Dreamers fuel Kansas' legacy of flight

09/18/2011 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:05 AM

During World War II, the popular song "Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer" told the story of an aircraft and crew struggling to come home.

"Though there's one motor gone

We can still carry on

Comin' in on a wing and a prayer."

In some ways, it is the story and ongoing theme in a century of stories about Kansas aviation.

There have been struggles.

Comebacks.

And triumphs.

The theme often revolves around regular people, farmers and mechanics, who tinkered for years in garages, putting engine parts this way and that and, in eureka moments, innovating great flying machines.

Aviation historian Richard Harris wrote in a 2002 article "Planes on the Plains" that Wichita "has probably been the starting point for more of the world's aircraft than any other city on Earth ... Just over a quarter-million people live here — yet well over a quarter of a million aircraft have started their existence here:

"Biplanes, race planes, stunt planes and personal puddle-jumpers. Nimble light twins and grand, cabin-class executive turboprops. Airliners and strategic bombers — with propellers and with jet engines. Gliders, ultralights and powered parachutes. Military trainers — with props, turboprops and jet engines. Helicopters. Sleek, sexy business jets ... Spyplanes. Jet fighter-bombers. And yes, even Air Force One."

More than 40 percent of general aviation aircraft are made in Wichita. The industry in 2011 employs more than 10 percent of the work force in the Wichita area.

After a century of Kansas-made airplanes, the industry is still a major player — but it has had some heart-stopping moments.

The first flight

The first flight in Kansas in a Kansas-made plane defied the odds.

It began without fanfare in a field near Topeka near dark, reportedly so fewer people would see the outcome.

It was Sept. 2, 1911, when Albin Longren flew a biplane he and his brother, E.J., had built themselves. Neither had flown a plane before or received instructions.

The brothers were mechanics and car salesmen from Clay Center. They had been inspired after seeing an air show in 1910.

So they built a 39-foot plane with their own vision and ingenuity in a downtown Topeka building.

When it was completed, Albin Longren manned the controls in a brief test flight southeast of Topeka.

Nine days later, Longren flew the plane again — this time over Topeka. He flew 15 miles at an altitude of 1,000 feet and in daylight when plenty of people could observe the results.

Following the success of his flights, Longren went on to become one of the nation's first aircraft manufacturers.

He would barnstorm throughout the Midwest, making 1,372 exhibition flights from 1911 to 1914 without a major mishap.

It was a remarkable feat considering other early aviation giants were still discovering their wings.

Why Kansas?

Kansans sometimes have the audacity to dream big.

It doesn't matter that they can also fail big.

In 1908, Henry Call built eight planes with the Aerial Navigation Co. of Girard. Six never flew. One flew for a mile before crashing. Call would later declare bankruptcy.

In Jetmore, blacksmith A.E. Hunt built an airplane out of pipe and angle iron. It remained firmly on the ground.

Wichita's claim as Air Capital of the World began when Clyde Cessna, a Kingman County farmer with no formal training in engineering or flying, flew his first plane, the Silverwing, in May 1911.

Cessna's flight isn't counted as a Kansas first because it happened over Oklahoma.

Even Cessna had his share of struggles before success. His first 12 flights ended in crashes.

Undaunted, Cessna would continue his fascination with planes and during the winter of 1916-17 built the first plane in Wichita.

The early plane builders were able to succeed because Wichita leaders were looking for industries to boost the city's economy, said Ted Bates, a Boeing engineer who has lived in Wichita for more than three decades. He has worked on B-52s, KC-135 and KC-10 tankers, E4Bs, Comanche helicopters, Air Force One and NASA's space shuttle.

A new industry and Wichitans eager to invest in it merged at the right time in the right place, Bates said.

"It goes clear back to 1872 when Wichita almost missed out on the railroad," Bates said. "City leaders were sensitized to the fact that they would not be on the map because in those days if you did not have a railroad, you were not on the map."

At the turn of the 20th century, city business and civic leaders formed booster groups and traveled the nation spreading the word what a great city Wichita was to live and work in.

"By the 1920s, you have all these booster groups trying all kinds of things to make things happen," Bates said. "Wichita was a happening place. And when they began to push aviation, it became the capital of aviation."

In the early days of aviation, the corporate heads of would-be companies often started out as barnstormers, traveling from town to town selling rides and performing stunts, nurturing in others a desire to fly.

Walter Beech, a Tennessee farm boy, was a World War I pilot and a post-war barnstormer and salesman. After he left Swallow Airplane Manufacturing Co. in 1925, he founded Travel Air with the aim of crafting the finest-built airplanes in the world.

Lloyd Stearman grew up in Harper, then learned to fly in the Navy. He worked at Swallow, then joined Beech and Cessna to create Travel Air.

Later, his Stearman Aircraft Co. would lay the foundation for Boeing Wichita. Using plans adopted from Stearman, Boeing built thousands of training planes in Wichita through World War II.

"In Kansas, you had a confluence of people with the same interests," said Kansas historian Dave Webb. "Especially in the early days of aviation, it was a time when — if you had enough curiosity and brains — you could build your own plane or car."

How did a town on the Kansas plains become a world center of aviation innovation and dependability? Why is it that even today nearly half of general aviation planes flying are made by Wichitans?

The nation and even some Wichitans have asked this question through the decades.

