Many a Wichita aircraft firm crashed during the depression

This article originally appeared in the Eagle on Monday, January 28, 1985.

By Stan Finger
The Wichita Eagle

The warning signs began appearing during the summer of 1929.

Just a few months after posting an all-time record in airplane sales,

Travel Air – the undisputed king of Wichita aircraft manufacturers at the time

– was forced to lay off workers because of a sales slump.

There was a lot of belt-tightening going on as aircraft companies in

Wichita responded to a lull in the sales market. But everyone in the business,

from the largest firms to the tiniest of aircraft manufacturers, was convinced

that the boom days of the ’20s would return.

The boom they got instead – the shock waves from the stock market crash

that October and the Depression that followed – nearly wiped out the aviation

industry in a city that already was touting itself as the air capital of the


“They didn’t pay attention to the signals, and they were there,” said

Ed Phillips, author of “Travel Air: Wings Over the Prairie” and a Beech

historian. “Sales had begun dropping even that summer. But most of them, they

were still in a producing euphoria. They had no intention of slowing down.

They continued to go full bore, even though people were already beginning to

get cautious.”

The stock market crash that began on Black Thursday, Oct. 24, 1929,

didn’t take long to be felt halfway across the country.

Within a week, aircraft companies in Wichita began feeling the squeeze,

and by early 1931, a city that at one time boasted as many as 29 aircraft

manufacturers had barely a handful still operating. The relatively small but

thriving plane manufacturing centers became industrial graveyards almost


“Lord, there was vacant buildings everywhere,” said Clyde Belden, who

was a welder for various Wichita aircraft companies during the Depression.

The small companies were the first to go. More than a dozen of the

aircraft companies in Wichita at the time of the crash were the products of

men with money who wanted to be a part of the exhilarating world of aviation.

“For men who had a lot of money to spend, aviation was the thing to get

into,” said Walt House, president of the Wichita Aeronautical Historical

Association. “Most of them didn’t have money for long.”

Mildred Burnham remembers the lure aviation had for moneyed men of the

era. Her father, C.V. Snyder, helped finance a pair of companies. Neither one

of them, Yunker and Knoll, ever really got off the ground, and they took

Snyder’s fortune down the drain with them.

“They thought that aircraft was the coming thing,” said Burnham, who

lives in Wichita. “I can remember the enthusiasm they had. I think he was just

like all the rest of them. They just didn’t want to give up. They were in it,

and they had to stay in it.”

There were various reasons why names like Yunker, Bowlby, Imblum or

Gessell never became household names, House said. Most of the aircraft

companies never built more than a handful of planes. And some existed only on

paper. What it boiled down to, House said, was that most of these firms had

neither the money nor the product to survive.

Some firms’ purse strings were so tight that one plane crash could

literally wreck the company. The Hilton Aircraft Co. went bankrupt when its

one plane spun into the ground while performing for a Sunday afternoon crowd

in February 1930.

It wasn’t from a lack of effort that some of the companies went under. A

company would try almost anything to spur sales. Al Mooney remembers flying a

plane from Burbank, Calif. to Fort Wayne, Ind. to drum up business for his

Wichita-based Mooney Aircraft Co.

“That’s a helluva long ways,” said Mooney, who now lives in Texas. “We

were trying to make enough noise to scare up some more money to keep going. We

would have been successful, too, except for the fact that some

. . . newspapers got a hold of it and made a big noise about it being a do-

or- die attempt from Burbank to New York.

“The engine pooped out on me just beyond Fort Wayne, and I had to land

in a field, and the newspapers and radio called it a failure. That ruined us.

We kept it goin’ for a little while, but not long after that.”

The crash didn’t spare the Big Four of 1920s Wichita aviation: Travel

Air, Cessna, Stearman and Swallow.

An incredible stroke of good fortune helped Walter Beech escape financial

ruin in the bleak days of October. That August, he had sold controlling

interest of Travel Air to the Curtiss-Wright Corporation of St. Louis. But one

of the best-known instances of good timing in the business resulted from luck,

not insight into the nightmare to come.

“They realized that the market was getting unstable, but that is not the

reason he sold out to Curtiss-Wright,” Ed Phillips said. “He needed the money

to keep expanding.”

But the expansion plans were not completed before the October crash, and

Beech was spared.

The other large companies were not as fortunate. Within a week of the

stock market collapse, the flying school that had contracted all of Cessna’s

production folded. The bottom fell out at Cessna, and on Jan. 31, 1931, the

plant doors were padlocked.

Bob Phelps still remembers the day he put the locks on the plant.

“That big building was just setting there, empty,” Phelps said. “I laid

off 300 people there in one day, just lowered the boom on them. I was feeling

pretty low that day. Everybody was.”

