Dashing spirit launched industry

Magnificent men in flying machines built air capital

By Nunzio Lupo

The Wichita Eagle

This article originally appeared in the Eagle on Monday, October 8, 1984.

In 1930, journalist John T. Nevill asked the question:

“How is it . . . that this comparatively small mid-plains city ranks

alongside of New York, Detroit or Los Angeles in the manufacture of the

world’s newest vehicle of transportation?”

It’s a question still asked today. How is it that Kansas, a state known

for both its agricultural bounty and the Wizard of Oz more than anything else,

became a major producer of aircraft?

How, indeed? All it took was a handful of men possessing some vision, much

daring entrepreneurial spirit, a love of flying, and, importantly, money. From

their efforts an industry has grown that today employs some 37,500 Kansans who

make up almost 4 percent of the state’s non-farm work force.

According to the most recent figures from the U.S. Commerce Department,

almost 12 percent of the nation’s 146,200 aircraft production workers work in

Kansas. Together they earned almost $417 million in 1982. Kansas companies

shipped $2.6 billion worth of aircraft in 1982, about 9 percent of the total. More significant is Wichita’s role in general aviation. Manufacturers with

Wichita operations – Cessna Aircraft Co., Beech Aircraft Corp. and Gates

Learjet Corp. – account for about 60 percent of general aviation aircraft

delivered by U.S. companies and about 60 percent of general aviation billings.

These three lightplane manufacturers, along with Boeing Military Airplane

Co. and a number of support companies, together employ about 33,000 people in

the Wichita metropolitan area, about 16 percent of the non-farm workforce.

So Wichita claims the title, “Air Capital of the World.”

“We are the one spot in the world that manufactures more general aviation

aircraft than any other place,” says Jerry Mallot, president of the Wichita

Area Chamber of Commerce. “It doesn’t take more justification than that.

“It probably could have happened somewhere else,” Mallot says, “but the

right people were here, and they succeeded.”

“The right people,” by most recollections, include familiar names such as

Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech, Lloyd Stearman and, most importantly, oilman Jacob

“Jake” Moellendick, “The Father of Aviation in Wichita.”

Moellendick, described as a “rough and ready citizen,” had worked in

Pennsylvania oil fields before he headed west to try his luck in Okmulgee,

Okla., where he drilled for oil in wildcat territory. After striking oil, he

organized an oil company there and traveled to Wichita to be near producing

wells that he had drilled in Butler County.

Several stories circulate as to why he became interested in aviation. One

is that he needed some fast transportation to some wells near El Dorado and

hired a pilot to fly him there. Another has it that his associates, E.M.

“Matty” Laird and George “Buck” Weaver, persuaded a young Army Air Corps

lieutenant to take Moellendick up to interest him in aviation.

But all the stories have one common denominator, that a combination of

Moellendick’s interest in flying and his money have made Wichita the Air

Capital today.

“If you wanted to put it down to a single reason, it would be Jake

Moellendick,” says aviation buff Walt House, a charter member of the Wichita

Aeronautical Historical Association. “He was the guy who bankrolled the first

(manufacturing) company here, the E.M. Laird Co., which later became Swallow.

That’s what got other people here like Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman. Jake

was paying wages, and that’s what got them here.”

Not long after the Wright brothers’ historical flight near Kitty Hawk,

N.C., in 1903, people all over the country were enthralled with flying, and

Kansas certainly was no exception. Historical accounts say that Kansans were

trying to build airplanes as early as 1908.

There is some debate over who built the first successful airplane in

Kansas; some credit Harry Call of Girard while others say it was A.K. Longren

of Topeka. Clyde Cessna is credited with building the first airplanes in

Wichita, in 1911. He used them in flying exhibitions, but when World War I

intervened, Cessna ended his airplane building and returned to the farm.

During the war, about 200,000 men were trained as aviators, among them

Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman. After the war ended, many of these men wanted

to continue flying and bought their own planes, mostly war surplus aircraft

because that’s all that was available. They flew to earn money. They became

known as barnstormers, traveling from town to town selling rides, performing

stunts, teaching others to fly and providing taxi service.

In the spring and summer of 1919, two flying companies were formed in

Wichita by these men and businessmen backers. One of these was the Wichita

Aircraft Co., founded by Moellendick and Army Air Corps lieutenants J.B. Witt

and E.J. Mason and Witt’s stepfather, M.H. Wood. It was the root of the first

airplane manufacturing company in Wichita.

According to a 1962 Wichita State University master’s thesis by Sondra Van

Meter, Wood and Witt originally went to Albuquerque, N.M., to start their air

taxi service, but the climate was not to their liking. Wood, who had a friend

in Wichita, decided to move their flying company to Wichita instead, “because

of the favorable climate and topography,” according to Van Meter.

But the Wichita Airplane Co. began to falter late in 1919, and Moellendick

hired William “Billy” Burke, a barnstorming pilot from Okmulgee, as manager.

Burke is credited with traveling to Chicago in 1919 to see E.M. “Matty” Laird,

who had built an aircraft for Burke only a short time before.

