May 29, 2022 – Wichita, Kansas
“The Air Capitol of the World” – it’s a bold thing to call a city. Our whirlwind tour of south-central Kansas concluded in late May 2022 with a trip to the Kansas Aviation Museum in Wichita. We soon learned that Wichita is wholly deserving of its “Air Capitol of the World” title.
By the way, in addition to the Air Capitol of the World, Kansas is also the location of the Disc Golf Capitol of the world, the Global Design Capitol of the World, the Barbed Wire Capitol of the World, the Cowboy Capitol of the World, and the Catfish Capitol of the World — and that’s just the first page of Google results.
But back to the Air Capitol of the World, which is represented by the Kansas Aviation Museum. It’s really an outstanding museum that details the history of not just general aviation but aviation directly related to Wichita — which, as it turns out, also shares many of the names of the history of aviation in the United States: Cessna, Stearman, Beech, Boeing, and more.
The mid-continent location of Wichita Municipal Airport made it one of the busiest commercial airports in the country: in 1944, a takeoff or landing occurred every 90 seconds. World War II brought significant growth in Wichita’s aviation industry, including a decision by Boeing to build bombers and other aircraft in the city. That expansion, including a new U.S. Air Force base with 6,500 personnel, brought a lot of jobs to the city but it also necessitated relocating Wichita’s airport to a larger facility. By 1954, nearly all commercial and private air traffic was being managed at what is now National Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport. The original municipal airport facility was used by the USAF and Kansas Air National Guard for a few decades, but the building was eventually abandoned by 1984.
The building and grounds are a perfect location for an aviation history museum, however, and the Wichita Aeronautical Historical Association, leasing the property from the City of Wichita, opened the Kansas Aviation Museum on April 19, 1991. The facility includes a number of large exhibits devoted to different aspects of aviation, including the Engine Room, which displays examples of propellers, landing gear, and engines, many of which were made in Wichita; exhibits detailing the history of Wichita-based aircraft companies like Beech, Cessna, and Ryan International Airlines; and many full-size original private and military aircraft.
Let’s start with a visit to the Engine Room, shall we?
Curtiss OX-5 Engine
This 8-cylinder engine, producing 90 horsepower and 1,400 revolutions per minute, was the powerplant of the Curtiss JN-4 airplane. Known as the “Jenny,” the Curtiss Aeroplane Company developed the aircraft as a trainer for the U.S. Army in 1915. So many pilots learned to fly in the Jenny that it was called “the airplane that taught America to fly.” Curtiss built a total of 6,813 Model JNs, ending production in 1927. The airplane remained very popular following World War I and was heavily used in the barnstorming craze that led to the rise of civil aviation in the United States. This engine weighs 390 pounds, about a third of the Jenny’s total weight of 1,390 pounds. Nancy and I saw a replica of a JN-3 during our visit to Pancho Villa State Park in New Mexico in December 2021. The state park is the site of the former Camp Furlong, at which the first military airfield in the United States was built in 1916;.
Wright Whirlwind J-5 Engine
This important engine was introduced in 1925 to power a number of aircraft built in Wichita, including the Travel Air 2000, 3000, and 4000, as well as the Laird (later Stearman) Swallow (see below). An engine of this type drove the propeller of the Spirit of St. Louis, a custom-built monoplane, across the Atlantic Ocean during Charles Lindbergh’s first solo transatlantic flight in May 1927. The Wright Whirlwind produced 220 horsepower at 2,000 RPM.
1934 Link Trainer AN-T-18
When I first saw this machine from a distance, I thought it was a toy. Edwin Link’s family produced pianos and organs, and Link used that experience with valves, bellows, and pumps to develop this instrument flight simulator. The machine used organ bellows to make the trainer pitch, roll, and yaw in response to a pilot trainee’s movements.
I wasn’t terribly far off from thinking it was a toy, though. The U.S. Army Air Corps didn’t think much of the simulators at first, and the first sales of the trainer came as carnival rides. However, when 12 Army pilots were killed in a 78-day period due to their lack of training in flying under instrument conditions, the Air Corps was compelled to find a solution. In 1934, Edwin Link flew to a meeting in foggy conditions that were perceived as unflyable, and the Army Air Corps ordered its first six Link Trainers at a cost of $3,500 each. During World War II, more than 10,000 Link Trainers were built to familiarize more than 500,000 U.S. Army and Navy pilots with flying under instrument conditions.
