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Travel Air Manufacturing Company

Travel Air OX-5 airplaneClyde Cessna, Walter Beech, Lloyd Stearman, and Olive Ann Mellor joined their talents to form Travel Air Manufacturing in Wichita on January 26, 1925. The company’s first planes were open cockpit biplanes made for racing and training.

The company launched on January 26, 1925, in the former home of the Kansas Planing Mill on North Waco Street in Wichita; a 30-foot square rented space behind the Broadview Hotel in downtown Wichita. There it operated as a partnership until February 5, 1925, and officially became Travel Air Manufacturing Company, a corporation. Walter Innes provided some of the financial backing, along with a five other local businessmen, and selected the company name. By the end of the year Innes had left. 

Cessna provided the woodworking tools, although most of the construction was steel tubing. Stearman contributed designs; Beech ran the assembly line and demonstrated the models in air races. Olive Ann Mellor was the bookkeeper and secretary who handled all correspondence, maintained records, and conducted transactions, eventually becoming officer manager and then personal secretary to Beech.

The board of directors was encouraged by their success in the first year and purchased 11 acres for $200 per acre, east of town on Central Avenue and began construction on a new facility. Cessna became president, contributing $25,000 of his own money for the operations; and the company had 30 employees. The company expanded to 471 West First Street along the Arkansas River.

With orders increasing, the company signed a five-year lease that included a storefront at 535-7 West Douglas in November 1925 and vacated the properties on Waco and West First. The front of the building housed the woodworking; the back was for metal work, and a section to paint the blue and silver logo.

In the post World War I years, individuals and businesses began to see the need for air transportation, and Travel Air began to develop aircraft to serve this growing market. Subsequent models were monoplanes made for the airlines, used for both mail and passenger routes, and private business use. Their series of "mystery ships," used for racing, were reported to be the fastest aircraft available.

The company’s first models were biplanes, but Cessna pushed for a monoplane. He rented space in downtown Wichita and worked on his monoplane, which was introduced in the summer of 1926. The Model A, it had a high, semi-cantilever wing, and carried five passengers. Designated Modell 5000, it became popular with one of the nation’s first airline companies, National Air Transport, which ordered eight at a price tag of $128,676. In August 1927 the model named the Woolaroc, won the Dole Race from California to Hawaii.

In late 1926 the company purchased six acres of a landing field near East Central and Webb road, and began design and construction of a new facility. The nearby land was used for test flights and demonstrations.

In 1927 the city acquired the flying field for use as an airstrip on the air mail route from Chicago to Dallas. The city was thriving with aviation production, home to seven aircraft companies, and Wichita’s Chamber of Commerce began to use the phrase, “Air Capital.”

In January 1927 Cessna left Travel Air to form another company. Beech and Stearman wanted to continue with the primary production of biplanes. Cessna wanted a full cantilever wing and knew that the company would never agree with his philosophy. He sold his 179 shares of stock for $90, and left under amicable terms.

In September 1927 the company acquired land for a second factory building to the east of the first.

In both 1928 and 1929 the company was producing 25 aircraft each week. Model 6000 monoplane was known as the “Limousine of the Air, popular with celebrities like Wallace Beery.

Walter Beech developed the concept for the Model R monoplane. He believed in the value of publicity and entered planes in national competitions. The design of this low wing racing plane was kept secret during production, creating much anticipation. The actual designers were Ted Wells, Walt Burnham, and Herb Rawdon, who joined Travel Air after Cessna’s departure. Beech kept the Model R secret until time to end the National Air Races in Cleveland. Two models were built: one with a new Chevrolair inline engine and one with a Wright radial engine. The inline engine did not perform as hoped but both were flown to Cleveland. Walter helped deliver one of the planes. As soon they arrived in Cleveland, he rolled them into the hangar and closed the doors and covered the windows. The plane with the radial engine, piloted by Doug Davis, easily won the free-for-all speed contest, the Thompson Cup. Another Travel Air plane finished sixth, and the Mystery Ship with inline engine finished seventh. At the same event Louise Thaden finished first in the Women’s Air Derby, flying a new Travel Air. Oil companies like Texaco and Shell purchased sponsorships.

In the first Women's Air Derby of 1929, seven of the competitors flew Travel Air planes. Pilot Louise Thaden placed first in the race in her Travel Air.

Travel Air factory had units A, B, C, D, and E, in order of construction. A, a hangar structure with curved roof, and B were completed by 1928. In A fuselages were assembled and painted. In B wings were assembled. In C, built in 1929, experimental work was done including that of the Mystery Ships. D was a hangar structure with curved roof completed in 1929. E, completed in summer 1929, tied the other four together and was identified by its rows of clerestory windows. An administration building was located north of A. The complex became known as Travel Air City.

By 1929 there were 650 employees working two shifts in the state-of-the art aircraft production facility. They had built about 1,800 aircraft in fewer than five years, mostly biplanes using 16 basic designs. The Travel Air E-4000 was designed to compete with World War I surplus. The two-seater biplane featured a forward open cockpit, powered with a Wright “Whirlwind” J-6 five-cylinder engine producing 16 horsepower.

By summer 1929 sales began to slow and in August Curtiss and Wright merged with Travel Air. The new corporation, made of Wright Aeronautical, Keystone/Loening, Curtiss Flying Service, and Travel Air, was called Aviation Credit Corporation.

When the Great Depression in 1929 impacted Travel Air’s sales, the partners sold the company to Curtiss-Wright Corporation, which eventually became the largest air manufacturer in the U.S. Cessna, Beech, and Stearman each formed other aircraft companies in Wichita.

Entry: Travel Air Manufacturing Company

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: January 2012

Date Modified: February 2016

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.