By: Edward H. Phillips
Lloyd Stearman learned the aviation business by working for E.M. Laird on the “Swallow.” It was one of the first commercial airplanes built in the United States after World War One. Special Collections & University Archives, Wichita State University Libraries.
At his death in 1975, Lloyd Carlton
Stearman ranked as one of America’s most successful aviation
personalities. His name was a household word, as well known to the
man on the street as that of Boeing, Northrop, Piper, Cessna and
Beech. But he was also a Kansan, born and raised in Harper. He
excelled at school, easily mastered mathematics and displayed a
talent for understanding the workings of mechanical equipment. After
watching in amazement as Clyde Cessna flew his fragile monoplane at a
public exhibition in 1911, Stearman was hooked on aviation.
When the United States entered World
War One in 1917 Lloyd enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was sent to
flying school in San Diego, California. He soloed but the war ended
before he could earn his wings. Stearman, who had attended Kansas
State Agricultural College before enlisting, returned to Harper and
opened an electrical repair shop. The business was successful but in
1919 Lloyd accepted a position with the S.S. Voight architectural
company in Wichita.
The move to the “Peerless Princess
of the Prairie” would prove to be significant, not only for
Stearman but for the city’s infant aviation industry. In 1919 a
young, self-taught designer named Emil Matthew Laird, or “Matty”
to his friends, relocated to Wichita from Chicago at the behest of
Jacob Melvin Moellendick, a Kansas oil tycoon who believed in the
future of airplanes and had the money to do something about it.
Laird and Moellendick formed a
partnership and the first airplane, known as the “Swallow,” first
flew in April 1920. Limited production of the three-place, open
cockpit biplane began and orders soon poured in from barnstormers and
air taxi operators in the Midwestern U.S. Although Laird’s airplane
offered only a slight improvement in performance compared with the
war surplus Curtiss JN-4 trainer, the Swallow created demand because
it was new and could carry two paying passengers in the front
After working at Voight for a year,
Stearman applied for a job with the E.M. Laird Airplane Company and
was hired as a junior draftsman, aspiring engineer, mechanic and shop
foreman. As the months passed Lloyd learned airplanes from the ground
up, with Laird as his mentor. In 1920 Stearman completed his flight
training in Wichita. In addition, his responsibilities at the Laird
company expanded along with his knowledge and skills as a journeyman
By 1923 the small band of workers
had built and delivered nearly 40 Swallows and business was brisk.
Unfortunately, irreconcilable differences between Laird and
Moellendick, which had been festering for at least three years, led
to Matty’s departure from Wichita in October 1923. He soon
reestablished himself in Chicago and began building airplanes at the
old Ashburn Field location.
Moellendick, however, needed a chief
engineer and Stearman got the job. He realized that the Swallow was
an aging design that was gradually being eclipsed by new airplanes
being built by small companies across the country. In response, Lloyd
designed the “New Swallow” that incorporated a number of his
ideas, including a metal cowling around the Curtiss OX-5 engine, an
auxiliary fuel tank and a wider front cockpit. The New Swallow was an
instant success and made Stearman a rising star in the aviation
“Jake” Moellendick (center) is flanked by
The next logical step for Lloyd was
to build the New Swallow using a welded steel tube fuselage and
empennage, but Moellendick rejected Stearman’s proposal. Lloyd,
along with his friend and ally Walter Beech, who was general manager
of the Swallow Airplane Manufacturing Company, decided to strike out
on their own. They consulted with Clyde Cessna, who in 1924 had
bought a New Swallow (the only biplane he ever owned), and formed the
Travel Air Manufacturing Company.
Stearman had been working on the
design of an advanced biplane that incorporated steel tubing and wood
wings. Dubbed the Model A, it formed the foundation of the infant
company’s product line. First flown in March, 1925 the airplane
proved successful in flight tests and production was launched in a
small facility formerly occupied by the Kansas Planing Mill in
The Model A gave birth to the Model
B, which could be equipped with either a Wright Aeronautical
nine-cylinder radial engine or a Wright-Hispano Suiza V-8 powerplant.
