Wichita's Aviation History
The month of November is aviation history appreciation month. Wichita lays claim to the title “Air Capital of the World,” and it has been a long road to get there. Here’s the history of how it came to be.
Wichita can trace its roots in aviation back to the likes of Walter Beech, Clyde Censa, E.M. “Matty” Laird, Bill Lear, J.M. Mollendick, Lloyd Stearman and George Weaver, all who built the companies that laid the groundwork for Wichita’s prominent aviation industry.
Clyde Cessna built his first plane near Rago, Kansas, with his first successful flight being in December of 1911 after several failed attempts. He, in 1916, moves his airplane manufacturing business from Kingman County, where his farm was, to Jones Auto Factory in north Wichita. The first plane known to have been completed in Wichita was Cessna's "The Comet" in 1917.
Wichita Aeroplane Service Co. and Wichita Aircraft Co. form in Wichita in 1919. J. M. Moellendick, who prospered during the El Dorado oil boom, invested in the Wichita Aircraft Company. Disliking how the management was running things he persuades William Burke to take over. Burke flew to Chicago, met with E.M. “Matty” Laird, and proposed the three form an aircraft company in Wichita.
Matty Laird, Billy Burke, and Jake Moellendick form E.M. Laird Airplane Company in 1920. The first plane produced was originally known as the Wichita Tractor. It first took flight in April of 1920, when William Lassen, a young man watching the flight, is claimed to have remarked "She flies like a swallow, boys." From then on the plane has been referred to as the Laird Swallow.
In 1923 Laird returns to Chicago, selling his share of the business to Moellendick. The name then changes from E.M. Laird Airplane Company to Swallow Airplane Company. Laird restarts E.M. Laird Airplane Company in Chicago. Around this same time Lloyd Stearman and Walter Beech are both working for Moellendick at Swallow.
Lloyd Stearman and Walter Beech leave Swallow, late in 1924, due to a disagreement with Moellendick, and form Travel Air in 1925 along with Clyde Cessna. Stearman also forms his own company in California in 1926.
In 1927 Cessna Beech and Stearman part ways after a disagreement over what type of wings to produce. Stearman moves his company from California back to Wichita.
Cessna Aircraft Company is formed in 1928. This same year Wichita begins promoting itself as "The Air Capital of the World". A fitting title as Wichita turned out a quarter of all U.S. aircrafts. The city was home to 16 airplane manufacturers, six engine factories, 11 airports, a dozen flying schools and many more suppliers.
The Wichita Municipal Airport, was built starting in 1930, but was not completed until 1935 due to the Great Depression. Wichita Municipal Airport served the city for 17 years before the Air Force built a base and began to use the airport for its own operations.
Also in 1930, Beech's Travel Air merges with United Aircraft and Transport, which included Boeing. This new entity also took over Stearman Corporation. This same year Al Mooney formed the Mooney Aircraft Corporation in Wichita.
In 1932, Walter Beech and his wife Olive form beech Aircraft Company. The first Beechcraft, the Model 17R Staggerwing, takes flight in November of that year.
The "world's most efficient airplane" (at the time), the Cessna Airmaster, originally the model c-134, began production in 1935.
World War II causes a boom in the Aviation industry as manufacturers step up production to meet the war efforts. Tens of thousands of aircraft workers are employed in plants throughout Kansas, most of them being in Wichita. Boeing built the B-29 bombers. Beech and Cessna built various military aircraft models. Many companies cooperatively produced gliders together.
Boeing was the first company to institute a mass transit system for its employees. They would bus-in employees from downtown Wichita as well as from surrounding cities. Buses would even run routes as far as Ponca City, Oklahoma.
Unfortunately, what goes up must come down. When World War II stopped, so did the high demand for planes. This resulted in 16,000 people being laid off in a single day from Boeing plants.
There was still advancement, however, in the aviation industry. Beechcraft flew their first Bonanza in 1945, and Al Mooney re-entered the manufacturing scene with Charles Yankey to form Mooney Aircraft Inc. in 1946. A year later Boeing would begin its initial aerial refueling tests with their B-29's.
The Boeing B-47 rolls off the production line in 1951. This is the United States' first swept wing bomber. In January of this year, the United States Air Force announces plans to build a large air force base at what was then the Wichita Municipal Airport. They used the base for crew training on the B-47's.
With the USAF using the airport for military operations it was necessary for Wichita to get a new commercial airport. Construction on Mid Continent Airport began in 1954. All non-military flight traffic stopped out of the municipal airport that same year.
Also in 1954, Boeing began production of the B-52 Bombers, a model still flying active missions today.
Cessna flew its first Model 172 in 1956. This plane would later go on to be the most produced plane in history with over 43,000 units produced.
Bill Lear moved from Switzerland to Wichita to design a business jet. The first Learjet took flight in October of 1963. Cessna followed to launch its own business jet prototype in 1969. This prototype later became the Cessna Citation.
Beech Aircraft is acquired by Raytheon Co.
In 1983, Beech announced plans for the all-composite Beech Starship. Marketing and Certification issues plague the Starship, halting production after about 50 unites are delivered.
Military operations at Wichita Municipal Airport cease in 1984.
By 1986, Cessna temporarily stops production of the popular Model 172. Up to this point 35,000 units have been produced. The stop in production is due mostly to rising product liability costs. General Dynamics acquires Cessna this same year.
The 90's brought a series of acquisitions of Wichita Aviation companies. Bombardier purchased Learjet in 1990, and Textron purchased Cessna from General Dynamics in 1992. Beechcraft, purchased by Raytheon in 1979, is renamed Raytheon Aircraft Co. in 1994.
The Wichita Municipal Airport, out of use since 1984, becomes the Kansas Aviation Museum.
Cessna begins production on the Model 172 again in 1996, but this time from a plant located in Independence, Kansas. This same year, Boeing launches its first one-piece fuselage for its Next-Generation 737-700.
Bombardier opens a 98,000 square-foot expansion to its Flight Test Center in 1997. Boeing merges with McDonnell Douglas Corporation.
In an effort to consolidate the Air Force's B-1 Fleet, McConnell Air Force Base's B-1B Lancers are moved to other bases. The 184th Bomb Wing at McConnell takes on the mission of flying the KC-135s and is designated as the 184th Air Refueling Wing.
Onex purchases Wichita /Tulsa division of Boeing, in 2005, this becomes Spirit AeroSystems.
2006 sees the 5,000th Boeing 737 to come off the production line, the 737s go through final assembly in Seattle, but the fuselages are assembled here in Wichita by Spirit Aerosystems.
Onex and Goldman Sachs also purchase Raytheon in 2007, they choose to rename the plant Hawker Beechcraft.
Mid-Continent Airport retires after over 60 years of service earlier this year with the opening of the new Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport. The new terminal properly reflects this city as being "The Air Capital of the World."
Today, Wichita is still a hub of aviation. With around 30 airfields (both public and private) in Sedgwick county, over 20,000 employees at the major aviation manufactures and many more in aviation related roles in Wichita.
*Timeline and Historical photos courtesy of Kansas Aviation Museum