The first to leave was Stearman. When only a boy he had watched in amazement at a local fair as a daring aviator flew his fragile monoplane through a series of figure eights, only 500 feet above the cheering crowds. That aviator was none other than Clyde Vernon Cessna. A native Kansan, Lloyd served as Travel Air’s primary engineer until October 1926 when he resigned to answer a new call–“go west young man.” Although opinions have varied across the decades, research by the author strongly indicates that the chief reason he left Wichita stemmed from a business opportunity Lloyd believed he could not ignore: relocate to California where the economic climate was ripe for designing, building and selling airplanes bearing his name.1

The idea was not Lloyd’s but that of fellow pilot, friend and Travel Air West Coast distributor, Fred Day Hoyt. Fred operated a flying service at the famous Clover Field in Santa Monica, California. He convinced Stearman that there was money to be made selling airplanes to the rich and famous in Hollywood; wealthy thespians who not only craved expensive, fast automobiles but were attracted by the thrill of flying as well. Lloyd and his family arrived in Venice, California, late in October 1926, and settled into their new abode on Washington Boulevard. The Stearman Aircraft, Inc., was incorporated in December, and that month construction began on the first airplane to bear Lloyd’s name—the Stearman C1. The local press was quick to report the presence of a new aircraft company in the quiet town of Venice, and Lloyd explained that plans called for building one airplane per week when operations were fully underway. He added that the price of the C1 biplane was $3,000. By the first week of March 1927, three more airplanes were being built.

In December 1926, Lloyd C. Stearman (center) teamed up with Travel Air distributor Fred Day Hoyt (right) and businessman George Lyle (left) to form the Stearman Aircraft Company in Venice, California. Hoyt’s hangar at Clover Field near Santa Monica is visible in the background. The trio posed with the Stearman C1 soon after its first flight. The biplane marked a high point in Lloyd’s design talent thanks to its graceful airframe and fully-enclosed Curtiss OX-5 engine, and hand-formed cowling that cleverly incorporated the water radiator. Only four airplanes were built in California before Stearman relocated to Wichita. (Edward H. Phillips Collection)


These included the C2, which was a slightly modified version of the C1; the C2C and the C2M. All three ships featured the same basic airframe of welded steel tubing for the fuselage and wood wings but differed in the type of engines. As with the C1, the C2 featured a Curtiss OX-5 powerplant rated at 90 horsepower, and the C2C used a Wright/Martin Hispano-Suiza engine that produced 180 horsepower. The C2M, however, was designed to haul air mail, not passengers, and in keeping with that demanding mission Lloyd designed the biplane to use the Wright J-4 static, air-cooled radial engine.

In terms of historical importance, the C2M was a landmark airplane. It represented a turning point for Lloyd’s infant aircraft company because it established Stearman as a builder of rugged, reliable biplanes that could haul up to 400 pounds of mail. Lloyd’s first customer was another of his many friends– Walter T. Varney of Varney Air Lines. In April 1926, Varney had begun operating Contract Air Mail (C.A.M.) Route 5 that stretched 400 statute miles from Elko, Nevada, to Pasco, Washington, and eventually all the way to Salt Lake City, Utah, (including a stop in Boise, Idaho). The C2M was a modified C2B that incorporated minor alterations meet specific requirements spelled out by Varney, including a covered mail compartment that replaced the front cockpit.


By the summer of 1927, the little band of workers at Stearman Aircraft, Inc., were occupied building custom airplanes. Orders for the C2 and C2M were increasing, albeit very slowly. It was becoming increasingly obvious to Stearman, Hoyt and Lyle that if the business was to grow, it had to expand. The company’s limited production capacity could not keep pace with demand for the C2 and the C2M. Lloyd’s men could not meet tight delivery schedules primarily because the existing facilities were woefully inadequate. The company’s chief problem was not a lack of orders but its inability to satisfy those orders.

Although some aviation historians have proposed that Lloyd Stearman’s decision to return to Wichita stemmed from having incurred a heavy debt load. The author’s research has shown, however, that there is little or no evidence to support that assertion. In the normal course of business, the company would certainly incur debt to acquire engines, component parts and materials necessary to construct airplanes, and there is no known evidence that Stearman Aircraft, Inc., failed to service that debt. What it needed was more capital investment. In the summer of 1927 Lloyd and his associates did not need more business; what they needed was more investors.

