In December 1919, aviator E.M. “Matty” Laird was ready to start building airplanes in downtown Wichita, Kansas. He left his hometown of Chicago, Illinois, to join forces with Jacob Melvin Moellendick in the E.M. Laird Company Partnership. His latest design, known as the “Laird Wichita Tractor,” was a three-place, open-cockpit biplane powered by a Curtiss OX-5 engine rated at 90 horsepower.
By February 1920 Laird and a small group of men began construction of 10 aircraft in a vacant structure located downtown at the corner of English and South Wichita Streets behind the Wichita Forum building. The facility was owned and operated by Everett A. Watkins as the Watkins Manufacturing Company that designed and built agricultural equipment. “Matty,” as his friends called him, had leased floorspace in the building and purchased all of Watkins’ woodworking machines to help expedite manufacture of the Tractor.
Simple fixtures were used to fabricate the basic wood fuselage and the four wing panels before covering both structures with cotton fabric. Next, nitrate dope was applied to tighten the fabric before paint was applied. The woodshop produced myriad types of parts and assemblies need to build the biplane, and a majority of the work was done using hand labor and careful craftsmanship. Laird had built his tiny, initial workforce of 11 men around a core of skilled carpenters, woodworkers and mechanics.
By May 1920 Matty had about 30 employees on the payroll and the downtown factory was humming with activity. The air was awash with the smell of fresh-cut spruce and dope as more airplanes were constructed to meet growing demand. Laird was optimistic that increased orders for the Tractor, now renamed the “Laird Swallow,” were on track to sell out production for the remainder of the year.
Final assembly of each ship had to be accomplished in the Forum building before the aircraft was disassembled and trucked north to the Wichita Aircraft Company’s flying field at 29th Street and Hillside Avenue. The E.M. Laird Company Partnership had its main corporate office at 204 Caldwell-Murdock building.
As a hot, humid Kansas August came to a close, Laird hoped to build two aircraft per week by the end of the year. He announced that as of September 10 Swallows had been manufactured and sold, with another 10 in various stages of construction. To meet production schedules the workforce had increased to 45 men and the factory was producing one ship every five working days. In addition, customers were continuing to place orders with cash deposits that greatly benefitted the company’s slender coffers.
Building one Swallow every five days was big news for the prairie city, and the Wichita Eagle newspaper was quick to notice: “Our 1920 pride in our production of one plane per week doubtless will serve for humorous little commentary. In the present state of the aircraft business, however, a factory producing one plane per week is a large factory, and the future of the business is bright.”
In the summer of 1921 Laird’s business partner J.M. Moellendick decided to streamline manufacturing of the Swallow by authorizing construction of a large factory building at the flying field. Laird, who was away on a business trip, strongly disagreed with the decision but “Jake” ignored Matty’s opposition and forged ahead. By the end of 1922 production activity at the downtown locations gradually slowed to a trickle as operations were relocated to the site at 29th and Hillside Avenue.
Although Laird was deeply distressed that stopping production for nearly three months threatened to torpedo cash flow and severely disrupt his carefully orchestrated schedules for building and delivering ships to customers, he had no choice but to make the move to the new factory as expeditiously as possible and resume production. It was not until March 1922 that Swallows slowly began rolling off the assembly line.
The city’s second airplane factory no longer exists, but it served to put Wichita on the map as one of America’s earliest attempts to manufacture and sell commercial aircraft in relatively large numbers.