Clyde Cessna grew up on a farm near Raymond, Kan. He was a natural tinkerer and liked to know how things worked. He showed a talent for fixing farm machinery and by the early 1900s, Clyde Cessna had developed a reputation as a talented mechanic.
It was only natural, then, that his purchase of an REO automobile in 1907 would lead to more than a passing fancy with the new contraptions. In fact, it would lead him to a new career.
Tinkerer, salesman, pilot
At a time when many were skeptical of the newfangled automobiles, Clyde was fascinated and set about to learn what he could about them. He took a job as a salesman for an Overland car dealership in nearby Harper, Kan. When the shop closed, he moved to Enid, Okla. to become a partner in another dealership.
Clyde proved to be a talented salesman and businessman and eventually that dealership would be renamed the Cessna Automobile Co. Selling cars was fun, but a fascination with aviation was kindled when he heard of Bleriot's crossing of the English Channel on July 25, 1909.
Setting aside the fact that he couldn't fly, Clyde began plotting a way to buy and fly an airplane of his own. After attending the Oklahoma City Airmeet in 1911, Clyde was even more determined. Soon after he made his way to New York City and to the Queen Aeroplane Co.
Clyde worked on the Queen Aeroplane assembly line for three weeks, soaking up as much as he could about airplane construction. He also took a few short flights with the company pilots and quickly decided he was ready to buy a plane and become a pilot. He returned to Enid to await the shipment of his new plane, nicknamed Silverwing. (Some historians refer to this airplane as "Silver Wings." —Ed.)
Silverwing and Cessna wings
Clyde would eventually learn to fly in Silverwing, but not without first enduring many frustrating and painful episodes. One of these put him in the hospital—and wrecked his plane, requiring a nearly total rebuild.
Once back in the air, Clyde continued to improve his flying while his time on the ground was spent tinkering with Silverwing to improve its performance. He made money by exhibition flying at state fairs and other events. But time—and crashes—eventually took their toll, and Clyde decided to retire Silverwing and build an airplane on his own.
Clyde would use Silverwing's design as his pattern, but wanted to make many improvements to its control and handling characteristics. Wingspan and chord were increased; the fuselage was lengthened and entirely covered by fabric. Although Clyde wanted a radial engine for the plane, budget dictated that he stay with the Elbridge engine from Silverwing.
The plane flew well on its maiden voyage in early June 1913, but Clyde made a forced landing to avoid high-tension wires and the plane flipped. More repairs and he was back in the air and making money flying exhibition flights.
The second monoplane Clyde built was an improvement upon the previous. It had a smaller empennage and all-moving, stabilator-type pitch control, a small windshield and a 60 hp Anzani radial engine paired with a nearly 84-inch propeller.
The plane made its maiden flight in June 1914 and in 1915, Clyde took the craft to an altitude of 2,000 feet. He continued to fly exhibitions, but his thoughts often turned to the future of aviation. Just as he had with automobiles, Clyde saw more than just a machine when he looked at airplanes: he saw a market. He was determined to build airplanes and teach people to fly them.
A flying exhibition took Clyde to Wichita and the city apparently captivated him, because by the time he left he had decided this was the place to build airplanes. The city fathers gave Clyde their support; we can presume they felt that having airplanes built in Wichita would be good for the city's image.
Wichita businessmen also stepped forward to offer assistance. A vacant building at the J.J. Jones Motor Car Co. complex was offered to Clyde for use in building airplanes with 73 adjacent acres available for flying and training.
Never one to stay satisfied for long, by 1917 Clyde was busy building a two-seat plane. It was larger than its predecessors with a 32-foot wingspan and a fuselage 25 feet long. Larger wheels were needed for the higher gross weight, and shock absorbers were installed on the landing gear.
It had room for a pilot and passenger, and the passenger compartment was enclosed by a fairing that curved up from the nose. Two small side windows may have afforded the passenger something of a view. The plane was completely covered in cotton fabric.
Clyde took the plane for a test flight on June 24, 1917 and was pleased with its performance and immediately put it to use on the exhibition circuit. Flying home from one such event he decided to see just what the plane could do. Making an average speed of 107.5 mph, the plane was shooting through the sky and Clyde named it the Comet.
Although Clyde was certain that there would be a commercial market for airplanes, by 1917, people in the United States and throughout most of the world were embroiled in the war in Europe. Fuel rationing posed a particular threat to recreational flying.
Clyde returned to his family farm where he would remain for years.
Cessna Aircraft Co.
Clyde Cessna formally returned to aviation in 1925 when he, along with Walter J. Innes, William Snook, Charles Yankey, Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman formed Travel Air, Inc. Clyde would spend the next two years with the company, and while Travel Air built biplanes, Clyde remained convinced of the monoplane's superiority.
He eventually led the company to make its first monoplane—Type 5000—but he wanted to do more. Clyde wanted to build a full-cantilever wing monoplane, and he left Travel Air to do just that.
Phantom and A-Series
Clyde began work on his full-cantilever wing plane before he officially established a company. He planned for two models: a five-place with a wingspan of 47 feet and 200 hp Wright J-4 radial; and a three-place, 36-foot aircraft with a 100 hp Wright engine.
