I had a couple of days off in Oklahoma recently,  and visited the Tulsa Air and Space Museum (and Planetarium)   which has changed considerably since I visited in 2000.  A lot of things change in seventeen years.   The museum has moved to a new building and has a lot of interesting exhibits.    I’ve  learned a couple of interesting snippets about Oklahoma’s aviation heritage which may not be new to my reader, but to which I hadn’t given much thought.  More of this will follow in other articles.

Curtiss OX-5 at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum

I wonder what stories this could tell.  Curtiss OX-5 at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum, Tulsa, OK – July 2017 (Robert Smith)

I love looking at the stories detailing the early years of aviation.  Tucked away in a quiet corner were the stories of people like Wiley Post and Duncan McIntyre. Also tucked away but neatly displayed was a Curtiss OX-5 engine.  I wasn’t going to write about it, but it’s occurred to me just to what extent the OX-5 made a considerable mark on the early years (some would say the golden age) of American aviation.  The OX-5  was an eight liter (500 Cubic Inch) V8 which first saw the light of day in 1910.  Its ancestors were V-twin motorcycle engines, but Curtiss moved into aircraft engines, and  the OX-5 was the first American aircraft engine put into mass production.  I was surprised to read that more than twelve thousand OX-5s were built.  One of its major uses at the outset was  powering Curtiss’ own  JN-4 “Jenny” trainer.

At the end of the First World War there was a considerable surplus of OX-5 engines,  and this made the OX-5 virtually the default choice for nascent American commercial aviation industry.  The Swallow of 1924 and the Travel Air 2000 (the gloriously nicknamed “Wichita Fokker” because of its perceived resemblance to the Fokker D.VII)  both used the OX-5 and both have surprisingly similar nose designs.    Douglas Corrigan’s 1929 Curtiss Robin  (see previous article) had an OX-5 engine when he bought it, and which he swapped for a more powerful Wright radial. One may speculate if he’d have succeeded crossing the Atlantic with an OX-5 powered Robin.

Then I wondered if I had any other OX-5 pictures, and yes, it seems I do.  When I went to visit the Kansas Aviation Museum in Wichita on a blistering June afternoon in 2015,  they had a shiny OX-5 in their exhibition.  Interestingly this one seems to have a little more of the ignition wiring in place, but not the exhaust pipe.

I’m sure there’s a story here too.  Curtiss OX-5 at the Kansas Aviation Museum, Wichita, June 2015

While we’re talking about nose shapes here’s the KAM’s Swallow looking lovely in June 2015 – complete with a rather lovely streamlined cowling covering the Curtiss powerplant inside.  Notice the slab-like radiator underneath.

Swallow Aircraft "Swallow"

The rather gorgeous OX-5-powered Swallow Aircraft “Swallow” at the Kansas Aviation Museum, Wichita, KS, photographed in in June 2015 (Robert Smith – Own Work)

And finally,  a picture (not mine) of the “Wichita Fokker”   – the Travel Air 2000,  also with an OX-5 engine. You can see why Howard Hughes wanted at least one example of the Travel Air when he was making Hell’s Angels.   Those balanced ailerons, and the fin/rudder shape are strongly reminiscent of the Fokker design.  With a Ranger engine installed,  the similarity was amazing, but that’s another story.   The nose lines of the Travel Air here are remarkably similar to the Swallow and the OX-powered Waco 9 of the same vintage.  Consider Buck Weaver (founder of Waco) and his Wichita connection with “Matty” Laird and Swallow,  and the coincidence is taken further still.  This is hardly surprising.  There are only a certain number of things you can do to make a streamlined cover for an OX-5.

Travel Air 2000 with OX engine

Travel Air 2000 with OX engine at the Historic Aircraft Restoration Museum, Dauster Field, Creve Coeur, Missouri, 2006.  By RuthAS (Own work) [CC BY 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons


Sooner than I thought

So it looks as if Doc’s first flight ought to take place on Sunday July 17th 2016.  I wish them every success.


Doc’s restoration team performed engine runs and tests the week of July 4 in final preparation for first flight. (B-29 Doc Website)

“Doc” – Getting Closer

Boeing B-29-70-BW Superfortress 44-69972 "Doc"

Boeing B-29-70-BW Superfortress 44-69972 “Doc” runs its engines for the first time in many years in Wichita, Kansas in September 2015. (Screen Grab from livestream)

While I’m in the midst of describing things B-29 it would be remiss of me not to mention a B-29 that lives about 200 miles from me and which may be returning to the skies in the near future.   This is Boeing B-29-70-BW Superfortress  44-69972 “Doc” which has been under restoration to flying status for a number of years by a team of volunteers and Boeing veterans for many years.  In June 2015 when I went to visit the Kansas Aviation Museum I could see Doc’s highly polished metalwork gleaming from quite a distance away.   Back in September I witnessed (remotely) its engines running for the first time in many years.  More recently we hear that the FAA has granted a special airworthiness certificate to the venerable machine – see the story about it here.