In 1925 Lloyd designed the five-place Model CH cabin biplane that
carried four passengers in an enclosed cabin forward of the pilot’s
open cockpit. Stearman also joined forces with friend and Kansan Mac
Short to design the speedy Travel Air Model C6 Special, which Beech
flew to victory in a number of regional air races.
Throughout 1925-1926 the company
experienced great success and soon outgrew its cramped workspace.
Production was moved to a building across the Arkansas River and then
to new, custom-built facilities on East Central Avenue about five
miles from downtown (now the home of Hawker Beechcraft Corporation).
Before the move east was made, a Travel Air dealer named Fred Hoyt
approached Lloyd about moving to California and starting his own
Hoyt was a well-known pilot in
Southern California. He believed there was money to be made by
selling airplanes to Hollywood celebrities and to operators vying for
new government air mail contracts in the Western United States. It
was an opportunity that tempted Stearman, and after much thought and
discussion with his wife, he decided to make the move west.
The fledgling Stearman Aircraft,
Inc., set up shop in a small building in Venice, California, and
assembled airplanes in Hoyt’s hangar at nearby Clover Field in
Santa Monica. The first airplane built was the Stearman C1 powered by
the ubiquitous Curtiss OX-5 engine. It was a superior design to the
Travel Air Model A and featured landing gear that used a combination
of a hydraulic oil cylinder and rubber shock cord to absorb taxi,
takeoff and landing loads.
During 1927 three other biplanes
were built in California, the C2, C2M air mail version with a Wright
radial engine, and the C2C powered by a Wright-Hispano Suiza
powerplant. Of these, the C2M proved to be commercially successful.
Varney Air Lines bought the C2M and placed orders for more airplanes
to carry mail. Varney was flying Stearman’s “New Swallows”
fitted with Wright J-4 radial engines, but the C2M offered a
significant improvement in load carrying ability and overall
Stearman designed the Travel Air Model A in
Despite strong interest in the C2M,
by mid-1927 Stearman’s business prospects in California were bleak.
Lloyd had orders from a number of customers but lacked the capacity
to build their airplanes. One day he received a telegram from his old
friend in Wichita, Walter P. Innes, Jr., who had been one of the
founding members of the Travel Air company in1924. Aware of Lloyd’s
situation, he proposed that Stearman move his company to Wichita
where adequate facilities existed for production and promised to
raise the money required.
Lloyd and Walter fired telegrams
back and forth for days. Finally, Stearman accepted the invitation.
Innes had raised more than $60,000 and the Stearman Aircraft Company
began the trek eastward to Kansas. In October the company began
moving into new quarters at the Bridgeport Machine Company’s old
factory that was erected in 1889 to build passenger cars for the
railroad. Located five miles north of Wichita, the buildings offered
room for expansion and there was ample space for a runway adjacent to
the buildings for test flights.
The first airplane built at the
facilities was a C2B, which rolled off the assembly line in January
1928. Later that month Fred Hoyt, who had come east with Stearman as
sales manager and chief test pilot, was ferrying another C2B to
Varney Air Lines when he was forced to bail out over southern Idaho
in an ice storm. The airplane crashed and within 24 hours Hoyt froze
to death in open country.
Demand for Stearman airplanes
accelerated through 1928 and production was increased to maintain
delivery schedules. Mac Short, who was chief engineer, was busy
turning Lloyd’s creations on paper into wood and fabric flying
machines. Among the top priorities in 1928 was development of the
M2-a large biplane designed specifically to meet the needs of air
mail operators. It first flew early in January 1929.
In August the Stearman Aircraft
Company was absorbed into the giant United Aircraft & Transport
Corporation that included the commercial Boeing Airplane Company,
Pratt & Whitney aircraft engines, Chance-Vought Corporation
(military airplanes) and Hamilton Aero (propellers). United Aircraft
wanted Stearman and his management team to remain in charge, and the
daily routine at the factory was relatively unaffected by the merger.
