This story begins back when there were round engines, and rag wings, and carmel varnish on wooden ribs. It starts back when there were slips down final so you could see around the engine, when there were tailskids and ground loops if you don’t watch out. It starts back in the days when there were landings in hay fields and the smell of crushed clover, the clatter of rocker-arms as the Wright ticked over. Those were the days when you could hear the creak of leather and the tink, tink, tink of exhaust pipes cooling after you pulled off the mixture, when you could smell hot oil and sweat as you pushed back your goggles and took off your gloves.
A young man of thirty-two, salesman for Swallow Aircraft, struck out on his own back in those early days of aviation. He started Travel Air Manufacturing Company and fell in love with the office manager. Best thing that could have happened to him and, for that matter, to aviation. Between 1924 and 1930 Walter Beech and Olive Ann built half the planes manufactured in the U.S. Later, when they were forced to sell the company after the stock market crash of ’29 they managed to start a new, even more successful company. Beechcraft, Olive Ann, and Travel Air changed Walter’s life . . . and a lot of other lives.
The Travel Air biplanes they built together in the early days were good looking ships. Hell-for-stout, and they flew right too. Walter’s buddy at Swallow, a young architect of twenty-six by the name of Lloyd Stearman, also moved over to Travel Air where he modeled his design on a famous WW1 German fighter. People called ’em “Ol’ Elephant Ears” becuase of their protruding ailerons or “Wichita Fokkers” because of their starring roles in flickering silent movies.
Clyde Cessna helped Walter and Olive Ann start Travel Air with know-how and a significant financial investment. He favored single wing design, so Travel Air Manufacturing built some monoplanes too. With wicker seats, mahogany framed picture windows, a tiled lavatory, and broadcloth seat covers, they personified luxury aloft. Delta and Braniff flew them, and the first non-military aircraft to fly to Hawaii was a Travel Air monoplane. Phillips Petroleum even sponsored a crew that kept a big Travel Air 6000B up for 13 days without a landing or, for that matter, a bath. A hose was lowered from another aircraft to transfer fuel and, clinging to a makeshift catwalk, they changed spark plugs inches from the spinning propeller, thousands of feet from the ground.
Go to Kachemak Bay Flying Service in Homer, Alaska and you can sit in those wicker seats, caress the big round control wheels, and fly in that very Travel Air 6000B monoplane that stayed aloft for almost two weeks over half a century ago. Go to Barnstorming Adventures in San Diego and you can fly in a Travel Air 4000 biplane that was first owned by a detective agency in Chicago and transported a gangster-sniffing bloodhound. No dowager hangar queens, these Travel Airs are still working hard to earn their keep.
Cupid joined the act a few years ago. I went looking for a WW2 Stearman because that’s what Bevo Howard and the Army Air Corps used to teach Pop to fly back in ’44. But under the Antique heading in Trade-a-Plane there was an ad for a 1929 something powered by a 220 Continental powerplant just like a Stearman, and cheaper too.
Cupid’s debut came late one afternoon on an overcast Fall day at a grass airfield perched on a hill northeast of Philadelphia. Tramping through the wet grass, the grey sky looked like it might spit snow. Wood smoke hung in the damp air, and a dim yellow light glowed in the wooden hangar’s dusty windows . . . a scene right out of the ’20s it seemed. Central Casting provided the intrepid aviator: good looks that would have made Errol Flynn weep, pencil mustache, and a soft spoken deliberate manner. On cue he stuck his head out a side door, “Here to look at the Travel Air?”
The aroma of butyrate dope and gasoline set the scene. Oil drums, a couple of Menasco engines in crates, and uncovered wings from a Waco strung from the rafters decorated the set. Filling the stage were two beautiful biplanes. One, a scarlet and cream beauty parked back in the corner, obviously wasn’t for sale. Its wheels, mounted with tires as big as a Model A truck’s, were high as your thigh and narrow as a pack of Lucky Strikes. A Wright radial engine with a polished Hamilton-Standard prop, chrome outrigger oleo struts, and stainless steel flying wires provided accents that made her sparkle. The only Speedwing Travel Air 4D in existence, it turned out. American Airlines’ Captain Bill Plecenik’s pride and joy. Cupid notched an arrow.