Even better,  the Department of Defense has approved use of a “non-joint-use runway”  next door at McConnell AFB for ground testing and the first flight.  I look forward to this with some anticipation.

Read more about Doc’s story at his website.  http://www.b-29doc.com

Jake Moellendick and Wichita – The Air Capital


Jacob “Jake” Moellendick. (1879-1940)

A couple of years ago I gave a lecture drawn from the book Borne on the South Wind (Wichita, KS: Wichita Eagle, 1994), about the history of aviation in Kansas. I concentrated on some of the pioneers, and it struck me that the state’s rise to the forefront of aviation in the USA was largely the product of one man’s vision. He died in relative obscurity, a pauper, in 1940, but at different times had worked with, or employed, several key figures in the history of US aviation.

That man was Jacob “Jake” Moellendick. Born in Ohio in 1879, he made his fortune in the oilfields outside Wichita in the early years of the 20th Century. It is unclear how he got he aviation bug, but by 1919 had founded the Wichita Airplane Company and, at a partner’s suggestion, persuaded Emil Matthew “Matty” Laird to move from Chicago to Wichita. Moellendick and Laird founded the E.M. Laird Airplane Company. Laird had some ideas for modifying the design of the Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” to carry two people in the front cockpit. His design, originally known as the Laird Tractor or Laird Wichita Tractor, became known as the Laird Swallow. The Swallow has the distinction of being America’s first commercially produced aircraft.

1920 Laird Tractor Biplane, Swallow

1920 Laird Tractor Biplane (Swallow). Displayed at the Kansas Aviation Museum, Wichita, Kansas.
Photographed by me in 2011

Laird Tractor - Tail

1920 Laird Tractor (Swallow) – Tail
Displayed at the Kansas Aviation Museum

Laird Swallow at the Kansas Aviation Museum, Wichita, in 2011.

1927 (Laird) Swallow. Restored in 2004 and displayed at the Kansas Aviation Museum, Wichita, KS.
Photographed by me in 2011.

Laird and Moellendick’s business relationship was strained by the latter’s penchant for making executive decisions without consulting his partner. Hiring Lloyd and Waverly Stearman was OK with Laird, but expanding the factory and hiring a test pilot named Walter Beech was not. Laird left in 1923 and returned to Chicago. George B. “Buck” Weaver was next to express his discontent. He left to form the Weaver Airplane Company (WACO).

Lloyd Stearman and Walter Beech had an idea to improve the Swallow by making a tubular steel fuselage frame. Moellendick was enraged at the suggestion,  and invited them to take their proposal and their employment elsewhere. They did. They went to see Clyde Cessna, and the result of that meeting was the Travel Air Manufacturing Company. Office manager at Travel Air was Olive Ann Mellor. The Travel Air company and its products achieved almost legendary status, and rightly deserves its own chapter in the annals of American aviation history.

One of Travel Air’s early customers was a young pilot named Charles Lindbergh,  who thought a Travel Air would be ideally suited for a long distance flight from New York to Paris. Beech declined the order, with the result that Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in a Ryan monoplane.

Cessna left Travel Air to pursue his own ideas, especially about the development of monoplanes. Stearman left Travel Air to form his own company in California, but ironically Stearman Aircraft would return to Wichita later. Stearman’s own career would take him back to California where he ended his days at Lockheed.   Walter and Olive Ann Beech sold Travel Air before the bottom fell out of the aviation business in the depression.  Walter would later buy the Travel Air business back from its owners and with two seminal designs, the Model 17 “Staggerwing” biplane and the Model 18 twin engined monoplane, put Beech Aircraft – Beechcraft – into the forefront of American Aviation.

Moellendick persevered with Swallow, and sank most of his personal finance into  the Dallas Spirit,  a racing monoplane development which was lost in the infamous 1927 Dole Air Derby from Oakland to Honolulu.  The loss signed the death warrant of the company.  Various figures apparently tried to keep Swallow afloat,  but the company went under and, having sold his interest, Jake Moellendick died penniless. The cost of his funeral was covered by figures from the local aviation community who didn’t want to see him buried in a pauper’s grave by Sedgwick County, Kansas.

As a footnote,  some histories record that Gerald “Jerry” Vultee worked for Swallow early in his his career. The biographies are sufficiently vague as to offer no confirmation,  but if this is true, it gives increased emphasis to  Jake Moellendick’s crucial role in Kansas and American aviation.

Jake Moellendick (center) meets Amelia Earhart at Wichita in 1929.

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