Born of the vision of Walter H. Beech’s faith in the latest technology, the Travel Air Company went from 900-feet of rented space in 1925 to the world’s leading manufacturer of commercial aircraft in 1929. Having risen through the ranks from test pilot to general manager with Swallow Manufacturing, Beech’s devotion to metal framing rather than wood led to his resignation. Setting up business in Wichita, Kansas, Beech committed Travel Air to the latest technology and quickly became an industry leader. The officers of Travel Air was a who’s who of the future of civil aviation in America: Walter P. Innes, Jr., president and treasurer; Beech, secretary; Clyde Cessna, vice-president; and Lloyd Stearman, chief engineer. Among the early hallmarks of Travel Air was the first commercial cabin aircraft with a completely faired-in liquid-cooled engine (1925), the first aircraft built to airline specifications (the Travel Air 5000 in 1926), the first civilian aircraft to defeat the military speed competition (the Mystery Ship in 1929), establishment of the women’s altitude mark (1926 by Louise Thaden) and victories in numerous aviation competitions. No wonder the front window of the company’s West Douglas street building read — “Large or Small, We Lead Them All.”
Beech’s company was a huge success by any measure. The company’s reputation for competitive success began with Beech himself. With Brice Goldsborough as his navigator, Beech won the 1926 Ford Commercial Airplane Reliability Tour. Beech led over forty entrants in the twelve-day, fourteen-city tour to capture the Edsel Ford Trophy. The next year, Art Goebel and William Davis flew Phillips Petroleum’s Woolaroc Travel Air from Oakland to Wheeler Field, Hawai’i, to win the Dole Race and a $25,000 first prize. In 1928, Louise Thaden piloted a D-3000 to the first recorded women’s altitude record of 20,600, then used a D-4000 to win the first Women’s Air Derby from Santa Monica, Calif., to the National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio.
Thaden’s exploits in the biplane D-4000 garnered great publicity for the company, but nothing compared with the victory of the Travel Air Model R — the Mystery Ship — at the 1929 National Air Races. Designed in secret in 1928, the low-wing monoplane became known as the Mystery Ship. The welded steel fuselage was sheet metal covered at the cockpit and cowling with plywood aft. The wing was externally braced and plywood covered. Powered by the 425-horsepower Wright J-6-9, it was finished in time for Douglas Davis to shock the aviation world by winning the open entry National Air Races. A Curtiss Hawk P-3A finished second in the 50-mile course race, marking the first time a civilian airplane beat a military model. Five Model Rs were built and were made famous by the likes of Pancho Barnes, James Haizlip and Frank Monroe Hawks.
Reaching 1,000 units in 1929, Travel Air became the world leader in both monoplane and biplane commercial aircraft. The combination of the economic catastrophe of the stock market crash and a soft aviation market flooded with production from dozens of companies saw the end of numerous independent manufacturers. Merging into one of the handful of national conglomerates, Travel Air joined with Curtiss-Wright Corporation. Beech became a vice-president, but corporate life in New York City did not suit him. He left the company in 1932, returned to Wichita and in April 1932 founded Beech Aircraft Company. Utilizing many of the principals that built Travel Air into an industry leader, Beech began to dominate the air races once again. His Model 17 — the Staggerwing — was visually stunning and in the hands of Thaden and Blanche Noyes shocked the aviation world in 1936. Not only did the upstart Beech win the nation’s most prestigious cross-country race — Bendix Transcontinental — Thaden and Noyes beat their nearest male competitors by 45 minutes and set a new transcontinental speed record for women. With a new slogan — It takes a Beechcraft to beat a Beechcraft — Walter Beech was on his way to dominating the commercial market once again.
The Travel Air Company has a special link to the Arkansas Air Museum. Fayetteville resident Robert Younkin has restored two examples of the company’s popular commercial lines — a biplane Model 4000 and the monowing airliner Model 6000. Younkin’s brother Jim also constructed an exact replica of the company’s most famous product — the Model R Mystery Ship. Jim Younkin’s Mystery Ship played a major role in filming of The Pancho Barnes Story, and after years of residence at the Arkansas Air Museum is currently housed by the Staggerwing Museum in Tennessee.
The 4000 is a recent addition to the collection, joining Younkin’s A-6000-A on display at the Arkansas Air Museum. This places Travel Air among the most represented manufacturers at the Arkansas Air Museum along with Howard, Boeing-Stearman and Bell. Bentonville, Arkansas, native Louise Thaden became world famous and a world record holder flying the products of Walter Beech’s Travel Air and Beechcraft companies. Thaden first broke on the aviation scene by establishing the women’s altitude record in a Travel Air D-3000. She won the first Women’s Air Derby, a cross country race from Santa Monica, Calif., to Cleveland, Ohio, in a Model D-4000 in 1928. Her greatest achievement came later in the Beechcraft Staggerwing, teaming with Blanche Noyes to win the Bendix race in 1936.