Wichita’s Wee Wooden Wonders, Part 5

Culver PQ-14B target drone

Culver PQ-14 B piloted drone — the Culver Cadet, reduced neatly to a slender,
single-seat fuselage, made a lively and challenging target. This model has
the extended wings and larger engine that turned the PQ-8 into the speedy,
fast-climbing PQ-14B. (US Air Force photo) mooneymite.com ).

Copyright 2003, 2008
by Richard Harris

Originally published in InFlightUSA, 2003
Revised for WingsOverKansas.com, 2008

This is the fifth 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


When World War II grew in
scope and intensity, the military wanted some cheap light planes which could be
fitted with remote controls for use as target drones, to train aerial and
anti-aircraft gunners but which could hold a pilot for ferrying and other
flights. Twenty companies were asked to bid. The cheap, fast, wooden Cadet was
perfect, and the government ordered some for tests. They were so pleased that
they placed an order for a staggering 2,500!

Twin Beech JRB-1 'mother-ship' for Culver drones

Beech JRB-1 (Twin Beech) ‘mother-ship’ for
Culver drones (1940). A modified Beech Model 18 (Twin Beech), with an extra
observing cockpit for the person remotely controlling the drones.

The Port Columbus facility wasn’t big enough for such volume, and elderly
Knight Culver apparently wasn’t ready for the financial, legal and management
pressures of such big business. When approached by Wichita’s Walter Beech (yes, that Beech) and Charles G. Yankey (leading Wichita attorney and aviation
investor), Knight sold out. Culver Aircraft Co. moved to Wichita back into
the old (now abandoned) Bridgeport factory — where Al had first set up shop
under his own name, a few years earlier. With cheap, "after-hours"
skilled labor — provided by "moonlighting" workers from local plane
manufacturers Beech, Cessna and Stearman — the Culver Aircraft Co. was quickly
back in business.

Things were a bit rocky for a moment, as Al Mooney suddenly found himself in
unfamiliar hands, with Yankey as Culver president and Beech as V.P. But things
soon smoothed out, and the money flowed, as Al shrunk the Cadet into a
single-seat, compact flying target.

At the
government’s insistence, the plane was shortened, giving up some of its
stability, but saving cost and materials. Since the drones were usually
operated from smooth, paved military airfields, tricycle gear was fitted, to
simplify landing. Radio-controlled from a nearby Beech or Cessna twin, the
drones had exciting (often short) lives. (When Al followed one in a
drone-control plane, during a ground-gunnery training exercise, he was
nearly hit by the anti-aircraft blasts which rocked his big twin).

Single-seat Culver Cadet drones aloft: A lot of
flying for the military’s money. (aerofiles.com)

(Another near-casualty of the Culver experience was Al’s marriage. His
bachelor habits of heavy drinking and living at the factory, even sleeping with
his work at the expense of his family finally exasperated his lonely wife.
She suddenly divorced him, and promptly married another acquaintance. Through a
series of melodramatic misadventures, Al eventually had the chance to win her
and the kids back, and seized the opportunity, with determination and luck.
Thereafter, Al claimed, he never missed a family dinner again, even if he had
to return to work later which he resisted.


The military designated the first Culver drone design as the PQ-8.
Pilots would fly it in front of student anti-aircraft gunners (on the ground or
airplanes) during "dry-fire" excercises (shooting blanks), and some
were flown — by remote control — into real bullets during "live
fire" excercises. Made from wood, and using the some of the cheapest,
smallest engines of the war, the Culver drones were "expendable"
airplanes, and also a challenge to early radar operators. The addition of tricycle
landing gear made them much easier to take off and land by remote control. A
few survived the war to become prized war-surplus personal hot-rods for private

V – Retractable gear wasn’t enough to make this classy-looking, but
overweight, 75-hp weakling outrun the fixed-gear Cessna 120. One wonders what
90 horses might have done.

