This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad Astra per aspera: “To the stars through difficulties.”
There were others who flew machines and balloons over Kansas long before Albin Longren. But the Kansas native has the distinction of being the first to successfully fly a Kansas-made aircraft over Kansas land. He did it by guess and by chance. It was Sept. 2, 1911, when he flew a bi-plane 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’d been inspired after seeing an air show in 1910. So they built a 39-foot plane with their own vision and ingenuity — part by part — in a downtown Topeka building.
When it was completed, Albin Longren manned the controls in a brief test flight southeast of Topeka.
He later wrote in his journal:
“The plane was also an unknown quantity, because its balance and airworthiness was a big question.”
Nine days later, Longren flew the plane again — this time over Topeka, flying 15 miles at an altitude of 1,000 feet.
During the early part of the 20th century, Longren barnstormed 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 discovering their wings at the same time.
For instance, in 1911, Clyde Cessna was also learning to fly. His first 12 flights ended in 12 crashes.
Cessna was a Kingman County farmer who, with no formal training in engineering or flying, built the first plane in Wichita during the winter of 1916-17.
These were men who took planes apart and put them back together and who risked everything by flying the planes themselves.
In the 1920s, Longren began to channel his interest in barnstorming to aircraft design and construction.
He designed a plane that featured folding wings, which allowed it to be towed on public roads and stored in garages.
His wife, Dolly, helped promote the plane with the motto: “Watch it climb, see it fly, you’ll own a Longren by and by.”
In 1924, the U.S. Navy expressed some interest in the plane and bought three, but the planes were never produced on a major basis. The Longren Aircraft Corp. in Topeka turned out only nine planes before it closed in 1926.
By then, Wichita had begun to surface as a major competitor in aircraft production. Longren later worked for several airplane manufacturers, including Cessna in Wichita. He died in 1950 and is buried in his hometown of Leonardville near Topeka. In 1997, Longren was inducted into the Kansas Aviation Hall of Fame.