Nestled alongside the Speedwing, stage center, sat what Bill explained was a Travel Air 4000. Restored in Florida back in the mid-’80s with five thousand hours of loving work, he said. Flown north by two young fellows that figured to hop rides with her, but didn’t figure it would get to be work and didn’t figure she’d cost money to keep flying. So they sold her. Bill put up the money and mechanic/artist Bar Eisenhaur put up the talent to finish her to perfection. With the lines of an art deco starlet, with factory original silver wings and eagle blue fuselage, and with leather seats and cockpit coamings dyed to match, she was gorgeous. Cupid stretched his bow.
The experiences in that Travel Air won’t be forgotten. Bumping along in the wind following the Interstate south to Sun-‘n-Fun, watching the cars cruise past with definitely better ground speed is something you won’t soon forget. You don’t forget rumbling up the beach of the Outer Banks on the way home, just above the waves, smelling the salt in the air. You don’t forget landing in the newly planted tobacco field surrounded by unforecast thunderstorms on the way to a North Carolina air show, or the southern hospitality of the astounded and gracious sharecropper with two empty rooms, one bed and a refrigerator, and a family of five. You don’t forget the blondy-haired youngster that hung around all day at the midwest fly-in or the look on his face when you finally ask if he’d like a ride. And you certainly won’t forget the joyride with a business consultant, who happened to be drop-dead-beautiful, and the moment when you realized that what she was waving in the warm summer slipstream from her seat in the front cockpit was her tanktop. Twang, Cupid let fly.
A few days later when she announced it was a mighty pretty day to go flying it seemed Kate was hinting at another biplane ride. Nope. She was saying she’d just come back from her third lesson, she’d signed up the very next day after the tanktop flight, and it sure was beautiful up there. Clear as could be, she said, see all the way to the Chesapeake Bay. Ol’ cupid hit two hearts with one arrow. Kate fell in love with flying and yours truely fell in love with her. Had no inkling how it was going to change our lives.
Several months later, sitting on the top of a rocky seacoast cliff near San Francisco, we were talking about how life isn’t a dress rehearsal and we’d better enjoy it this time around ’cause there ain’t no next time so what do we want to do when we grow up and why should we grow up anyway and look down there right over the surf, here comes a biplane. The biplane flew past, below us. No illusion, still we thought Richard Bach was trying to tell us something.
Yup, powerful stuff, that biplane model hanging from the ceiling, Richard. It worked just like you said it would. Built a little wood and tissue biplane and hung it up after reading about the magic in A Gift of Wings. Put the model at a jaunty angle on a string in the corner of the room, and sure ’nuff, in less than six months it attracted a blue and silver Travel Air and the opportunity to play with a whole passel of Wacos and Stearmans. Almost ten years later that little model is still working. It’s attracted two more Travel Air biplanes and a life full of Ceconite and rib-stitching and dope, full of master rods and crankshafts and 50-weight oil by the drum, full of lazy-eights and laughter and love. Coveralls, flight suits, preflight briefings, and ramp checks replaced three-piece suits, pantyhose, bored meetings, and Board meetings.
But we’re getting ahead of the story here. You see Cash Register Kate (a banker before she was a barnstormer) acquired a newly restored Travel Air 4000 of her own in factory original blue and orange colors and, with her Student Pilot’s certificate and yours truly, Tailspin Tommy, she flew her new/old biplane across the country from Sonoma to Philadelphia without the convenience of radios or GPS. There, Barnstorming Adventures Ltd. started hopping rides over rolling hayfields, Amish horse-drawn black buggies, and the chuffing steam locomotive of Pennsylvania Dutch country.
But after two years of summer thunderstorms and winter snowstorms, finances dictated a move to a better climate with a longer flying season. Battling rain, snow, and 16 degree outside (and inside) air temperatures the fledgling business moved across the continent to San Diego.
