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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Boeing’s Wichita history dates to 1927

By Beccy Tanner
The Wichita Eagle

In Wichita’s 141 years of existence, there have been only 57 without a Boeing connection.

And quite frankly, the 85 years it has been in Wichita have often been tumultuous.

Boeing’s Wichita division began when Kansas native Lloyd Stearman moved his Stearman Aircraft Co. to the city in 1927. Stearman had worked for some of Wichita’s pioneering aviation companies, such as E.M. Laird Airplane Co., Swallow Aircraft Manufacturing Co. and Travel Air Manufacturing Co.

In 1929, Stearman’s company was almost a victim of the stock market crash. But it was saved when it and Boeing Airplane Co. in Seattle became part of United Aircraft and Transport Co.

The company was almost lost again in the 1930s.

In 1934, United Aircraft and Transport was broken apart by federal antitrust efforts. Boeing Co. was one of the businesses spun off, and Stearman – which built airmail planes at the time – was absorbed into it.

Corporate officials later wanted to shut the Wichita operation down, but city officials persuaded them to keep it going by winning a military contract to produce Kaydet biplane trainers. The fabric-covered aircraft eventually came to be known as the planes that built Wichita.

In 1935, when a Boeing XC-17 experimental bomber crashed, a group of representatives from some of the nation’s top financial institutions and banks met in Seattle to discuss the fate of the Boeing Co.

One by one they pulled out, except one.

Arthur Kinkaid, of Wichita’s Fourth National Bank, believed in Boeing. The bank assumed the entire loan to keep the company in business – and in Wichita.

In the good times, Wichita flourished with Boeing. During World War II there was such an influx of aircraft workers in Wichita that neighborhoods such as Planeview and Hilltop were built to house them. Cheney Reservoir was built to provide water to the thousands who came to Wichita to work for Boeing.

The Wichita-built Boeing line of trainers and the B-29 Superfortress pushed the Wichita factory into the national forefront of military activity.

The Wichita plant also produced the B-47 Stratojet and the B-52 Stratofortress bombers as well as the Waco CG-4 glider – used in the invasion of Normandy.

It helped that the head of the Wichita plant from the 1930s into the 1950s was Wichita native Earl Schaefer, a friend of Dwight Eisenhower and other national military and political leaders.

The war and the accompanying military contracts with Boeing and other Wichita aircraft plants turned the city into one of the nation’s busiest military production centers.

By 1944, there were 55,000 war workers in the Wichita area.

After World War II, the company gradually turned to commercial support work. In 1969, Boeing Wichita was responsible for engineering work on the KC-135 aerial refueling aircraft.

And, in 1973, it began designing and producing nacelles and struts.

In the early 1990s, the Boeing Wichita division made news by producing two modified 747s to serve as Air Force One.

“I don’t have mixed emotions, I just am sad of what it means to this town,” said Bill Ellington, who worked for 20 years as an illustrator at Boeing in Wichita and then became Wichita’s city historian. He retired from that position in 1995.

“I suppose the inevitable has happened. All things must come to an end, but it’s quite a shock.”

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