He decided to build the three-place plane first. Proper design and construction of the wing was crucial as the plane would be put through a tough evaluation to receive its Type Certificate. The wings were built with a 12-inch thick center section tapering to two-and-a-half inches at the tips. They stretched 37 feet and were shoulder-mounted on the fuselage. Dubbed the Phantom, the plane did well in flight testing with a maximum speed of almost 100 mph and offering useful weight of 722 pounds.
The Phantom caught the attention of Victor H. Roos who approached Clyde about a business partnership and the Cessna-Roos Aircraft Co. held its first meeting on Sept. 26, 1927. It was a short-lived association, as Roos left the company just two months after it was formed. The company name was officially changed to The Cessna Aircraft Co. on December 22.
Orders for the Phantom were coming in, but getting the Wright J-5 engines to complete them was becoming a problem. Clyde was nothing if not resourceful, however; he turned to the stock of Anzani radials he had on hand.
The Anzani engines would not work in their stock condition and had to be rebuilt, causing additional delays. Furthermore, although the rebuilt Anzanis had good performance and reliability, people didn't want to buy "old" technology and sales lagged.
Insufficient supply of Wright engines was a problem for nearly every airplane company in Wichita, but by July 1928 other companies were stepping up to fill the demand. Clyde tried many of them.
In 1928, Cessna shipped aircraft with the 10-cylinder, 120 hp Anzani; the seven-cylinder 110 hp Warner; the nine-cylinder 220-225 hp Wright; the nine-cylinder 118-125 hp Siemens-Halske; the seven-cylinder 115-150 hp Floco/Axelson; and the seven-cylinder, 130-150 hp Comet.
The Warner "Scarab" proved to be a reliable, economical and easy to maintain powerplant and Clyde moved to secure a good working relationship with Warner.
The stress analysis for the new A series aircraft was completed in June 1928. It featured a 40 foot, two inch NACA M-12 airfoil for the wing, bolted to the upper longerons of the fuselage. The fuselage and gear struts were built of chrome molybdenum tubing.
Several A models were in production: AA, featuring a 120 hp Anzani and selling for $5,750; AC, with a 130-150 hp Comet, for $7,500; AF, with the 115-150 hp Floco, selling for $7,500; AS, fitted with a 188-125 hp Simens-Halske and offered at $7,500; and AW, with the 110 hp Warner Scarab, also selling for $7,500.
The Cessna Aircraft Co. received a huge boost in popularity in September 1928 when a Model AW piloted by Earl Rowland won its class (Class A airplanes with engine displacement not to exceed 510 cubic inches) at the National Air Races. Rowland made the trip from New York to Los Angeles in 27 hours, 31 seconds.
Orders for the AW poured in and Clyde found himself in the position of needing to ramp up production and enlarge his factory. While he worked out details for additional funding, his engineers were busy working on new models.
The CW-6, a six-seat powered by a 225 hp Wright J-5 engine, was the first prototype off the line. Its 32-foot fuselage had three doors on the right side: two for passengers and one for the pilot. It had 44-foot wingspan and all-new landing gear that came with a vertical "oildraulic" strut connected to the front spar and the gear assembly. The tail skid was replaced by a non-steerable tailwheel. The prototype was well received, but a production run was never to be.
Earl Rowland and Cessna sales representative W.C. Vail flew the CW-6 to Mexico, as Clyde was eager to tap into the international market. On a fuel stop at Laredo, Tex. en route to Mexico City, they were warned of dangers to Americans because of the rebellion.
Rowland and Vail's next stop for fuel was a small field at San Luis Potosi, where the CW-6 broke a wheel on the rough surface of the crude runway. Once the wheel was fixed they were on their way to Mexico City once again—with a Mexican military officer on board.
As they approached Mexico City, the officer directed them to land at a military airstrip, but fearing he might lose the plane, Rowland set it down at a commercial airport instead. The Cessna was commandeered by the military anyway.
Positive growth and the DC-6
Meanwhile Clyde's efforts to obtain additional funding for his company were paying off and on March 25, 1929, groundbreaking ceremonies took place for a new Cessna complex in Wichita.
The next plane out of the Cessna factory was the DC-6 ("D" because it was the fourth Cessna model; "C" for its Curtiss Challenger engine (170 hp); and "6" for reasons unknown, as it was a four-seater). The airplane had a 27 foot, 11 inch airframe with a 40 foot, 8 inch wingspan and was over seven feet tall at its peak. The DC-6 had a gross weight of 2,988 pounds, a maximum speed of 130 mph and rate of climb of 780 fpm.
There was interest in the DC-6, but many felt it was underpowered. Clyde had plans to fit the DC-6 with the 225 hp Wright J-6-7 and the 300 hp J-6-9 radials, and soon the structural changes and additional stress analysis required for the heavier Wright engines were completed. The new DC-6 model would have a gross weight of 3,350 pounds.
Cessna continued to compete in air races and the company produced a couple of one-off models specifically built for racing, including the CM-1 and CPW-6.
The year 1929 was shaping up to be another great year for the Cessna Aircraft Co., and for aviation in general. Cessna had landed a big contract with Curtiss Flying Service. Buoyed by over $10 million in investments to aviation companies, Wichita had become known as the Air Capital of the World.
The farmer and tinkerer from Kansas with no formal engineering training had built an aircraft company. Hard times were ahead, but in the summer of 1929, Clyde Cessna was basking in the success his hard work and ingenuity had built.
Sources: "Cessna: A Master's Expression," by Edward H. Phillips. Flying Books, 1985.