Aircraft pioneer Stearman now Kansas legend

This article originally appeared in the The Wichita Eagle on December 17, 1984.

By Jack McNeely

The Wichita Eagle

Lloyd StearmanAt the Lockheed Corp.’s headquarters in Burbank, Calif., they still

remember the story about the middle-aged man who walked in one day in June

1955 to apply for work.

The man filled out an employment form and left. When an employment executive

glanced at the form later, he was startled. He grabbed a telephone and called

Hall L. Hibbard, Lockheed’s senior vice president.

Ten years later, Hibbard recalled the phone conversation this way: “Hey, we

got some kind of a nut here who says he knows you,” the employment executive

told Hibbard. “He says he also knows just about everybody on the board of


“And get this, where the application asks about previous employment at

Lockheed, the guy writes down: president.”

Hibbard gasped. “That’s no nut,” he said. “That can’t be anyone but Lloyd


Hibbard was right, of course, and he certainly did know Lloyd Stearman.

In 1928, when Hibbard was 25 and fresh out of the Massachusetts Institute of

Technology, Stearman gave him his first job, as a draftsman and engineer at

Stearman’s aircraft factory in Wichita. And Stearman gave him two other jobs

during the ’30s, too – the last one when Stearman took over the defunct

Lockheed Aircraft Corp.

So, in 1955, when Stearman applied for work at Lockheed, the company jumped

at the chance to hire him.

Stearman, after all, was a remarkable aircraft designer, father of some of

the best airplanes that ever flew. He was one of those aviation legends from

the Kansas prairie, a man who had an almost intuitive grasp of aerodynamics

before anyone knew there was such a thing as aerodynamics.

The factory that Stearman left in Wichita when he moved to California in

1931 bore his name until the 1940s. Today it is the Boeing Military Airplane

Co., Wichita’s largest employer.

Lloyd Carlton Stearman was born in Wellsford, Kan., on Oct. 26, 1898. He

went to high school in Harper, class of 1917, where he met the woman who was

to become his wife.

As one of nine sons of a draftsman, Stearman was studying architecture at

Kansas State Agricultural College in Manhattan – now Kansas State University –

when in 1918 he left college to become a Navy pilot.

World War I ended before Stearman saw combat, and he returned to Kansas.

In 1920, Stearman answered a newspaper advertisement placed by E.M. “Matty”

Laird, and Laird hired him as a mechanic in the fledgling Laird Aircraft Co.,

manufacturer of the Swallow, the country’s first commercial airplane.

Stearman showed an immediate aptitude for working with aircraft; he was

promoted to foreman and then engineer. In 1923, when Laird left and the

company was renamed the Swallow Airplane Manufacturing Co. under Laird’s

former partner, Jake Moellendick, Stearman became chief engineer, working

alongside Walter Beech, who was a test pilot and salesman.

The next year, at the age of 25, Stearman designed his first airplane,

called the New Swallow. Beech flew it at the National Air Races at Dayton,

Ohio, where it was crowned the nation’s best-performing commercial airplane.

By the end of 1924, Stearman and Beech wanted to redesign their aircraft to

make the fuselage of welded steel tubing instead of wood, but Moellendick

resisted. Convinced that the future of aircraft lay in metal construction,

Stearman and Beech sought out Clyde Cessna, who had bought one of Stearman’s

New Swallows.

With Cessna providing most of the money, the three formed Travel Air

Manufacturing Co. in January 1925.

From the start, they wanted to build a commercial biplane for carrying air

mail with room for two paying passengers. First flown on March 13, 1925, the

Stearman-designed ship performed so well that orders came in faster than the

two a month that they were able to build.

By 1926, Travel Air was established as a leader in the manufacture of light

commercial aircraft, and the three young Kansans set out to build a craft that

would win the Ford Reliability Tour, a performance competition that attracted

the best aircraft in the country.

The tour was a two-week-long competition in which pilots flew from city to

city throughout the Midwest. By the time it arrived in Wichita, on Aug. 13,

1926, Beech was so far ahead of the competition in the judging that only a

serious breakdown could cost him victory – and his Stearman-designed Travel

Air showed no signs of breaking down.

Heralded by daily banner headlines in the Wichita Daily Eagle, the arrival

of the Reliability Tour in Wichita should have been Stearman’s finest hour.

Yet the hour of Stearman’s triumph became instead the hour of his life’s

greatest tragedy.

With Beech having won the Wichita leg of the Reliability Tour, Stearman took

up a Travel Air and was performing stunts for the thousands of spectators, a

practice that was common at each stop.

When Stearman brought his plane down, he taxied along a roadway that served

as a runway. Unknown to Stearman, one of Wichita’s wealthiest and most

prominent citizens, George Theis Jr., 64-year-old president of the Arkansas

Valley Interurban Co., had parked his car on the runway to watch the flying.

Theis’ wife and two children saw Stearman’s taxiing aircraft and moved out

of the way. But Theis didn’t see it, and Stearman’s attention was focused


When Stearman felt the left side of his aircraft hit something, he shut down

his engine and noticed that his left wing had hit Theis’ parked car.

But the propeller had hit Theis, killing him instantly. His wife collapsed

in shock.

Stearman, too, was overcome, according to the next day’s newspaper account:

“When told he had killed a man, he collapsed and had to be lifted from the


Beech went on to win the Reliability Tour in Stearman’s aircraft. But

Stearman’s name virtually dropped from public mention.

In October 1926, Stearman moved his wife, Ethyl, and their two young

children to California where he formed the Stearman Aircraft Co.

This company’s experience showed a pattern that was to follow Stearman all

his working life.

All Stearman ever wanted to do was build and fly airplanes. But he

continually was called upon to manage companies to market his airplanes, and

Stearman had no interest and little aptitude for running the businesses.

Thus, while Stearman consistently designed hugely successful aircraft, the

succession of companies he formed to market the aircraft were unable to show


Underfinanced from the start, the Stearman Airplane Co. was on the verge of

collapse after a year.

Wichita businessman Walter Innes Jr., long a key player in raising capital

for the city’s new aircraft industry, raised $60,000 and persuaded Stearman to

move his company back to Wichita.

This Stearman did, in 1927, setting up shop in an old machine plant east of

Broadway at about 35th Street North, where the Coleman Co.’s north plant is


L.M. Divinia of Wichita, now 82, went to work for Stearman in 1928 and

remembers him this way: “Lloyd liked to build them. When it came to business,

he just didn’t like it.”

In August 1929, just before the stock market crash, Stearman and other

stockholders of Stearman Aircraft sold the company to a conglomerate called

United Aircraft and Transport Corp. in a stock swap that, on paper, gave the

Wichita stockholders a huge profit.

But the stock market crashed before the Stearman investors even received

their United shares, and Stearman was left with little more than his job.

Stearman stayed on at the Wichita factory, remaining president of Stearman

Aircraft until Dec. 15, 1930.

When Stearman finally resigned as a company director and left Kansas for

good in June 1931 for California, he left behind his last biplane design.

This was the Stearman Model 6, designed as a primary trainer for the Navy.

The Navy didn’t buy any of them, because of a lack of funding, but the Army

bought six in 1931, dubbing the plane the Army YPT-9.

This plane, modified by a team of engineers after Stearman left, was the

prototype for the thousands of Stearman primary trainers produced in Wichita

to train World War II Army and Navy pilots.