100th Anniversary of Kansas Aviation

by Richard Harris

Sept. 2, 2011 was the 100th Anniversary of Kansas Aviation.

On this date in 1911, the first generally recognized, Kansas-built airplane flew, in Topeka, Kansas — piloted by Albin Kasper Longren. It would be the first of hundreds of thousands of Kansas-built aircraft to leap into the sky, and spread throughout the world — making Kansas the nation’s most prolific producer of airplanes. Dozens of additional aircraft manufacturers, across the decades, would set trends and spawn countless rivals and leaders in general, military and commercial aviation — and employ more Kansans than any other industry outside agriculture.

Albin Longren, a self-educated Topeka machinist and engineer, with the benefit of only correspondence courses in business and engineering — had big, big ideas. Kansas aviation historians Craig Miner and Frank Joseph Rowe, in their landmark book "Borne on the South Wind," report that Albin’s interest in building an airplane was first sparked by watching the failed test-hopping of a giant circus-tent-shaped "flying machine," crafted in futility by the Call Aircraft Co., in Girard, in southeast Kansas, in 1908. America’s first true cross-country flight — Glen Curtiss’ 150-mile flight, Albany, NY, to New York City, in 1910 — inspired him further.

With his brother "E.J." and a buddy, William Janicke, Albin built his first plane, "Topeka I" (later nicknamed "Dixie Flyer"), from scratch, imitating the trend-setting Curtiss Pusher design. On Saturday, Sept. 2, 1911, in the early evening darkness (to avoid being seen, should things go poorly) the men wheeled their precious new craft out onto a field. Albin, at the controls, fired it up confidently. Within seconds he was airborne — for a short hop — promptly followed by three more test flights, at distances up to a few miles.

Over the next few days, — with witnesses welcome — the feat was repeated time and again, with Longren (who had never flown ANY airplane before) supremely in control of his craft, soundly outperforming the duration and control of most first-time American aviators of the day.

Over the next few years, Longren’s company, first as the "Young Aircraft Co." then under Longren’s name, would go on to produce a modest number of aircraft – estimated between 15 and 50 — becoming one of the nation’s first aircraft manufacturers.

During, and immediately after, World War I, Longren served as an aviation craftsman for the military, eventually becoming the Chief Inspector for the Army’s aircraft-research headquarters at McCook Field, Dayton, Ohio (home to the Wright Brothers), according to Longren biographer Richard Taylor.

Following military service, Longren returned to Topeka, and resumed production of aircraft. However, financial challenges led to the dissolution of his business in 1924.

Alexander, Culver, Mooney related

In Longren’s bankruptcy, much of the company’s assets — including planes and factory equipment — were sold off to the Alexander family in Denver. They, with Longren’s former "engineer," Dan Noonan, started their Alexander Aircraft Co. mass-production with a Longren Flyer design, ultimately becoming (briefly, in 1928) the nation’s leading plane-maker (eclipsed the following year by Wichita’s Travel Air).

Alexander Aircraft’s prize alumnus would be none other than Al Mooney, who would later come to Wichita, not once, but 3 times, starting Mooney Aircraft here (ultimately one of the two top competitors to Wichita’s legendary Cessna & Beech), and also bring secretive Culver Aircraft to Wichita during World War II.

Expanding Influence

Longren’s own company workforce spawned an ever-branching tree of aviation-minded alumni — who started or shaped several planemakers in the Kansas City area — from American Eagle, to Porterfield, to Consolidated/Rearwin, to Luscombe. Longren, himself, went to work for Luscombe, developing the Luscombe Phantom, America’s first mass-produced aluminum-shell light plane, pioneering the future shape of general aviation airplane design for most the rest of the 20th century.

With its ample supply of airplane-building facilities and talent, sparked by Longren and his successors, Kansas City area aviation, in turn, spawned key World War II factories of North American Aviation (the nation’s main B-25 bomber factory) and a GM factory producing Allison engines which powered most U.S. fighters.

This center of aviation industry, revolving around Fairfax Airport, Kansas City, Kansas, would eventually become the global operating base of the world’s largest airline — originally Transcontinental & Western Air — ultimately just "TWA" – Trans-World Airlines, one of the most powerful influences in world aviation history.

Shaping the Future of Aircraft, Worldwide

Longren, himself, personally, contributed much more to world aviation — including the 1919 invention of America’s first composite-shell aircraft (the Longren AK Fibre Sport, a sleek, 2-seat, open-cockpit biplane, that managed 85mph on just 60 horsepower) — so far ahead of its time that it would ultimately be vindicated by the fact that its core distinguishing design concept is now THE "emerging" construction technique for new airplanes, today!

More influentially, Longren also invented essential machinery and techniques for the complex forming of sheet-metal into airplanes, using a process known as "stretch-forming". This, along with several other related aircraft-manufacturing techniques and ideas, is the subject of some of Longrens’ many patents.

In the late 1930s/early 1940s, Longren moved his business to Torrance, California, in the middle of the Southern California region where most major airplane makers were developing the latest technologies. A World War II newspaper clipping credits Longren’s technology as being used by the leading aircraft manufacturers of the time (Boeing, Douglas, Lockheed, etc.) Independent evaluators described Longren’s methods for shaping sheet metal into aircraft as decisively more efficient than the methods previously used.

No doubt, America’s massive production of aircraft for World War II was at least partly facilitated by the inventions and ideas of Albin K. Longren.

Shaping the Shakeout

In the mid/late-1930s, Longren became Vice President of Cessna Aircraft Co., trading to Cessna unlimited rights to use his ideas, technologies and patents, including Longren’s trend-setting ideas for efficiently shaping sheet metal into airplanes. Shortly thereafter, Cessna made its critical and decisive break with the past that put Cessna ahead of most general aviation competitors: its switch from old-fashioned, fabric-skinned, steel-framed airplanes, to sleek, light, modern, aluminum-shell airplanes — after acquiring technology developed by none other than Albin K. Longren.

In the late-1940s "shakeout" of general aviation, expertise with sheet-metal forming would be a decisive advantage for Kansas general aviation planemakers, over their rivals, nationwide (most of whom soon collapsed).

At that point, Cessna (followed closely by neighbor Beech), with its efficiently mass-produced, sleek, modern aluminum-shell planes, clearly began outdistancing all other competitors — soon becoming the world’s highest-volume producer of airplanes, a role it retains to this day.

Why Wasn’t Clyde Cessna "Kansas’ First"?

Kansas-bred Clyde Cessna, as history records, had flown his first plane months earlier than Longren, in May of 1911 — but he was living then in northern Oklahoma, and first flying from the salt plains near Jet — not in Kansas. The following year, 1912, Clyde would begin his Kansas aviation career when he returned to the family farm near Rago, in Kingman County — a few dozen miles west of the city that he would help make the Air Capital of the World: Wichita.

This Air Capital City, (and particularly the Cessna Aircraft Company that Clyde would soon create) would apparently eventually owe much of its success to Kansas’s first successful aviator: Topeka’s "birdman" Albin K. Longren, who brought Kansas aviation to life in a field on the outskirts of Topeka 100 years ago, September 2, 1911.

Special thanks to Longren’s chief biographer and champion, Rev. Richard ("Dick") Taylor, of Berryton (near Longren’s Topeka-area first flight), and later of Andover, Kansas. Taylor provided his book "I Love Kansas" with a superbly researched, richly detailed and illustrated chapter on Albin Longren. Without Taylor — who campaigned passionately to induct Longren into the Kansas Aviation Hall of Fame, and to restore the Longren factory facade in dowtown Topeka — Longren would otherwise likely be, quite unjustly, forgotten forever.