Cessna 206 Super Skywagon Wing
Along with engines and propellors, this section of the museum illustrated how aircraft wings work. The elliptical design of the wing provides lift when the airplane is pulled forward by a propeller or pushed from behind by a jet engine. This is the left wing of a 1964 Cessna 206. The six-seat Super Skywagon was introduced in 1964 and remained in production until 1986 when Cessna ceased production of single-engine aircraft. The company reintroduced the 206 in 1998 and the aircraft remains in production. The 206 model, renowned for its stability and reliability, could carry a thousand pounds of passengers and/or cargo, which led to it being known as “a flying pickup truck.” See below for a picture of a Cessna 206 with both of its wings, along with all its other parts.
General Electric/Allison J35-A-13 Turbojet Engine
In addition to propeller engines, the museum has a good selection of early jet engines. This jet engine was first developed by General Electric in 1946, but the Allison division of General Motors took over production of the engine the following year. More than 14,000 of these engines were built by the time production of the J35 ended in 1955. It was used in a number of experimental aircraft, as well as the production fighters North American FJ-1 Fury, Northrop F-89 Scorpion, and the Republic F-84 Thunderjet (see below). This engine weighs more than 2,800 pounds and produced 5,200 pounds of thrust.
Now, on to the West Hall’s display of vintage aircraft.
Replica of an early 1920s Laird Swallow
E.M. Laird Airplane Company was formed in Wichita in 1920. The company’s first airplane, the Wichita Tractor, took flight on April 8 of that year, and an onlooker remarked, “She flies like a swallow, boys.” The Laird Swallow was the first commercially produced aircraft in the United States, and only 43 models were constructed. No original Swallows are known to exist, thus this replica (from which the sides of the fuselage have been removed so one can see the inner workings). The Swallow had a top speed of 86 MPH.
An interesting note: a couple of the original principals of the company, Lloyd Stearman and Walter Beech, would later join with Clyde Cessna and Walter Innes to create the Travel Air Company in 1925. Travel Air was the biggest aircraft manufacturer in the United States three years later, and was the prime contributor to Wichita being named the “Air Capital City.”
1931 Stearman Model 4D
Developed in 1930 from earlier Stearman designs, the Model 4 was developed with a deeper fuselage and more powerful engine that enabled it to carry heavier cargo loads than its predecessors. This is one of only four Model 4Ds to have been constructed, and a total of 41 Model 4 variants were finished. Stearman Model 4 aircraft were in the fleets of Varney Airlines (now United Airlines), American Airways (now American Airlines), and Standard Oil Company. This particular craft, which sold for about $16,000, was first used by Texaco Oil Company until its retirement in 1936. It was later used for crop dusting, and still later for mosquito control for the Tennessee Valley Authority in Alabama. It had a top speed of 145 MPH and a range of 500 miles, weighing 3,800 pounds. Its wingspan is 38 feet and the length is just shy of 27 feet. The Kansas Aviation Museum completed the restoration of this beautiful airplane, featuring its original livery, in 2014.
1944 Beechcraft D175 Staggerwing
During the U.S. Great Depression, aircraft executive Walter Beech and airplane designer T.A. “Ted” Wells collaborated on a biplane project intended solely for the use of business executives. The Beechcraft Model 17, later known as the “Staggerwing,” first flew on Nov. 4, 1932. The aircraft got its nickname because of the wing configuration: the upper wing was placed behind the lower wing to improve pilot visibility. This aircraft featured retractable landing gear, which was not common at the time, and boasted a range of 670 miles with a top speed of 212 MPH. The wingspan is 32 feet and the craft is almost 27 feet long, with a gross weight of 4,250 pounds. Note that the Wichita Municipal Airport was not originally designed to display aircraft in its interior, and part of the fun of visiting the museum is wondering how the airplanes got into the building for display.
Before going outside to see the aircraft on display out there, take a look at the ceiling above you:
Now, let’s proceed outside for a look at a few of the 14 aircraft on display.