A later version, the PQ-14, with only a 125-hp Franklin, flew
fast (up to 185 mph), and high (17,000 feet) a perfect target for fighter
pilots and B-29 gunners. When kamikaze pilots threatened the U.S. Pacific
fleet, several PQ-14s were rushed to Okinawa, where naval gunners practiced
downing the swift little drones.

In all, over 3,000 units of the PQ-8 and successors were built by Culver
the military’s only drone-supplier. The Army and Navy were delighted with their
versatility and efficiency, and with Culver (and Mooney’s) flexibility in
adapting the plane to any need. By war’s end, the Bridgeport plant was
employing over 600 employees, yet the War Department insisted that the entire
operation be kept secret the only Wichita plane maker under such strict
secrecy (not even Boeing’s Wichita plant, which built most B-29’s, was so
hushed up). The military considered the drones a particularly unique asset.

"V" IS

At war’s end, many Culver drones were bought as surplus by civilians, who
stripped off the military hardware and insignias, and got them recertified as
hot little personal planes. With the end of military contracts, though,
"Pappy" Yankey and Walter Beech withdrew from the company, and let
another investor, Mr. VanGrant, take the lead.

Culver V, circa 1948, with retractable tricycle gear -- very new to general aviation

Culver V ,
circa 1948, with retractable tricycle gear — very new to general

At VanGrant’s
insistence, Mooney designed a new commercial version of the Cadet: the
2-seat Culver "V" (for "Victory"). Intended
as an improved Cadet, it was not as safe or satisfying. Like the Cadet and the
drones, it was made entirely from wood; but it was painted in elegant, stylish
paint schemes that often left one suspecting that plane was a work of modern

With unusual slightly-upswept outer wing panels (adding diehedral for roll
stability), and a hump-like cockpit, it managed 125mph on an 80-85hp
Continental, hauling two folks up to 650 miles. In theory, it was a good,
low-budget, wide-ranging personal shuttle for the postwar businessman. And in a
time when most personal aircraft were rag-wing taildraggers, the sleek,
modern-looking Culver V was elegant and sophisticated by comparison.

The "V" had many
features Mooney considered important for economical, safe, easy-to-fly personal
planes: A Beech-Roby dual-pitch adjustable prop; electrically-retracted,
tricycle landing gear, with rubber "doughnuts" for shock-absorption;
and a one-piece slotted flap extending underneath the fuselage.

Culver V (low view)

The Culver V
displays its wide-span flap, stretching from wing to wing.

For safety, Mooney
linked the flaps to elevator-trim — in a system Culver’s ad-man dubbed
"Simpli-Fly": when flaps were cranked by a wheel in the panel,
a mechanical linkage prevented any pitch change with a corresponding
elevator-trim change, keeping the plane flying even. This reduced the chance of
getting into a stall. It created a strange sense for the pilot that he was
mostly managing a trim wheel during climb and descent — rather than a control
stick and flap handle.

But the "V" was a more challenging plane to fly than Mooney had
anticipated. During a demonstration flight, in front of Mooney (who was
supposed to be riding, but had given his seat to his senior mechanic), the prototype
crashed, killing the test pilot and the mechanic. On his deathbed, the dying
mechanic assured Mooney that the confused pilot was to blame: he’d tried
to show off and made a mistake. But the disaster didn’t help sales of the
plane, nor investors’ confidence. And it didn’t help Al’s feelings about the
project, nor about VanGrant, who had forced it. The "V" was Mooney’s
last Culver. He quit.


Culver V, Larry Dale driving

An elegant Culver V , with owner Larry Dale
at the controls, near Colorado Springs. The factory-issued Beech-Roby
adjustable wooden prop has been traded for a fixed-pitch metal Sensinch prop.
(The stretch-cord on the side is not a normal fixture.) All wood, and yet
surely one of the most stylish planes of the early postwar years.

The hand-made, wooden "V" was expensive to build (and thus to
buy), with a price of $3,950. It faced stiff competition from 30,000 new planes
like the mass-produced Piper Cub Cruiser and Vagabond,
heavy-hauling Stinson Voyager, and sleek Beech Bonanza along with hordes of other postwar light aircraft, and 30,000 war-surplus
planes (including hundreds of Culver drones). But the "V"’s greatest
challenge was the Cessna 120/140.