About 1,000 people lost their jobs as the aircraft plants closed their

doors one after the other, most of them from Travel Air and Cessna. But the

city, then sporting a population of 114,000, hardly blinked at news of the


The city’s relative indifference to the plight of the aviation industry

during the depression would change in coming years, but during the 1930s word

of a business closing down wasn’t unusual. All over the city, in all types of

businesses, workers were losing jobs and leaving town to find new ones.

Between 1930 and 1935, more than 11,000 people left Wichita in search of

better conditions.

Most people, however, couldn’t afford to leave. Clyde Cessna and his son,

Eldon, rented out space in an abandoned Travel Air plant – which was closed

down in 1930 – and scraped out a living by building speed planes and entering

them in races around the country.

Cessna also kept afloat by renting out its plant to whoever could pay

money to use it. A pair of fledgling aircraft companies rented plant space in

1932. One of them, called the Straughan Aircraft Co. built only a few planes

before being purchased by an Oklahoma City firm and fading into history.

But the other firm stuck around. Beech Aircraft Corporation, formed by

Walter Beech in April of 1932, was destined to become a landmark in the

aviation industry. In opening his company, Beech was defying incredible odds.

The year Beech Aircraft opened its doors, there were less than 600 commercial

aircraft built in the United States – a figure Travel Air could top all by

itself in six months during the peak days of the late ’20s.

But the dogged Beech remained, and the Beech Model 17 “Staggerwing”

biplane he would introduce later that year would carry the company through the

depths of the Depression.

Cessna, too, would eventually rebound. Eldon Cessna and an aeronautical

engineering graduate fresh from the University of Wichita named Dwane Wallace

spearheaded a drive that acquired enough proxy votes to re-open the Cessna

plant on Jan. 10, 1934.

It would be late 1934 before the aircraft economy would begin stirring

again, thanks in large part to government contracts. Contracts awarded that

year by the military would save Stearman Aircraft, which had avoided shutting

its doors by paring its staff to a handful of employees that did little more

than keep an eye on the plant grounds.

Wichita airplane and engine companies of 1926-1934

Excluding -Swallow, Travel Air, Stearman, Cessna and Beech)

Firm name Year Formed Year Folded
Ace Aircraft Manufacturing Corp.
1016 S. Santa Fe
1929 1930
Associated Aircraft Corp.
821 Central Building
1929 1929
Air Capital Manufacturing Co.
1929 1929
Beach Aviation Co.
1927 1928
Blue Streak (Motors),
529 W. Douglas
1929 1931
Bowlby Airplane Co.
South Market
1929 1929
Braley Aircraft Co.
6400 Franklin Road
1929 1931
Buckley Aircraft Co.
6628 E. Central
1929 1930
Continental Aircraft Co.
704 E. Douglas
1929 1929
Geselle Aircraft Co.
First and Hydraulic
1927 1927
Hilton Aircraft Co.
621 W. Douglas
1929 1930
Wichita Imblum Aero Corp.
Wichita and Lewis
1929 1929
Jayhawk Aircraft Co.
915 E. Lincoln
1929 1930
Knoll Aircraft Co.
471 W. First
1928 1929
Laird Aircraft Co.
471 W. First
1928 1928
Lark Aircraft Co.
217 E. Lincoln
1928 1928
Lea Aircraft Co.
1930 1930
Lear Aircraft Co.
1929 1930
Metal Aircraft Corp.
1929 1929
Miller Aircraft,
1927 1927
Mooney Aircraft Co.
600 E. 35th N.
1929 1930
C.M. Mulkins Co.
1929 1929
Okay Airplane Co.
1929 1929
Poyer Motor Co.
840 N. Main
1929 1929
Quick Air Motors,
South Oliver
1928 1929
Roydon Aircraft Co.
33rd and North Lawrence
1930 1930
Red Bird Aircraft Co.
31st and Oliver
1929 1929
Rawdon-Burnham Co.
6628 E. Central
1931 1931
Shilberg Aeroplane Co.
1928 1928
Self Aircraft Corp.
Lewis and Wichita
1929 1929
Steamboat Aircraft Corp.
1928 1928
Straughan Aircraft Corp.
Pawnee and Woodlawn
1932 1933
Swift Aircraft Corp.
33rd and N. Lawrence
and 31st
and S.Oliver
1927 1929
Sullivan Aircraft Manufacturing Corp.
630 E. Gilbert
1929 1930
Supreme/Stone Propeller Co.
1016 S. Santa Fe,
915 E. Lincoln
1929 1930
Vanos Aircraft Corp.
1929 1929
Wichita Airplane Manufacturing Co.
716 W. First
1929 1929
Watkins Aircraft Co.
2300 E. Douglas
1929 1930
Winstead Bros. Airplane Co.
East Central Airport
1926 1932
Yellow Air Cab Co.
621 W. Douglas
1929 1929
Yunker Aircraft Co.
115 N. Osage
1929 1930
Source: Walt House, Wichita Aeronautical Historical Association

©The Wichita Eagle