The Travel Air Model R “Mystery Ship”, designed by Herbert Rawdon and Walter Burnham, was built in 1928 by the Travel Air Corporation of Wichita, Kansas for the upcoming 1929 air races. The Travel Air Company was formed in 1924 by Walter Beech, Lloyd Stearman, William Snook and Clyde Cessna. Design and assembly of the aircraft was performed behind a curtain in a sealed-off portion of the plant. It was dubbed the “Mystery Ship” by the press after failed attempts to gain information on the top secret project.
On September 2, 1929 – the date of the Cleveland National Air Races – the aircraft was finally revealed to the press and the rest of the world and easily took first place. Doug Davis piloted the aircraft. This was the first time in the history of air racing that a civilian racer beat every military entry. The civilian design proved far superior and served as a wake up call to the military to increase funding for aircraft design and production.
The original Wright Whirlwind radial engine was modified to develop over 400 hp. The little speedster had a top speed of 235 mph and a landing speed of 73 mph. This Mystery Ship was recreated by Jim Younkin in 1979 using the original factory plans. He added a tail wheel and installed a Lycoming R-680 engine in place of the Wright R-975 which powered the original.