The Cessna 140,
Cessna’s $3,250, long-winged, fixed-gear, all-metal puddle-jumper, used a
similar engine to the Culver V’s, producing similar performance — without the
peculiar and suspect handling of the Culver, and without its complex systems.
the Cessna 120 — a stripped down 140 without its electric
starter and mostly-useless flaps — could be had for only $2,650.

Cessna’s 120 and 140 had a lower landing speed (41mph vs. the Culver’s
60mph), and conventional, taildragger fixed landing gear — permitting easier
landing on the short, rough fields still commonly used by lightplane pilots.
The hot, tricycle-geared Culver used up runway quickly, and was vulnerable to
whacking the props in bumpy fields. The gentler, more-conventional Cessna was
also the preferred way to go for the hottest market: postwar trainers. It was
roomier, too.

Another issue was weight. Like Culver, Cessna had built small wooden planes
for the war, saving aluminum for combat aircraft. But unlike Culver, Cessna had
also subcontracted with Boeing’s Wichita Division to build the modern, aluminum
tail assemblies for over 1,500 B-29 bombers, and with Douglas to
build the complex, curved aluminum cowlings for over 3,000 A-26 bombers. Aluminum construction had come a long way, suddenly, during the war.
Now wooden planes were decidedly heavier than aluminum planes of the same
power, capacity and speed. Though the Cessna and Culver had about the same
gross weight, the full-fuel payload of the "V" was only about 340
lbs., to the Cessna’s 400 lbs.

Cessna 140

Cessna 140 , the simpler, cheaper, alternative to the Culver V,
with comparable performance. This efficient, practical, mass-produced,
two-seater wiped out much of the struggling competition in the early postwar
years. Though this one is painted, most were sold with shiny bare metal,
advertising their modern construction.

The Culver offered 650-mile range, compared to the small-tanked Cessna’s 450
miles, and 115mph against Cessna’s 105mph. But it wasn’t enough to offset the
Cessna’s virtues, including its shiny, modern, rot-resistant aluminum skin and
frame. With Cessna’s war-funded factory, equipped to efficiently turn out
modern, aluminum aircraft by the thousands at low prices, smaller competition
(including Culver) had little hope of competing. Only about 100 Culver
"V"s sold before the company faded away along with most other
lightplane manufacturers in the postwar boom-and-bust of 1946-1947.


This would not be the end of Al Mooney, though. He remained infatuated with
the idea of a compact, personal retractable. And he had good reason. By the
hundreds, men were buying up war-surplus single-seat Culver drones, and fixing
them up into certified civilian personal planes. Al sat down to chat with his
most recent favorite backer, old "Pappy" Yankey. Al believed he could
make a compact single-seat, tricycle-geared retractable fly with just a cheap
25-hp Crosley Cobra, a tiny engine designed during the war to run generators.
Shaped like a tiny imitation of the German Messerschmitt Me-109 fighter, Al’s "M-18"would mate plywood wings and tail to a tiny aluminum-skinned, steel-framed FORWARD fuselage, with the fuselage aft of the pilot made
entirely of a lightweight monocoque plywood shell.

M-18 Mite with Crosley engine; note radiator under fuselage

Mooney M-18 (later named ‘Mite ‘), with original 25-hp Crosley engine; note radiator under fuselage

If Al Mooney’s calculations were right (as they usually were), this design
could be priced lower than any other brand-new airplane, yet fly over 100mph,
for only a penny a mile! And with his safety features changed to meet his own
specifications, the plane would be far safer than the Culver V, or the
converted drones. What more perfect personal transportation could there be?
Pappy Yankey rounded up the money, and this time the Culver factory was
reopened with an old name resurrected above the door: Mooney Aircraft
. This time, the name would not fade from history…

In the months to come, Mooney’s M-18 Mite, the tiny wonder with the
"backwards tail" would undergo some painful design changes, but
survive — and evolve into an even more important plane — the 4-seat M-20
whose speedy wake would rock the wings of general aviation’s Big Three, and set
a global standard for speed and efficiency.


