Re-created Swallow honors Wichita's aviation legacy

It's a dull silver plane that looks like the 43 others when they first rolled off the assembly line 90 years ago.

It was known as the Air Tractor and then quickly renamed Laird's Swallow because of its gracefulness and quick agility in the sky.

But it will always be Wichita's legacy in flight — the very first airplane produced in Wichita.

A major exhibit celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Laird Swallow opened Thursday at the Kansas Aviation Museum.

"These were the planes first built — the planes first built en masse, duplicated and sold in Wichita," said Lon Smith, director of the museum.

None of the 43 planes first produced in 1920 are known to exist.

"We still may some day find one in a hayloft — but to date, none exist," Smith said.

The plane on display at the aviation museum was re-created by volunteers who began working in 1991 with 12 brackets from a fuselage.

Smith said it was volunteer Wichita aviation buffs who measured the brackets against photographs to re-create scale drawings on the first Swallow plane.

It took them until 2003 to get the drawings right.

The past seven years, they have been building the plane piece by piece, part by part.

"We now have a fully complete 1920 Laird Swallow," Smith said. "It is a beautiful plane."

But Wichita's aviation legacy began a few years earlier.

It started with Clyde Cessna, a Kingman County farmer who, with no formal training in engineering, built the first plane in Wichita during the winter of 1916-17.

The legacy was nurtured by local leaders and, most notably, by 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.

No one knows for sure why Moellendick first began pouring his money into Wichita aviation. It may have been because he needed to get quickly from one oil well to another. It may be because local pilots convinced him airplanes were the next big thing in technology.

Whatever the case, he poured his heart and soul into making Wichita the Air Capital. His money brought the talent — men like Cessna, Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman. His money financed the planes.

Moellendick created a virtual think tank of aviation giants.

Together, they would build the Swallow.

Laird designed a plane that resembled the Jenny and utilized the OX-5 engine as the Jenny did.

On April 8, 1920, the company tested the plane for the first time.

Local hotelier William Lassen watched the test flight and reportedly said, "It flies like a swallow."

The Kansas Aviation Museum, 3350 S. George Washington Blvd., is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for adults 60 years and older and $6 for children 4 to 12 years old.