Amidst the ever-fascinating history of Wichita as the undisputed “Air Capital of the World,” occasionally a person emerges who never lived in the city, never flew an airplane, never made the headlines and whose name never became famous, but without whose expertise one famous manufacturer in town may have never got off the ground. That person was Joseph S. Newell, and the organization he saved from a potentially early extinction was none other than the Cessna Aircraft Company.

In 1927 Newell presided over the aeronautical engineering department at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). A native of Springfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from MIT in 1919 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering before serving five years as an engineer at the United States Army’s McCook Field near Dayton, Ohio. During those five years Newel learned about aircraft structures and how to conduct stress analysis on fuselage, empennage and wing designs. One of his greatest contributions to the early science of aeronautics centered on a reference book titled simply, “Aircraft Structures,” which he co-authored with professor A.S. Niles in the late 1920s.

Newell’s exposure to Wichita began early in 1927 when pioneer aviator Clyde V. Cessna contacted the professor asking for his assistance in pursuing federal government certification of his new Model AA cabin monoplane. Cessna had no knowledge or expertise of stress analysis, and he could not proceed with building and selling his series of monoplanes without a government-issued Approved Type Certificate (ATC) issued by the Department of Commerce (DOC).

All technical drawings and information about the Model AA were sent to Newell after being prepared by company draftsmen and engineers, and were based on original drawings made by Cessna himself. He added a plea urging Newel to expedite his work because Cessna was ready to test a prototype airplane in August and hoped to inaugurate production by late 1927. Without Newell’s help, the Cessna Aircraft Company could not proceed to fulfill Clyde’s dream – to build and sell monoplanes bearing his name.

Prototype Cessna Model AA powered by a 10-cylinder Anzani radial engine rated at 110-120 horsepower. Joseph Newell’s critical work on stress analysis for the Model AA allowed Clyde Cessna to begin limited production of the cabin monoplane late in 1927. (Photograph courtesy of MIT).


Fortunately, Newell, assisted by hand-picked students working under his supervision, labored hard to make progress on the many complex stress analysis computations required to prove the airframe’s structural integrity under a variety of conditions. Clyde’s drawings were revised by Newell as required during the lengthy analysis, chiefly to reflect ongoing changes to the government’s “Handbook For Airplane Designers” issued in October 1927. The Handbook served as a useful guide for airframe manufacturers regarding acceptable methods of distributing loads and analysis of structures prior to submission to the DOC.

At one point, after a detailed analysis, Newell advised Cessna that the original wing was overbuilt and overweight, and he recommended changes to lighten the wing without sacrificing safety margins. Fortunately for Clyde, until the company could submit the completed stress analysis to the DOC, the government permitted Cessna to build and sell monoplanes pending issuance of an ATC. Newell traveled to Wichita to supervise all static testing on the airframe, which was accomplished under the watchful eye of a DOC inspector. It was not until June 1928, however, that Newell and his team finally completed stress analysis of the airplane’s welded steel tube and wood airframe, based on installation of four different static, air-cooled radial engines: The Wright Aeronautical J-5, Warner “Scarab,” Siemens-Halske and the Anzani powerplants.

Newell and his team’s hard work and Herculean efforts to expedite the stress analysis were rewarded in August 1928 when the DOC issued the Cessna Aircraft Company ATC 65 for the Model AA powered by the 10-cylinder Anzani rated at 110-120 horsepower. Thanks to Joseph Newell’s help at a critical time in the birth of Clyde Cessna’s airplane company, the City of Wichita gained a powerful ally that would evolve into one of the world’s most prolific manufacturers of light airplanes.