Sunny Diego was good to us: Imagine sitting in a huge hangar (no, even bigger than that) draining biplane oil while you listen to ragtime booming from the stereo. You’re surrounded by Bill and Claudia Allen’s amazing collection of aviation artifacts and their unique airplanes: Louise Thaden’s race winning gold and blue 1929 Travel Air 4000, a big silver 1930 Stearman C3R mail plane build by Lloyd before he joined Laugheed later Lockheed, and an orange Great Lakes–a real 1930s Great Lakes with a round engine. There’s even a tiny blue Smith Miniplane, only slightly larger than a kid’s pedal plane tucked under the wing of the Stearman. Against the rear wall is a Royal Dutch East Indies and RAAF 1940 STM-2 with a 5-cylinder Kinner and pictures of her when she trained cadets in the East Indies during WW2. There’s another Ryan, a Army PT-22, in the shop, waiting for wings. And there’s an old homebuilt in there, a basket case under restoration by someone’s son as a surprise for his Dad who’d built it back when. Aviation heaven on earth.
A local TV station gave us the visibility we needed. Kate, like Olive Ann, provided the management expertise. The Los Angeles Times even picked us as a favorite weekend adventure. Another Travel Air, a Piper Super Cruiser, three Varga VG-21s for dogfights, a North American SNJ-4, a Beechcraft C-45H ‘Bugsmasher’, a ’49 Studebaker pickup, a red hot rod ’37 Chevy, and a couple of surfboards were added to the fleet. Then Cupid shouldered his quiver and stepped in again.
Thought we might do some rides in a cabin monoplane, thought a Travel Air 6000 “Limousine of the Air” would be perfect. Called Bill and Barbara de Creeft in Alaska to see if they knew anyone that had a TA6000 like theirs for sale. Nope, “Scarce as gull’s teeth,” Bill said. “Our’s is a family member and not for sale. Sooner sell ya my wife, but she’s a keeper too,” he told us.
As it turned out Bill and Barbara planned to hop rides out of Santa Paula Airport northwest of L.A., as was their winter custom and they would be down to The Lower Forty-Eight before long. We agreed to meet and swap Travel Air tales. Cupid reached for his bow. When Kate bought me a Christmas gift certificate for a busman’s holiday and a ride in their plane, Cupid notched an arrow and waited. And waited. And waited.
Business before pleasure, and two years passed before we had time to take that ride. We finally met at the Casa Grande, Arizona fly-in where we both planned to hop rides. What a sight–big black and red Travel Air monoplane sitting on the ramp with a blue and orange Travel Air biplane alongside, true birds of a feather. Sixty-five years after they’d been built, we all thought Olive Ann, Walter, Clyde, and Lloyd would have enjoyed the sight too. But, to our chagrin, our interloping biplane was busier than Bill and Barbara’s aerial limo in spite of its record as an attraction in previous years.
Nevertheless, they invited us to dinner even after we walked off with the income they’d counted on to cover expenses. Over coffee, Bill exhorted Kate to make an honest man out of me. He suggested we tie the knot in Alaska standing on the floats of his Travel Air. “After the Spring thaw, we pull off the wheels and put on the floats, close the main street, fold down the street signs, and drag the planes down to the water. We’ll do the deed out at Chapel Lake,” promised Bill. After 7 years as “um, friends” we agreed it was the only way for a couple of barnstormers to tie the knot. Twang, Cupid let fly and hit the bull’s eye.
It’s not hard to explain our attraction to Barbara who quietly puts up with all this while firmly running the show, who worries about where the money’s going to come from for the overhaul on the Otter’s big Pratt & Whitney engine while he’s dickering for a dilapidated R.E.O. Speedwagon truck “out of pity for the poor ol’ thing.” It’s not hard to explain our attraction to a woman who gently rocks her granddaughter while she calls on the short-wave radio to make sure Bill is okay flying over Cook Inlet. It’s not hard to explain how Barbara and their Travel Air has changed Bill’s life, and ours for that matter. But it’s very hard to explain how we were lucky enough to cross paths. Nothing by chance, I suppose.
With all this in our hearts we headed for Anchorage in an airliner, a concession to business reality at the expense of missed true adventure flying the AlCan Highway in a biplane, and arrived to discover that the turboprop commuter connection had been replaced, just this once, with a vintage DC-3 for the hour-long hop to Homer. An attractive young lady in a ’30s uniform, clearly a stewardess not a flight attendant, announced that our pilot today was Captain Cloud. Really. A perfect start for a fairy tale wedding.