"How is it . . . that this comparatively small mid-plains city ranks alongside of New York, Detroit or Los Angeles in the manufacture of the world's newest vehicle of transportation?" writer John Nevill wrote in "Aviation Editor" in 1930.

He answered his own question with a long list of reasons that included topography, geography, climate, air-mindedness, money and "go getterism."

The audacity to dream begins first with wide open spaces, says Virgil Dean, historian at the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka.

Picture Kansas a century ago, before road maps were common, before highways were numbered. What roads did exist were, at best, dusty or, at worst, mud traps.

Aviation offered hope for better travel.

"You put all these things together along with the resourcefulness, inventiveness and courage of the Old West," Harris said, and it is the beginnings of Kansas' legacy in aviation.

The legacy was nurtured by local leaders and businessmen, most notably wealthy El Dorado oilman Jake Moellendick.

Moellendick's money bankrolled the Wichita Airplane Co. beginning in summer 1919. Shortly after, the company faltered.

In late 1919, Moellendick hired a barnstorming pilot from Oklahoma, William "Billie'' Burke, to reorganize and manage the company.

Burke persuaded E.M.''Matty'' Laird of Chicago to move his company to Wichita. Laird, Moellendick and Burke formed a partnership in the E.M. Laird Airplane Co.

Aviation giants

Once people throughout the world saw Wichita planes setting records, the industry snowballed.

Case in point: In the mid-1920s, when Charles Lindbergh was preparing to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, he came first to Wichita in search of a plane.

Kansas was not an unknown entity — even then.

Before he became Lucky Lindy, Charles Lindbergh lived in Bird City.

He barnstormed in the far-northwest Kansas farm town during the summer of 1922 and was known as "The Daredevil" because of his wing-walking feats and parachute jumps.

In Wichita, he was friends with Eagle publisher and aviation enthusiast Marcellus Murdock, who introduced Lindbergh to Beech when Lindbergh was looking for a special plane to fly long distances.

But Lindbergh was an unknown. Beech was already producing a line of successful Travel Airs. He didn't want to stop to work on a special plane.

So Lindbergh sought help elsewhere. Although the glory of backing his flight went to St. Louis, a lot of the business generated by it came to Wichita. Aircraft industry stock rose along with the public's interest in flying.

In 1928, Wichita earned the title Air Capital of the United States from the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce by producing more planes than any other community: 927. The state of New York took second with 875.

By the 1930s, nearly a quarter of all private planes in the world were made in the Wichita area.

During World War II, Kansas City and Wichita became powerhouses in supplying the nation with planes.

Kansas City-area aviation plants included the nation's main B-25 bomber factory and a GM plant that produced Allison engines, which powered U.S. fighter planes.

Wichita's Boeing, Beech and Cessna plants built trainers, gliders and B-29s.

Following the war, the emphasis switched from military to business and personal aircraft.

"The thing about aviation in Kansas is that we have people who were and are willing to invest in it," said Jay Price, director of the public history program at Wichita State University. "Without Jake Moellendick and others — and a marketing strategy — could there have been such a thing as an air capital?

"The word 'capital' implies this is where the decision-making processes are. Certainly, Seattle is a larger community but given the size of Wichita, we have significant influence."

Still a place to dream

Even now, the Wichita legacy of flight tempts dreamers.

Look up in the sky at any given moment in Wichita and planes — of all shapes and models — fill the sky. Some are factory built; others, crafted from hand and built in garages in the Wichita area.

"We are ripe with aviation enthusiasm," said Paul Fiebich, president of the Experimental Aircraft Association. "Because there is so much of the aviation industry and associated industries here, I think it provides a tremendous resource and camaraderie for others to fly."

Fiebich said building a plane can take years and difficult problems arise frequently. That's not an issue in Wichita.

"All you have to do is put out the call and someone will know how to help," he said. "In our chapter we have at least 20 people building airplanes in some stage."

By day, Alan Lowe is a designer of recreational vehicle products. In his spare time, he's building a plane.

"There's quite a few people around here who... build planes and fly them," he said. "I was just inspired by what other people have done. I think every boy dreams of flying. I'm just trying to fulfill that dream."

For 40 years, Don Stovall of Burden dreamed of building his own plane. Now, at age 83, he's putting the finishing touches on a plane he built himself.

"I started out farming, then went into carpentry, doing little odd jobs," Stovall said. "When I was 55, I took a course in air conditioning and heating and learned the schematics of washers and dryers. I just never said no to anything."

So, 12 years ago when his wife died and he was facing a knee replacement operation, he began building a plane.

"I had to have something to keep me from going slap-dap crazy," he said. "I live upstairs and have a shop below, so if I woke up at 3 a.m., I'd work for a while until I got tired, then go back to sleep. It was just a labor of love."

There is a memorial plaque in Kansas City's Legends shopping area highlighting the career of Wichitan Dave Blanton. He is credited with helping develop the single axis autopilot and KC-135 flying boom. His dad, Ralph, owned a biplane.

Now, his sons, Bob and Dave, fly airplanes and gliders. Bob's grandson, Robie Grabendike, 15, soloed his first glider last October and is working on getting his own pilot's license.

"I think it is all about the freedom to fly," Bob Blanton said. "It's about the perspective that you get on life and the world when you get up to a certain altitude.

"Things look different. There's an attraction to it."

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