In August, Stearman Aircraft, Inc., had a three-month backlog of orders for the C2B and C2M, but the airplanes could not be completed in time to honor the purchase contracts. Lloyd needed a significant infusion of money to expand the enterprise and he sought to do so as quickly as possible. During the summer he was actively engaged in discussions with a group of friends and investors in Venice who wanted to keep the company in Southern California. Unfortunately, the group failed to support Stearman. Fortunately, 1,500 miles east his old friend Walter P. Innes, Jr., was not only aware of Lloyd’s financial situation but was actively campaigning to bring him back east to Wichita. Assisted by fellow local businessman Harry Dillon, the two men managed to raise about $60,000 in less than a week.

Back in Venice, Lloyd carefully weighed his options: remain in California and keep seeking investors or relocate to his home state where the money he needed was waiting for him. Stearman chose Kansas. He shut down operations in Venice and in October 1927 resumed production (albeit on a limited scale) in leased buildings once used by the Bridgeport Machine Company north of downtown Wichita. Lloyd Stearman was back, and later he shared his thoughts with local newspaper reporters: “I have always been impressed with Wichita. I cannot say that I do not like California, for I do and I have lots of friends out there. But I can say that Wichita is in an almost ideal location and has better flying weather than California. There are no fogs or mountains here. I’ve always liked the town and the people in it, and it seems a great deal like coming back home to be here.”2

In October 1927 the Stearman Aircraft Company returned to Wichita and leased facilities at 610 East 35th Street about five miles north of the city. The buildings were not designed for manufacture of airplanes but possessed sufficient floor space to allow Lloyd Stearman to resume production of the C2-series biplanes. The first C2B built at the factory was delivered to Western Air Express in December 1927. (Edward H. Phillips Collection)


When Lloyd Stearman returned to Wichita in the autumn of 1927, he learned that his old friend and fellow co-founder of Travel Air, Clyde V. Cessna, had resigned in January of that year. The Rago, Kansas, native and pioneer aviator wanted to start his own company, and when he informed Walter Beech, the Tennessean wished him well. Clyde had long harbored a desire to build monoplanes featuring a full-cantilever wing, which he passionately believed was far superior to a conventional biplane configuration in terms of both performance and appearance.3

Cessna made his decision to leave Travel Air following the sale of his stock in the company to three Wichita businessmen. Profits from that transaction allowed Clyde to move forward with his reentry into the airframe manufacturing business. When news of his departure hit the streets of Wichita, local newspaper reporters flocked to hear what Cessna planned to do next. Although his exact words have been lost to history, he is reported to have said, “Monoplanes are the only worthwhile type of aircraft.” For the past 16 years he had believed that a full-cantilever wing design was the best possible configuration. He rented a small workshop on West Douglas Avenue, and by August he had achieved his goal.

By 1928 Clyde Cessna had established the Cessna Aircraft Company in facilities located on West First Street and Glenn Avenue in Wichita, where the pioneer aviator planned to begin limited production of cabin monoplanes such as the Model AA-, Model AW- and Model BW-series. Note the Ford Model “T” runabout (left) and Model “T” Phaeton parked on the street. Cessna would soon outgrow these facilities and build a new factory complex east of the city in 1929. (Cessna Family Collection, Wichita State University Libraries, Department of Special Collections)


Four months in the making, Cessna’s “Phantom” featured a full-cantilever wing that spanned 37 feet four inches tip-to-tip and a two-place, enclosed cabin with the pilot sitting forward in an open cockpit. Powered by a 10-cylinder Anzani static, air-cooled radial engine that generated 90 horsepower, the Phantom flew for the first time in August 1927 with local pilot Romer G. Weyant at the controls. At a gross weight of only 1,200 pounds, the airplane could accommodate a payload of 722 pounds and had a maximum speed of about 100 mph.

Cessna soon joined forces with a motorcycle dealer from Omaha, Nebraska, named Victor H. Roos, who had seen the Phantom and was impressed with its appearance as well as its performance. Roos was an excellent salesman, and in September he and Clyde formed the Cessna-Roos Aircraft Company. A new factory was soon built at the juncture of First Street and Glenn Avenue west of the Arkansas River, and plans called for building 12 airplanes. Cessna’s chief challenge, however, centered on certifying the Phantom and in particular, its all-wood, full-cantilever wing.4

During 1929 the Cessna Model AW was being built in greater numbers than any other Cessna monoplane, chiefly because of its good performance and reliable Warner “Scarab” static, air-cooled, seven-cylinder radial engine rated at 110 horsepower. Posing with Model AW registered NC7107 is Clyde Cessna’s son Eldon (left), unidentified (center) and Earl Rowland (right). Rowland flew the airplane in the 1928 New York-Los Angeles Air Derby, placing first in the Class A category that created increased demand for the four-place monoplane. (Cessna Family Collection, Wichita State University Libraries, Department of Special Collections)