Bill met us at the airport in Homer where the weather was T-shirt warm with cloudless blue skies topping mountains rising straight up out of the ocean to glaciers between their peaks. But a hundred foot thick blanket of fog moved in over the lake faster than you can read this story, so we threw our bags in a pickup and headed for the boat harbor out on the spit to pick up the diverted pilot of Bill’s Otter and his planeload of fishermen. After the big scarlet float plane threaded its way through seemingly endless finger piers and menacing pilings, after laboriously unloading passengers and equipment down the plane’s narrow boarding ladder and along the slippery float, after tediously maneuvering the long-winged plane to a pier, and after carefully tying it up for a night away from home the fog disappeared as quickly as it formed. A two-minute flight back to Beluga Lake and Bill’s plane was home for the night . . . almost before the passengers who drove. Welcome to the world of Alaskan bush flying.
Next day the first order of business was a wedding license, but halfway through the form, it turned out to be a hunting license, not a marriage license. You have to be careful when you ask for a license in Alaska, especially when your hunting days are supposed to be over. The three day waiting period (buyer’s remorse law?) passed quickly watching the rapidly changing but always beautiful weather, enjoying tag-along sightseeing rides over glaciers in the Travel Air, and trying to absorb all that grandeur.
If you haven’t seen Alaska and particularly Homer, go! It’s a small drinking village with a fishing problem, they proclaim. You’ll find whales breaching in the bay, brown bears fishing for salmon in the river, moose meandering past the bedroom window of your log cabin at the Wild Rose B&B, bighorn sheep gazing at you from impossibly steep mountainsides, more eagles in one tree than you can count, a nearby town built on a dozen tiny islands with bridges for streets, farmers with boats instead of tractors and oysters instead of cows–a place where pilots are beloved and airplane noise is reason for rejoicing.
We made a last minute run to the grocery store looking for food for the reception. No long drawn plans for an expensive bash. Until the day before the wedding, we didn’t even think we’d have guests, much less a reception. So we filled the cart with cold cuts and cheese, sourdough bread, hot mustard, sparkling cider, and plastic forks. Decided a pink birthday cake would be perfect for a barnstormer’s wedding. A small fortune can be spent on flowers for a wedding. Not us. $6.99 for a bridal bouquet of wildflowers from Pay ‘n Pak.
Wedding day dawned bright and cloudless, a clear sign to those that know that the williwaw downdrafts off the mountain would make Emerald (Chapel) Lake treacherous. Last minute change of plans and the entourage of our newest and best friends departed, bride radiant in white sweatshirt gussied up with bells and bows, my Navy flight jacket, and rubber waders.
After landing on Caribou (Chapel 2) Lake we tied the planes to the bushes on the leeward side. The assembled multitude gathered on the shore. Kate and I perched on the floats of the Travel Air, and pilot/parson Bill officiated from knee deep in the water. Wedding ceremony almost turned into a baptismal ceremony when we slipped during the “You may kiss the bride” part. Music by Hamilton and Standard, 9-cylinder choir directed by Wright. Mr. & Mrs. Beech, Mr. Stearman, and Mr. Cessna attended in spirit.
We beat our way through the brush for the reception at Bill and Barbara’s cabin. The place was decorated with streamers of toilet paper and we enjoyed ’20s ragtime music on the ’90s boombox. Forgot a knife so the cake was ceremoniously cut with an ax. A swell time was had by all. Whisked from the reception in the “Limousine of The Air,” the newlyweds step-taxied across the lake to Willard’s Moose Camp, where they were the only people for 60 miles in any direction save the lovely lady who owns the place. If you visit, while you enjoy her gourmet cooking, ask Linda for an opportunity to toot her husband’s Ptarmigan horn. You’ll never forget the experience.
Bill wanted us to know what it was like here during the Travel Air’s heyday, so he picked our wedding-night cabin, a remnant from the ’20s. Eight feet square with a wood stove, sawdust mixed with diesel fuel for fire starter. Flour sacks full of sawdust for mattresses on the bunk beds (thanks a lot, Bill), and slices of truck inner-tube for springs. It was a moose lodge, but it was a convention of bears that partied all night. Kate hardly slept worrying about the noisy neighbors, what with the nice collection of nuts and berries someone thoughtfully provided.
Now, if someone asks you what flying’s all about, tell them about Olive Ann and Travel Air Manufacturing Company. Tell them about Barbara and Kachemak Air Service. Tell them about Kate and Barnstorming Adventures. Tell them about the heart of flying.
Aviation for Women, March/April 2007