Burke persuaded Laird to move his small factory to Wichita, where he,

Moellendick and Laird could form a three-way partnership to manufacture

airplanes. Laird agreed, and together they founded the E.M. Laird Airplane Co.

to manufacture airplanes. Burke and Moellendick each invested $15,000, and

Laird provided the equipment and designs.

They began work immediately on their first airplane. Originally called the

“Wichita Tractor,” the first airplane flew on April 8, 1920. Hotel owner

William Lassen attended its maiden flight and is credited with changing the

name to the “Swallow.” He is supposed to have exclaimed that day, “There she

goes, boys, just like a swallow.”

The Swallow has been called the nation’s first commercial airplane. Before

the Laird Co. produced the Swallow, most airplanes flying commercially were

surplus left over from the war.

Attracted by the promise of wages and work in aviation, Walter Beech and

Lloyd Stearman of Harper joined the firm. Moellendick hired Beech, a former

Army Air Corps pilot, as a test pilot for the fledgling manufacturer. Lloyd

Stearman signed on in the shop and eventually moved up to chief engineer.

But by September 1923, a rift between Laird and Moellendick widened over

the building of a new plant. Moellendick went ahead with the plant after

Laird, who was on a business trip in California at the time, had asked him to


In her thesis, Van Meter wrote: “As Moellendick increased his investment,

he increased his advice on policy. He often wasted his money and time on

useless experiments and then outshouted anyone who disagreed with him.”

Laird left the firm, saying later in a 1961 letter that “it was impossible

to cope with Jake Moellendick’s antics.”

After Laird left, the firm was reorganized as the Swallow Airplane

Manufacturing Co., Jan. 22, 1924, with Moellendick, Beech and Stearman as

principals. That lasted until the end of 1924, when more disagreements with

Moellendick prompted Stearman and Beech to quit. Beech and Stearman both urged

Moellendick to give the Swallow a welded steel frame, something regarded as a

great advance in the industry. Moellendick disagreed, so they resigned.

Beech and Stearman formed another company in 1925 along with Cessna. The

company was eventually called Travel Air Manufacturing Co., Inc. Travel Air

was a success, producing 19 planes in 1925.

But after a short time, all three men went their own ways, too.

Stearman left the company in 1926 and moved to Venice, Calif., where he

founded the Stearman Airplane Co. in a partnership with Fred Hoyt. After only

a year, several Wichita businessmen and friends, including Walter Innes Jr.,

raised $60,000 and persuaded them to return to Wichita to build their planes. Controlling interest in Stearman was purchased by United Aircraft &

Transport in 1929. Stearman left the company to return to California, where he

became affiliated with several aircraft companies. He was president of

Lockheed Aircraft Corp. from 1932 to 1934. The company he founded in Wichita

was sold to the Boeing Co. in 1938 and was the forerunner of today’s Boeing

Military Airplane Co.

Cessna left Travel Air in April 1927 in a dispute with Beech over what

kind of wings to put on planes. Cessna wanted to build a one-wing monoplane,

and Beech wanted to continue building two-wing biplanes. Cessna set up shop in

1927 at 1520 W. Douglas to build his four-seat monoplane.

Travel air, with Beech at the helm, continued its booming pace. In 1928,

Beech needed money to expand in order to meet the demand for Travel Air’s

airplanes. He found it in a New York investment firm, Hayden-Stone Investment

Co., which also had interests in the Curtiss Aeroplane and Engine Co. and the

Wright Aeronautical Corp.

Later, in 1929, it was announced that controlling interest in Travel Air

had passed into the hands of a combined Curtiss-Wright organization. Beech

still headed the local firm and became vice president of the Curtiss-Wright, a

job that often took him to New York. Wichitans reacted negatively to the

merger that removed Travel Air from local control.

But the move proved to be the salvation of the present-day Beech Aircraft

Corp. The stock market crashed Oct. 29, 1929, and Travel Air hung on another

two years before becoming another victim of the Depression in 1931. Beech

himself fared better, having made a tidy sum on the sale of Travel Air to the

Curtiss-Wright organization.

Rather than save it in those Depression days, he decided to take a chance.

With his secretary and wife from Travel Air, the former Olive Ann Mellor,

Beech founded the Beech Aircraft Corp. on April 1, 1932.

By the time World War II started, the toddler aircraft industry in Wichita

was ready to really grow. Boeing in Wichita built the B-29 Superfortress as

well as military trainers. Beech and Cessna both built trainers as well.

During the war, 10 percent of all military planes were manufactured in


Today, the Wichita companies, even in the current depressed state of the

general aviation industry, sell millions of dollars worth of aircraft every

year. And yet ironically enough, Jake Moellendick, who started it all, died on

March 23, 1940, without a penny to his name. Only contributions from

successful aviation businessmen prevented him from being buried by the county.

Moellendick had banked his fortunes in 1927 on a plane called the “Dallas

Spirit” in the hope that it could win a $25,000 prize in the Dole Air Derby

sponsored by the Hawaiian pineapple family. He stopped production on all other

orders so he could build the plane for his friend, Bill Erwin.

The plane crashed in 1927, and took his future with it. Moellendick tried to make a comeback but never did.

“It could have happened somewhere else,” says aviation buff House. “You know, he was down in Oklahoma for a while, and it could have happened there.” But it didn’t.

©The Wichita Eagle