In Wichita, Kansas, we tend to take exception to being called “Fly Over Country.” Unfortunately, the entire middle of the country is often considered just the space between destinations. Contrails crisscross the skies above the Great Plains every day. It has even been said that “Wichita” is an Indian word that means “hard to get to by airlines!” But those of us who live and work here are quick to point out that most of the American-made airplanes making those contrails probably made their first takeoffs and landings in Wichita! For more than one hundred years, airplanes have been flying over this state and for most of that time they’ve been manufactured here, too. Thanks to companies like Beechcraft, Boeing, Bombardier Learjet, Cessna and their predecessors, TravelAir and Stearman, more than three hundred thousand airplanes have been built in what has come to be known as the “Air Capital of the World.” That’s more than any place else on earth - by a wide margin!
Wichita’s history is full of great stories regarding aviation. Clyde Cessna’s great grandson once confided to a Cessna executive that his great-granddad, who crashed the first thirteen times he got his kit-built Bleriot monoplane airborne, wasn’t fond of breaking his airplane, or any bones, in order to get it back on the ground. He said that his grandmother, Clyde’s daughter, Wanda, told him that Clyde, on more than one occasion, opted for a softer landing, in a pond, rather than on the hard fields of Alfalfa, Oklahoma or Rago, Kansas. He would “buzz” the onlookers and tell them to prepare to haul the aircraft out of the mud. On hot summer days when this occurred, Wanda said her job was to carry pitchers of cold lemonade to the men who helped retrieve the water-logged airplane!
Walter Beech and Dwane Wallace, Clyde’s nephew who ran Cessna for more than forty years, both married “secretaries” who worked for them. Olive Ann and Velma turned out to be important contributors to the companies’ success stories. Mrs. Beech ran Beech Aircraft after her husband’s death and Velma learned to fly, helped Dwane lead Cessna through the mid-seventies and contributed her time, effort and resources to Wichita State University’s Wallace Scholars program and to the building of Exploration Place.
Bill Lear came to Wichita in 1958 and declared to the assembled airframe manufacturers gathered for an SAE meeting that ,”if you don’t build a personal jet in the next five years, I will!” That challenge, inspired by the entry of the Boeing 707 airliner into service, turned out to be a prediction. He founded Learjet in Switzerland, where he designed a personal jet based on the Swiss P-16 fighter, and then moved the company to Wichita. The city issued Lear its first-ever Industrial Revenue Bonds, and Bill aggressively mined the talent pools of the other airframe companies for their most talented engineers, machinists and executives. It got to the point that the defectors from Beech, Boeing and Cessna began to be referred to as “Italian Boatmen”, because they were “gone-to-Lears!”
Recent developments have raised the question of whether Wichita should maintain its claim to the “Air Capital” title, but these factors aren’t enough to overshadow the rich history and exceptional role Wichita continues to play in the global aerospace business. Consider this:
• Wichita still builds more airplanes than anywhere else in the world.
• Kansas’s aviation industry has a seven billion dollar impact on the national economy.
• Local manufacturers exported more than half of their production to international customers in recent years, resulting in a strong positive contribution to the nation’s balance of trade.
• The Wichita-based National Institute for Aviation Research and the National Center for Aviation Training are arguably the best in the world at what they do.
• Besides Airbus, Beechcraft, Bombardier Learjet, Cessna, and Spirit AeroSystems, Wichita is also home to a supplier base that numbers more than one hundred and thirty companies. They currently work with airframe manufacturers based in Wichita and around the world.
After a century of aircraft production, Wichita maintains a firm grasp on its title as the “Air Capital of the World.” There are countless amazing, entertaining and remarkable stories that feature a cast of unique and colorful characters who made aviation history right here in Fly Over Country. They will provide the basis for regular features on aviation in future issues of SPLURGE!, sponsored by GlobalParts.aero. Watch for them!
Little Known Aviation Facts sponsored by GlobalParts.aero.