Cessna realized that he could not perform the required stress analysis computations that would be necessary to attain an Approved Type Certificate from the Department of Commerce. By 1927 the science of stress analysis as it applied to airplanes was still evolving. Fortunately for Clyde, he was able to obtain assistance from the highly respected Joseph S. Newell, professor of aeronautical engineering at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was his strong reputation as a recognized expert in aeronautical structures that encouraged Cessna to seek his help.5

The new Cessna Aircraft Company factory was completed in the late summer of 1929 and provided much-needed manufacturing capacity that allowed Clyde Cessna to meet growing demand for the company’s monoplanes. Production was beginning to catch up with demand when the debacle on Wall Street struck the nation hard in October of that year. Wichita’s three major airframe manufacturers—Travel Air, Cessna and Stearman – were early victims of the stock market “crash” that gradually devastated the city’s once prosperous aviation industry. Note the large arrow on top of the small building that pointed to true north, while the name “Cessna” identified the factory for pilots flying overhead. The word “Monoplanes” was emblazoned on the building at center. (Textron Aviation)


Cessna’s association with Victor Roos was relatively brief. By November 1927 growing tensions between the two men and other company officials were exacerbated when the board of directors proposed changing the name of the business to the “Cessna Aircraft Company.” Roos vehemently objected to the change, claiming it would be detrimental when production of Model AA monoplane was about to begin. His objections were ignored. Roos immediately resigned, but soon found work across town as manager of Jake Moellendick’s former Swallow Aircraft Company.6

From a historical standpoint it is important to note that after December 1926, the Department of Commerce (DOC) was charged with responsibility to license all airmen and mechanics as well as ensuring that all airframe and engine manufacturers applied for and received an Approved Type Certificate (ATC). A year later, it fell to the DOC’s Bureau of Aeronautics Division to certify about 285 different types of aircraft already being built in the United States.

Walter H. Beech recognized as early as 1927 that customers (particularly businessmen who embraced aviation for transportation) preferred closed-cabin monoplanes to open-cockpit biplanes for reasons of comfort and the ability to conduct business while airborne. The Travel Air Type 6000 prototype shown here was designed in 1928 and led to development of the larger Type 6B and A6A in 1929. Cessna introduced the successful Model DC-series cabin monoplane that year, while Stearman developed the LT-1 cabin biplane and the short-lived “Stearman Coach” of which only one was built. The reckless decade known as the “Roarin’ ‘Twenties” ended years of prosperity that millions of Americans had thought would never end, but Wichita’s aviation enterprises would eventually rise from the ashes of the “Great Depression” to achieve new heights of success. (Edward H. Phillips Collection)


Joseph Newell had completed the stress analysis required by the DOC, and by the end of 1928 the Cessna Aircraft Company’s product line included six versions of the same basic airframe. These monoplanes differed chiefly in the make and model of the static, air-cooled radial powerplants. Only two were awarded an ATC; the remainder were approved under the less stringent Group Two system:

  1. Model AA (Anzani, 120 horsepower, $5,750, ATC 65)
  2. Model AC (Comet, 130-150 horsepower, $7,500, Group Two Approval 2-407)
  3. Model AF, Floco (later Axelson) 150 horsepower, $7,500, Group Two Approval 2-237)
  4. Model AS (Siemens-Halske, 125 horsepower, $7,500, Group Two Approval 2-8)
  5. Model AW (Warner, 110 horsepower, $7,500, ATC 72)
  6. Model BW (Wright “Whirlwind,” 225 horsepower, $9,800, Group Two Approval 2-7).

Of these, only 13 examples of the Model BW were built before production terminated, while three or four Model AS were sold. Company records indicate that Cessna sold 13 of the Model AA, one Model AC and three Model AF. The Model AW, however, emerged as the preferred airplane and at least 50 were sold during 1928. In September of that year local pilot Earl Rowland flew a stock Model AW to victory in the New York-Los Angeles Air Derby, winning first place in the Class A division.

By autumn 1928, the small factory at First Street and Glen Avenue was producing less than two airplanes per week instead of 10 as demand for Model AW skyrocketed. In the wake of Rowland’s success in the air derby. As the fateful year 1929 dawned, Clyde Cessna found himself caught between the blessing of high demand for his airplanes and the curse of inadequate cash and capital to expand production. Cessna stock was a hot commodity on Wall Street, selling at $150 per share compared with only $10 a few months before. Finally, Cessna was able to secure the funds needed to move the company forward. Capitalization was increased to $500,000 from the original $200,000, and a new, much larger factory would be built on Franklin Road a few miles east of downtown Wichita.

