Wichita had chance for Lindbergh fame

This article originally appeared in the Eagle on Monday, January 7, 1985.

By Jean Hays
The Wichita Eagle

Wichita, known as the center of aviation by the late 1920s, missed its

chance to be part of the most publicized flight in history. When a shy 25-

year-old airmail pilot named Charles A. Lindbergh wanted to fly solo nonstop

across the Atlantic, he turned to Wichita to provide a plane and possibly


The Spirit of St. Louis could have been called the Spirit of Wichita.

Instead, Ryan Aviation of San Diego, Calif., got the credit for building the

plane. Businessmen in St. Louis received credit for providing the $13,000.

Wichita is left with a legend of what could have been.

The first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic was an important step

in aviation. It proved that airplanes could provide reliable long distance


Inspired by a promise of fame – and a $25,000 prize offered by Raymond

Orteig for the first nonstop flight between Paris and New York – every pilot

talked of making the flight.

Lindbergh, who was known only among a small circle of airmail pilots, was

considered the dark horse in the race across the Atlantic.

“I just thought of him as another pilot,” said Neuman Wadlow of Tulsa, a

former test pilot for the Wichita aviation firm Travel Air. “I didn’t think

anything special about what he was trying to do. They were doing a lot of

stuff like that in those days.”

Airplane manufacturers, trying to gain the public’s trust in a fledgling

industry, were apprehensive about the bad publicity they might receive if the

plane failed during such a well-publicized flight. Their fears were well-


For example, in 1919, two British fliers, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten

Brown, flew the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Ireland – the first nonstop

trans-Atlantic flight. They survived, although they crash-landed in a bog in


Six pilots died trying for the Orteig prize.

Lindbergh, whose stunts such as wing walking and hanging from a wing by

his teeth earned him the nickname Daredevil Lindbergh, felt he had an

advantage. First, the 3,600 mile flight across the Atlantic was estimated to

take about 40 hours, which meant flying at night. As an airmail pilot,

Lindbergh often flew at night. He had to bail out so many times, the other

pilots nicknamed him “Lucky.”

“I remember he bailed out of three airplanes, and they about fired him

for it,” recalled Wadlow. “Whenever he got in a jam, it was to heck with the


Everyone else had attempted the flight with a full crew in a multi-engine

plane. Lindbergh planned to solo in a single-engine plane, reasoning that

three engines tripled the chance of engine failure. Flying alone also meant a

lighter plane and more room to carry extra fuel.

Not everyone shared his confidence.

“Everyone thought it was impossible – the plane wouldn’t make it. He

wouldn’t stay awake long enough,” recalled Deed Levy, 77, of Springfield, Mo.,

who worked with Lindbergh at Lambert Field in St. Louis in 1925.

Lindbergh had no doubt he could make it from New York to Paris if he could

find the right plane and the money to buy the plane.

He felt his best bet was the Wright Bellanca, designed by Giuseppe

Bellanca and manufactured by the Wright Aeronautical Corp. Wright was

negotiating to sell the manufacturing rights for the plane to the Huff-Daland

Co. Huff-Daland refused to sell the airplane for a trans-Atlantic flight.

Then Bellanca bought his plane from Wright and joined the Columbia

Aircraft Corp. That company consented to sell the plane, if it could choose

the crew to pilot it.

Lindbergh’s second choice was a plane similar to the Wright Bellanca,

manufactured by Travel Air, the Wichita company founded by Walter Beech, Clyde

Cessna and Lloyd Stearman. By 1926, Cessna and Stearman had both started their

own aviation companies and Beech was in charge of Travel Air.

The national Air Transport pilots had been talking about the Travel Air

plane all winter, Lindbergh wrote in his book, “The Spirit of St. Louis.”

Harold Bixby, a St. Louis banker who eventually provided funding for

Lindbergh’s flight, had purchased a Travel Air, which he kept at Lambert

Field. After the banker began flying, Harry Knight, a broker, and Earl

Thompson, an insurance executive, also began taking lessons. The trio provided

the $13,000 for Lindbergh’s flight.

Lindbergh’s third choice was Ryan Aviation, a new and unknown company in

San Diego, Calif. Ryan was building a high-wing monoplane that was lighter

than the Travel Air.

Since Wichita was closer to St. Louis, Lindbergh decided to try Travel Air

first. Lindbergh also had an acquaintance in Wichita, Marcellus Murdock, the

publisher of the Wichita Eagle and an aviation buff.

“He asked Marcellus Murdock, who put him in contact with Walter Beech,

who said there was no way a single engine plane could make it,” said Britt

Brown, Murdock’s nephew. “He went to San Diego. Ryan said yes.”

Some believe Lindbergh may have asked Murdock to help with funding or

asked Travel Air to donate part of the cost of the plane.

“I can’t say if it was true or untrue,” Brown continued. “(Murdock) was

in no financial position to fund the flight. My understanding of what he did

was to come to Wichita to get a Beech. He thought that would be the best bird.

He wanted Walter Beech to donate the bird.”

Lindbergh also contacted Walter Innes Jr., a Wichita businessman who

frequently raised money for Wichita’s aircraft industry, before the trans-

Atlantic flight.

“They talked about his flight,” said Betty, Walter Innes’ widow. “I don’t

know anything more than that.”

In February 1927, Lindbergh sent a telegram to Beech. The telegram, which

was printed in The Wichita Morning Eagle on May 21, 1927, the day that

Lindbergh landed in Paris, read: “New York to Paris flight under

consideration. Requires whirlwind plane capable of 45 hours flight with pilot

only. If you can deliver state price and earnest delivery date. C.A.


In a brief article, the Eagle said Beech did not accept the offer to build

the plane because the large volume of business “was keeping workmen busy night

and day to complete orders given months ago.” If Murdock had turned down a

chance to be part of the historic flight, it went unmentioned by the Eagle.

Lindbergh wrote about the rejection by Travel Air in the “The Spirit of St.

Louis”: “The speed and definiteness with which they’ve turn me down is

depressing. I expected at least some interest on their part.”

©The Wichita Eagle