manager for the North Platte Aircraft Company, Inc., located in Nebraska: “The first Swallow we got grossed us approximately $3,000 in the two weeks we have had it, and I believe business will be equally as good for the next few months. The planes are certainly giving satisfaction to us and the performance of them is surprising everyone who has used the OX-5 motor in Canucks and JN-4Ds. We have no difficulty in getting out of small fields carrying two passengers and full tanks of gas, and we have flown the Swallow at altitudes as high as 4,500 feet.”
Laird and Burke’s goal of selling 10 airplanes was realized in September, and another 10 ships were in various stages of construction and assembly. By that time the workforce had increased to 45 men, some of whom would become icons of the general aviation industry and pillars of Wichita’s aviation heritage. These included William Snook, Walter Strobel, Lloyd C. Stearman, his brother Waverly, and Walter H. Beech.
During Laird’s first 24 months in Wichita, he had achieved a level of success that probably would not have occurred had he remained in Chicago. Thanks largely to Moellendick’s steady flow of oil money and Burke’s efficient management of the business, Matty was free to concentrate on establishing himself as one of America’s earliest manufacturers of commercial airplanes. As 1920 came to an end, the E.M. Laird Partnership had sold every airplane it had built, had an order backlog that stretched well into 1921, and the operation was on sound financial footing.
The New Year, however, would bring with it key changes in management that would lead to Laird and Moellendick butting heads over management of the company, setting the stage for Matty’s return to Chicago.
- Today, the term “aviation pioneer” is often inappropriately applied to men and women who were not part of that early era of aeronautics. Clyde Cessna, however, was truly a pioneer in every sense of the word, not only in Kansas but in the United States.
- Cessna returned to his farm in Rago, Kansas, and operated a profitable custom threshing business with his son, Eldon. Threshing wheat was lucrative chiefly because demand was high – the United States Government needed bread to feed its troops as well as British, French and Belgian soldiers fighting for the Allied cause against Germany.
- McCoy, Sondra J. Van Meter: “The Primary Contribution of E.M. Laird to the Aviation Industry of Wichita;” The University of Wichita, June 1962, page 9.
- The water-cooled Curtiss OX-5 was built by the thousands before and during the war and was a plentiful, albeit cantankerous, eight cylinder powerplant. The engine was readily available, inexpensive (as little as $50 new in crates) and sufficiently reliable. The OX-5 played a vital role in the establishment of America’s infant lightweight airplane industry until the advent of the air-cooled, static radial engine and the opposed piston engine spelled its demise.
- Phillips, Edward H.: “Laird Airplanes – A Legacy of Speed;” Specialty Press, North Branch, Minnesota, 2002.
- “Aviation and Aeronautical Engineering” magazine; The Gardner-Moffatt Company, New York City; May 1, 1919.
- Wichita Eagle, August 21, 1920, page 4. In 1920 Matty Laird could not have imagined that his tiny company in downtown Wichita would be the genesis of a major industry. By 1929 the city would boast no less than 16 airplane companies, five engine manufacturers, seven service and repair businesses, 1,640 acres of flying fields and 11 airports.