Smaller companies operating in Wichita, such as The Swallow Aircraft Company, built excellent biplanes for training and sport pilots but disappeared from the aviation scene as the market for new airplanes evaporated along with sales and profits. New manufacturers such as the Jayhawk and Buckley aircraft companies also vanished almost overnight. (Edward H. Phillips Collection)


Meanwhile, Clyde’s engineers were bury completing drawings for a Wright “Whirlwind”-powered monoplane designed to carry six people in comfort. The ship was, at least to some degree, Cessna’s answer to business aviation operators whose company officials preferred fully enclosed cabins to open cockpits. A number of manufacturers were building such ships, including Travel Air with its Type 6000 cabin monoplane that Walter Beech had put into production in response to customer preference for an enclosed cabin airplane.

Designated the Cessna CW-6 (“C” indicating the third series of Cessna designs, “W” for the Wright radial engine, and “-6” for the number of seats), the prototype first flew in November 1928. Hot on the heels of the CW-6 came the improved DC-6 series that debuted early in 1929. Two versions were offered—the DC-6A powered by a 300-horsepower Wright J6-9 radial engine, and the DC-6B powered by a 225-horsepower Wright J6-7 engine. Government certification was awarded in September 1929. The DC-6A cost $11,500, while the DC-6B sold for $10,000.

As the 1930s unfolded it was obvious that the commercial airplane market was untenable. In an attempt to survive, Stearman Aircraft Company officials sought contracts for training airplanes such as the Model 6 “Cloudboy” modified to meet the U.S. Army Air Corps and U.S. Navy requirements. A penny-pinching Congress, however, refused to approve funding for any military equipment because of severe economic constraints. (Walter House Collection)


Wichita’s aviation industry had grown rapidly during the second half of 1927 through 1928 and was poised to grow further in 1929. City officials were proud that the town was home to one of the largest commercial airframe manufacturing centers in the world, not just the United States. It boasted more factories and ancillary aeronautical enterprises than any other American city, and 1929 promised to propel the Air Capital of the World to new heights of fame and fortune not dreamed of only a few years before.


  1. One rumor that has persisted over the decades suggests that Stearman went to California in an attempt to make a fresh start following a fatal accident that occurred during the 1926 Ford Reliability Tour. A Wichita resident was at the East Central flying field with his family to watch the Tour airplanes take off and land. Lloyd was taxiing his Travel Air to the parking area when the propeller struck and killed the man instantly. Two months later Stearman departed for California. It was a tragic day that Lloyd never forgot, but it did not prevent him from returning to Wichita the next year.
  2. Wichita “Eagle,” October 1, 1927, Page 5. In a letter to the author dated April 25, 2005, Lloyd’s son, William L. Stearman, wrote that, “There was little money for aircraft manufacturing in California, but there was in Kansas.” He added that the scarcity of capital in California was the chief reason his father relocated his company to Wichita.
  3. Decades of “hearsay history” has distorted the truth about Walter Beech’s so-called preference for biplanes and Clyde Cessna’s affinity for monoplanes. It is not generally known that in 1924 Clyde bought and flew a “New Swallow” biplane and gave his nephew, Dwane Wallace, his first ride in that ship. Contrary to fact, Cessna did not resign from Travel Air because of a disagreement with Beech over whether the company should build monoplanes or continue with biplanes. Beech not only embraced Cessna’s 1926 design that served as the basis for the Type 5000 cabin monoplane, but by 1929 monoplanes dominated the company’s production line. Beech was progressive, not regressive, and embraced what the marketplace wanted. By 1928 it was clear to Walter that cabin monoplanes represented the future of commercial aviation.
  4. Cessna’s design for a full-cantilever wing was only one of many already in existence. As early as World War I the single-engine Fokker DVIII fighter featured such a wing, and during the war Hugo Junkers built a ground attack aircraft that boasted a full-cantilever wing of all-metal construction. Other well-known examples of the mid-to-late 1920s include the Ford Trimotor and Fokker airliners and the Lockheed “Vega” monoplane designed by Jack Northrop.
  5. Newell’s greatest contribution to the science of aeronautics was a textbook entitled “Aircraft Structures,” which he co-authored with A.S. Niles in the late 1920s. In the years that followed, it became a standard reference for mathematically analyzing airframe structures such as wings, fuselage, empennage, engine mounts and landing gear under various load conditions.
  6. After Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman departed the Swallow company late in 1924, Moellendick soldiered on as boss and sales remained steady, but in 1927 he interrupted production of the New Swallow to build the “Dallas Spirit” monoplane for the ill-fated Dole race from California to the Territory of Hawaii. The airplane, pilot and navigator disappeared over the vast Pacific Ocean and Jake’s company eventually went bankrupt. It was saved from extinction by Wichita businessmen and by the time Roos took command, the company was back in the black.