As the aviation juggernaut sparked
by Charles Lindbergh’s transoceanic flight roared along, Stearman
introduced the C3R that proved popular with sportsman pilots. He also
built the LT-1 light transport that owed its basic configuration to
the Travel Air Model CH of 1925, and 1929 competed for sales with the
similar Boeing Model 40. Among Stearman and Mac Short’s most
successful collaborations was the Model 4 series that were smaller
than the LT-1 but more affordable.
With an order book that was getting
thicker every week during the summer and autumn of 1929, Stearman
struggled to keep production rolling along smoothly. But events on
Wall Street soon intervened. The stock market crash in October 1929
dealt a devastating blow to the American aviation industry and
Wichita in particular. Sales of Stearman, Travel Air and Cessna
airplanes soon began to fade away as buyers cancelled orders. Layoffs
began at all three factories and by the end of 1930 the once bustling
airplane industry in Wichita had been brought to its knees.
Lloyd Stearman (center) poses with George Lyle
Despite the economic chaos that was
sweeping the nation, United Aircraft officials decided to build a new
factory for the Stearman Aircraft division. Completed in October
1930, the new facility had 84,000 square feet of floor space and cost
more than $330,000 to build. Meanwhile, Lloyd Stearman and Mac Short
had designed the Model 6 “Cloudboy” to serve as a basic trainer
and the entry-level airplane of the Stearman product line. It was,
however, also capable of being used as a primary trainer by the U.S.
Army Air Corps. Although it was later rejected by the Army, six
Cloudboy’s were sold to commercial customers.
By the summer of 1931 Lloyd Stearman
had tired of United Aircraft’s management style and decided to
sever his connections with the company he had founded. In July he
announced his resignation and moved his family back to California. He
joined forces with Walter T. Varney and Robert E. Gross to form the
Stearman-Varney Aircraft Company. In a bold move amidst the Great
Depression, the trio paid $40,000 for the assets of the Lockheed
Aircraft Company. Stearman served as president and worked on a the
design of a new, all-metal cabin airplane that evolved into the
Lockheed Model 10.
Lloyd resigned from Lockheed in 1935
and went to work for the United States Department of Commerce. He
later became a partner with Dean Hammond and helped redesign the
Hammond Model Y monoplane into the improved Y-1S. In 1935 Stearman
left Hammond and simultaneously served as vice president at Transair
Corporation in San Francisco and an engineer at the Harney Machine
Company in Los Angeles.
He remained with the Harvey company
throughout World War Two and was involved in the design of engine
cowlings for military airplanes. After the war Lloyd again founded
his own business, the Stearman Engineering Company in Dos Palos,
California, focusing on designing a new agricultural airplane. He
soon realized that the huge supply of war surplus PT-13/PT-17
trainers being modified into “crop dusters” would probably
destroy any market for his new design. Still sensing an opportunity,
he worked with the Inland Aviation Company that specialized in
modifying PT-series trainers with Pratt & Whitney R-1340 radial
In 1946 Lloyd again changed jobs,
this time working for the National Aviation Corporation in San
Fernando, where he designed an all-metal wing for the PT-series
trainers. He eventually returned to Dos Palos and performed
engineering work for the Hammel Company until 1955 when he rejoined
Lockheed as a senior engineer. He retired in 1968 but soon formed the
Stearman Aircraft Corporation in Los Angeles to build a new,
turboprop-powered agricultural airplane designated the MP-1. His
health began to fail, however, and Lloyd was forced to stop work on
the MP-1 (none were built).
Stearman lost his battle with cancer
and died on April 3, 1975, in Northridge, California. In his lifetime
he had achieved more than many men could dream about. During a career
that spanned more than half a century, Lloyd Carlton Stearman had
earned the respect and admiration of the American aviation industry
that he had helped to create and nurture to maturity.
For additional reading: “Stearman Aircraft – A Detailed History” is available at www.specialtypress.com.