For eighty years “hearsay history” has claimed that Walter H. Beech and Clyde V. Cessna vehemently disagreed about how many wings an airplane should have. In fact, they never disagreed.
Beginning in 1911, Clyde Cessna believed in monoplanes as the “only sensible design for an airplane.” Throughout his distinguished career in aeronautics, he never violated that creed except once when he bought a “New Swallow” biplane. By contrast, from 1919 through 1925 all of Walter Beech’s flying experience had been in biplanes.
When Cessna was elected president of the infant Travel Air Manufacturing Company late in 1924, Clyde, serving alongside Beech, Lloyd C. Stearman and Wichita businessman Walter Innes, Jr., he maintained his preference for airplanes with one wing and his associates always respected that fact. In 1926, however, Cessna wanted to build a cabin monoplane of his own design, on his own time and with his own money. Beech, Stearman and Innes did not object.
When the five-place ship was completed and test-flown that summer, Clyde invited Walter to fly it. Beech was not only impressed with the airplane’s overall performance, he also realized that the monoplane had commercial potential for the company. As a result, Cessna’s design served as the foundation for development of the Travel Air Type 5000, and in 1926 National Air Transport bought a fleet of the ships to operate on its airline routes in the Midwestern United States. In addition, in 1928 the Type 5000 led to development of the popular Type 6000-series cabin monoplanes originally envisioned and promoted by Walter Beech as the “Businessman’s Flying Office.”
Cessna eventually sold his stock in Travel Air and left the company to pursue his longtime goal: Build a monoplane featuring a full-cantilever wing. Dubbed the “Phantom,” it was the airplane that started the Cessna Aircraft Company in 1927. Years later in April 1932 when Walter and Olive Ann Beech returned to Wichita and founded the Beech Aircraft Company, Walter approached his old friend Clyde about forming a partnership, but Cessna refused. In a fascinating twist of fate, Cessna and his son Eldon manufactured three custom-built air racing monoplanes in Walter’s empty Travel Air factory while Beech was building the Model 17 biplane in Clyde’s empty Cessna factory.
In conclusion, I am unaware of how or when the myth was born that Beech and Cessna were at loggerheads over how many wings an airplane should have, but it persists to this day and is, in my opinion, wholly unfounded. In my 42 years of researching the city’s rich aviation history I have yet to discover any credible evidence or reference to such a disagreement. Clearly, Cessna strongly favored monoplanes, but Beech’s primary focus was not about monoplanes vs. biplanes but building commercial aircraft that would sell in the marketplace. The number of wings was irrelevant.