Wichita factory for the Burton (railroad) Car Works,
Copyright 2003, 2008
by Richard Harris
Originally published in InFlightUSA, 2003
Revised for WingsOverKansas.com, 2008
This is the third in our series "Wichita’s Wee Wooden Wonders", about the Wichita roots of Culver and Mooney Aircraft Companies, tracing the career of their creator, Al Mooney.
MOONEY AIRCRAFT — PART 1
In 1929, restless young Al arrived to
attempt starting a company of his own in Wichita, Kansas, the "Air Capital
City" – already home to Swallow, Cessna and Stearman – and 1929’s largest civilian plane maker, Walter Beech’s Travel Air.
With the help of a couple of local businessmen who led the Guarantee Title
Co. and oil-drilling equipment manfuacturer Bridgeport Machine Co., Mooney
opened shop on the northern outskirts of town in the old Burton Car Works (now
Bridgeport’s factory). In was the same factory building where Clyde Cessna, in
1916, had built Wichita’s first airplane, and where Lloyd Stearman had revived
his failed California company in 1925.
Swallow MODEL C-165 (1929), resembling Mooney’s Alexander Bullet and
Sullivan Model K-3 Crested Harpy: another Wichita monoplane resembling Mooney’s
(NOTE: For you Wichitans, the building’s still there! It’s now part of the
Coleman / York / JohnsonControls factory complex in the "Bridgeport"
industrial neighborhood around 35th St. North and Broadway).
Young Al delighted in the company of Wichita’s many other aviation greats,
as he developed the Mooney A-X/A-1/A-2 (his "M-5") – an
improved 5-seat version of the Alexander Bullet.
4th, 1930, to garner publicity for his design, Al took off in his new
"Mooney Low Wing" on a non-stop transcontinental record attempt, for
his airplane’s weight class, from Los Angeles to New York (Glendale, Calif. to
Long Island, N.Y., to be exact). But alas, a broken fuel pump spoiled the
record attempt — forcing the plane down near Ft. Wayne, IN — only setting an unofficial record of 1,980 miles covered in 22 hours, 27 minutes. It was, nevertheless, a
stout feat for a personal plane of 1930.
Despite inspiring apparent imitators, only a handful of the A-X/A-1/A-2 were
built before the stock-market crash of 1929 ushered in the Great Depression,
and the collapse of American industry, including — most particularly —
American aviation. Mooney was bankrupted, but Bridgeport’s president graciously
ate most of the losses.
And lucky Al left Wichita with a special treasure: a wife and child.
Another product went with him, too. Long hours at his factory had been
punctuated by tinkering with another design, a tiny single-seat
"sport" monoplane, with a fuselage of shaped plywood, dubbed
"M-6," which Mooney hoped would fly on only 36 horsepower. Only one
did. But it would serve as the prototype for a new style of Mooney airplane:
compact, efficient, quick and affordable — and made of wood.
AT THE FEET OF THE MASTER: MOONEY at BELLANCA
Al took a job in New Jersey as chief engineer of commericial production for Bellanca,
working under a man he called "The Master" – Giuseppe Bellanca – the
Italian-born godfather of 1920’s aerodynamics and wooden wings. Now well-experienced
with the Washington, D.C. aircraft-certification bureaucracy, Al ushered
Bellanca design changes through certification – particularly variations of
Bellanca’s stout, heavy-hauling single-engined Airbus, including
a military version, the C-27 – Al’s "M-7."
While at Bellanca, Mooney again designed a small-but-speedy-airplane. He
crafted a Bellanca race plane, the Irish Swoop — a low-winged monoplane
racer for the 1934 England-to-Australia MacRobertson Air Race — the world’s
longest (and, at the time, riskiest) air race. All engine and wing, with a bit
of room for fuel and pilot, it resembled the "unlimited" racers of
the U.S. National Air Races, like the GeeBee and the Wedell-Williams Special.
Alas, the plane’s pilot was forced to
withdraw from the race, just hours before the start, when the "Irish
Swoop" was found to be overweight. Facing a long journey over deserts,
jungles, mountains and ocean, the pilot refused to sacrifice fuel load to bring
the weight down, and withdrew. Perhaps it was just as well. Famed insurer
Lloyd’s of London figured that contestants had a 1 in 12 chance of being
When the government outlawed single-engine airliners in 1934, the big
single-engine Bellancas lost out to competing twins and tri-motors. The famed
company was suddenly eclipsed by rivals with multi-motored airplanes, like the
Curtiss Condor and the famous trimotors of Ford, Fokker and Stinson.
Bellanca ‘Irish Swoop’ racer,
The wood wings that had given Bellancas so much lift with so little weight
were soon to lose their popularity, too in a ghastly airliner crash near
Moundridge, Kansas. A rotting wooden main spar, in the wing of a Fokker
trimotor, broke in flight — sending the entire planeload of passengers
plummeting to their deaths. And among them was America’s most beloved football
coach, Knute Rockne. (A nearby memorial on the Kansas Turnpike commemorates the
first airliner tragedy that really horrifed the nation.) The infamous incident
made wooden airplane structures unacceptable for large planes, from that day
Bellanca’s entire design technology had been focused on an exceptional
mastery of wood — and could no longer compete successfully in the airliner
arena — nor even much longer in the market for private big-cabin luxury
aircraft. And with military orders at a lackluster pace, Al was no longer
needed in the dwindling Bellanca enterprise. But Al had learned to make the
most of a material that would someday become the only material available for
building personal planes, and his experience with aeronautical wood-crafting
would eventually lead to his definitive signature designs.