SOURCES  (Any errors are mine, not theirs. Thanks, folks!):

  • Dale, Lawrence
    "Larry" P., Colorado Springs, CO; Culver V, Mooney Mite and M20
    owner/pilot; former President of the Mooney Mite Owners Association.
  • Bender, Jim, Wichita, KS,
    former neighbor to the Wichita Culver factory.
  • Mitts, Dawson & Judy,
    formerly of Wichita, KS; Mooney M20 owner/pilot and spouse (thanks for
    letting me fly your magnificent airplane, guys!)
  • Schiff, Barry, one of the
    world’s leading pilots, author of several aviation books and hundreds of
    magazine articles, including pilot reports reflecting his experience with
    over 300 airplanes, like the Culver Cadet.
  • Aerofiles.com (the American
    aviation historian’s technical reference).


  • Bissionette:  The
    Wichita 4:   Cessna, Moellendick, Beech & Stearman
    , (from
    interviews with Matty Laird, Lloyd Stearman, Olive Ann Beech, Dwayne
    Wallace, Rawdon, Burnham, and other principals).
  • Flying Magazine, "50th
    Anniversary Issue"
    , September 1977 (432-page comprehensive
    history of aviation, with particular detail on general aviation, written
    by major industry writers, leaders & historians)
  • Kansas State Historical
    Society, 2007, Albin K. Longren: A Kansas Portrait , online
    at: http://www.kshs.org/portraits/longren_albin.htm.
  • Phillips, Edward, H. Travel
    Air:  Wings over the Prairie, revised ed
    ., Flying Books
    International, 1982/1994, Eagan MN (coverage of Laird/Swallow, Travel Air
    and early careers of Cessna, Stearman & Beech)
  • Rowe, Frank J. & Miner,
    Craig. Borne on the South Wind: A Century of Kansas Aviation.
    Wichita Eagle & Beacon Publishing Co., Wichita. 1994 
    (comprehensive history of Kansas aircraft manufacturers and Kansas
  • Schamburger, Page and Joe
    Christy, Conquest of the Sky: A Pictorial History of Aviation,
    1968, Castle Books/A.S. Barnes & Co., NY,  (exceptionally
    thorough history of U.S. aviation from Civil War balloons to start of
    World War II, with vignettes written or dictated by pioneer aviators, and
    extraordinary collection of rare and historic photos; by two famed
    aviator/writers; exceptional coverage of general aviation history, and
    Wichita’s companies in particular).
  • Szurovy, Geza, Wings of
    Yesteryear: The Golden Age of Private Aircraft
    , 1998, Motorbooks
    International (summary history of Golden Age private aviation and many of
    its leading aircraft and personalities; richly illustrated with modern
    photos of vintage aircraft)
  • Taylor, Richard, I Love
    Kansas:  History Made, History Remembered
    , 2001, Leathers/Squire,
    Leawood, KS  (Includes definitive study of planes — and person — of
    Kansas’ first aircraft manufacturer, Albin K. Longren, later V.Pres. of
    Cessna, whose designs included the first Alexander Eaglerock and first
    composite/monocoque aircraft;  Rev. Taylor is the acknowledged expert
    on Longren and his aircraft.)

see also specific companies



  • Christy, Joe; revised by
    Brian J. Dooley, The Complete Guide to Single-Engine Cessnas,
    4th.ed., 1993, TAB/McGraw-Hill, NY
  • Denau, Gerald, An Eye
    to the Sky
    , 1962, Cessna Aircraft Co., Wichita, KS (semi-official
    company history, with exceptional detail and unusual candor about some
  • Phillips, Edward, H. Wings
    of Cessna: Model 120 to the Citation III
    ., Flying Books
    International, 1986, Eagan MN