Republic F-84 Thunderjet
Republic Aviation, based on Long Island, New York, is famous for its design and production of several World-War-II-era and post-war aircraft, including the P-47 Thunderbolt fighter, the F-105 Thunderchief, and the F-84 Thunderjet. First flying in 1946, the Thunderjet was plagued by a variety of problems that nearly caused the U.S. Air Force to cancel the program. However, after some significant design improvements, the F-84 became the Air Force’s primary strike aircraft during the Korean War and would fly more than 86,000 sorties during that conflict. The Thunderjet was the first production aircraft to be capable of inflight refueling, as well as the first fighter that could carry a nuclear weapon. The F-84 was also the first aircraft to be used by the Air Force Thunderbirds aeronautics team. More than 7,500 F-84s were built. The General Electric/Allison J35-A-13 turbojet engine, shown above, was used in the F-84. With later variations and improvements in performance, the F-84 could fly up to 622 MPH.
Lockheed T-33B Shooting Star and Boeing B-52D Stratofortress
First flying in 1948, the Lockheed T-33 (shown in foreground) was used by the U.S. Air Force and Navy as a trainer for its jet pilots. More than 6,500 Shooting Stars were manufactured until production ceased in 1959. In addition to the United States, military branches of 43 other countries used the T-33 to train their pilots. The last operator of the T-33, the air force of Bolivia, retired its aircraft in 2017 after having used Shooting Stars for 44 years. The T-33 had a maximum speed of 600 MPH.
You might also notice the Boeing B-52D bomber, the big boy in back of the T-33. Introduced by Boeing in 1952, the jet-powered Stratofortress continues to be in service with the U.S. Air Force and is expected to remain so into the 2050s. It has outlasted more advanced bomber models introduced after it, like the Convair B-58 Hustler, the Rockwell B-1 Lancer, and the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit. Originally manufactured in Boeing’s Seattle plant, the B-52 was built in Wichita beginning with this B-52D model in 1957 and continuing through the B-52H model in 1963. A total of 742 B-52s were built in Seattle and Wichita, and about 50 of them are still in service. Powered by eight Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines, the final B-52H production model has a maximum speed of 650 MPH, a service ceiling of 50,000 feet (nine and a half miles above the Earth) and a ferry range (when fully loaded with fuel) of just over 10,000 miles and a combat range (while carrying ordinance) of 8,800 miles. For reference, the diameter of the Earth at the equator is 7,917 miles. With a wingspan of 185 feet, as Nancy pointed out, if a B-52 was parked so that its nose was on the 50-yard line of a football field, its wings would stretch to each of the 20-yard lines (as a comparison, a Boeing 737 passenger airliner has a wingspan of about 117 feet).
Boeing B-47 Stratojet
We saw an example of this bomber in Albuquerque, New Mexico, during a visit to the National Museum of Nuclear Science & Historyin late 2021, but it was fun to see this aircraft on display in the city in which, like the B-52D above, it was built – the first B-47 was manufactured in 1951, in Wichita. The B-47 was the U.S. Air Force’s first swept-wing bomber capable of flying at both high altitude and supersonic speed, with a maximum speed of 607 mph and a ferry range of more than 6,400 miles. When you fly on a commercial jet airliner today, you’re benefiting from technology and aeronautic advancements that were first made with the development of the Stratojet.
It’s really rewarding to see examples of Wichita-made military aircraft that, in addition to helping protect our country, led to the development of so many aeronautical innovations we take advantage of when taking a cross-country (or cross-ocean) flight. For me, however, whenever I think of Wichita aircraft companies, my mind first goes to Cessna. My dad, Steve Goering, was born and raised just north of Wichita and got his private pilot’s license as a very young man. He has piloted Cessna models 150, 170, 172 and 182, along with a number of other fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. This is an example of a Cessna 206, an extraordinarily popular model of aircraft (along with the models 205 and 207) that is used for commercial air service as well as personal use such as aerial photography.
Cessna was founded in Wichita in 1927 by Clyde Cessna and a partner, who quickly sold his share of the company to Cessna. The company was purchased by General Dynamics in 1985, and then by Textron in 1992. It, along with Beechcraft and Hawker Aircraft companies, is now a brand of Textron.
We’ve been to a number of aircraft museums in the months since becoming full-time RVers, but the Kansas Aviation Museum sticks out for me simply because of the history that the city of Wichita has with the science of flying. Its displays will teach you how airplanes fly, either with engine-driven propellers or with jets, and provide you with up-close views of some of the most popular aircraft produced — many in Wichita — in the last 100 years. Seattle, Washington, can certainly be proud of its aviation history as well, but I don’t think there’s a museum showing the depth of home-grown aeronautical innovation – from this Cessna 206 to a Boeing Stratofortress – quite like Wichita’s.