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Kansas Aviation’s Past, Present & Future 

By Carl Chance, Editor/Consultant/Writer/Kansas Aviation History
and Frank Rowe, Writer/Brave New World & Manager-Design/Textron Aviation

It is prudent to start by looking back and reviewing the unique history of what birthed the beginning of Wichita, The “Air Capital of the World.” This article features the various stages and paths that the founders created that has led us to where Wichita has found itself today. Featured will be outstanding aircraft built by Boeing, Learjet, Cessna Aircraft and Beechcraft. Finally, we’ll look into our crystal ball in an effort to forecast the future of flight.

“Kansas sometimes seems to have more sky than ground. So much sky that people walk outside and naturally look up. So much sky that it seems to overtake the ground. So much sky that it almost seems to invite dreamers and explorers to test the limits.” – Anonymous

Kansas Aviation On Standby

Kansas’s aviation history dates back to the early 1900s when Carl Dryden Browne began promoting commercial airplane manufacturing out of Freedom, Kansas. While Browne failed to ever fly his aircraft and closed his factory just two years after its opening, other Kansans were getting ready to see successful take-offs on the Kansas prairies.

Kansas Takes Flight

The flat lands and open prairie skies made Kansas the ideal place to fly planes, and Kansas saw its first successful plane, the Longren Flyer, take flight in Topeka, Kans. in 1910. This was just five years after the famous Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina. Back in Kansas, Albin Kasper Longren was dreaming and designing an aircraft virtually built from scratch. When completed, it was first flown by Longren with the help of his brother and friend. Longren quickly became the first Kansas aviator known by many in the region, and as he continued to produce aircraft, he pioneered the design and techniques we use for aircraft today.

More Planes On The Plains

Longren wasn’t the only one taking flight in the Midwest. Just one year later, Clyde Cessna would begin flying his own airplane designs in Kansas’s neighboring state of Oklahoma. In 1911, Cessna built and flew his first airplane he named, “Silver Wings.”

Cessna had grown up in the late 1800s as a typical Kansas farm boy who later moved to Enid, Okla. His skills with farm machinery had led him to a successful career in automotive as both a mechanic and salesman, but his aspirations didn’t stop there. Cessna had dreams of flying.

Showing determination, Cessna experienced multiple crashes and injuries while teaching himself to fly by trial and error. These injuries resulted in weeks of hospital stays, and Cessna had to bring his family back to Kansas in order to avoid bankruptcy. His wife was not thrilled to raise their children in the family farmland’s hayloft, but Kansas would be glad to see Cessna back and to be the home of his future successes.

In the following years, Cessna continued to build newer planes, improved his flying skills, offered flying lessons and began building planes to sell. Unfortunately, once World War I rolled around, Cessna was forced to divert his attention away from civilian aviation and started to pursue grain-threshing as a career.

Oil Helps Fund Flight

While World War I tried to exclude Cessna and other civilian aviation enthusiasts, the discovery of oil in Kansas’s very own Butler County would soon result in millionaires, the oil boom, and a dire need for advanced transportation. Rich oil businessmen and entrepreneurs began to invest their wealth into flying as a way to meet these new transportation needs. One of the most notable investors included J.M. Moellendick, who had done well in the El Dorado, Kans. oil boom.

Moellendick, along with Matty Laird, proposed the formation of an aviation manufacturing company in Wichita comprised of Walter Beech, Lloyd Stearman and the one and only, Clyde Cessna who had invested in one of Laird’s, Swallow airplanes as a way to keep his passion for aviation alive during the war. Together, E.M. Laird Airplane Company was formed in Wichita. On April 8, 1920, a Laird Swallow, the first commercially produced airplane in the United States, made its first flight over Wichita.

The Air Capital Is Born

In 1925, the employee relationship between the three, Beech, Stearman and Cessna, had formed “Travel Air Manufacturing.This enterprise was put to the test as a disagreement formed over whether to build monoplanes or biplanes. The disagreement caused the three of them to split, but Cessna found his own success by opening his own aircraft production factory in 1927. His company, “Cessna Aircraft,” would eventually become the world’s leader in quantities of aircraft produced. This formation of Cessna Aircraft Company is what led Wichita to begin promoting itself as the “Air Capital of the World” in 1927.


Stearman Model 75 military trainer in the 1930s and 1940s. Source: file photo, Stearman Field at Benton, KSWhile the oil industry began booming during World War I, World War II brought explosive growth for aircraft companies as well as other military equipment, tanks, vehicles and weapons production throughout the United States and its allies. In the Midwest, factories in Kansas, especially Wichita and Kansas City, were producing one out of every nine United States warplanes, employing tens of thousands of aircraft workers at Kansas plants. This helped grow employment and led to required mass transportation for workers. Boeing Wichita became the first manufacturing facility to transport its workers, busing people from downtown Wichita, Arkansas City, Newkirk, Ponca City, Salina and Winfield to Boeing and back. 

One of Boeing Wichita’s well known “Rosie the Riveter’s” came from Newton, Kans. and bused to Boeing. Due to having a family, my father worked a regular eight-hour job as well as second shift at Boeing building B-29 Bombers. All of my parents’ adult friends worked at Boeing Wichita in one capacity or another. During my college years, I (Chance) worked at Boeing Wichita on the B-52H Model Bomber in the Production Illustration Department. My father had also volunteered as neighborhood Civil Defense worker during WWII, checking on all home lights-out during evening “Air Raid Drills with search lights scanning the sky and sirens blaring throughout the city.” I usually went with him in an Army car he drove. When getting out of the car to check on any non-compliance regarding lights-on, we wore arm bands and steel helmets of “the day.”

My family’s involvement in aviation and in WWII didn’t stop there. Two of my uncles were Air Traffic Controllers in the original first Wichita Airport that stood between Boeing Airplane Company and McConnell Air Force Base. That same building now houses the Kansas Aviation Museum,where I had also served on the Board of Directors for a number of years and a short stint as Executive Director. This position had led me to Walter J. Boyne, the CEO & President of Wingspan Air & Space Channel, out of Washington, D.C. where I had been a news consultant/correspondent and TV producer. While in that capacity, my videographer/editor, Alan VanPetten and I produced video news releases for Boeing, Beech, Cessna and Learjet.

Kansas Aviation’s Role In History

A third of the U.S. B-25 Bombers and half of the U.S. B-29 Bombers were produced in Kansas during World War II. This production of warplanes would continue to trend in Kansas with the Boeing B-47 during the “Cold War” and the B-52 during the Vietnam War.McConnell Air Force Base, located in Wichita, within close proximity to the earlier Boeing Wichita Aircraft Company (currentlySpiritAeroSystems), played a vital role in training pilots for fighter jets. Kansas’s aviation history didn’t just help get people from point A to point B; it played a significant role in our country’s history through its military aircraft construction.

Not to be forgotten, is William (Bill) Learwho came to Wichita to create Lear Jet Manufacturing. A business jet, the Learjet 23 came off the assembly line, Oct. 3, 1963. Lear was successful for many years prior to selling out to Gates Rubber and finally Bombardier purchased the Learjet operation, continuing with the Learjet line of aircraft in Wichita after bought by Bombardier of Canada. The 3,000th Learjet was delivered in June 2017. Bombardier, despite relatively modest annual Learjet deliveries, continued to not only expand, but to also diversify its Wichita facilities to conduct flight test operations for its larger C-series/Global 7000 business jet aircraft product line, as well as support for special-mission conversions.

The Air Capital Of Wichita Today

Today, Wichita is still known as the “Air Capital of the World” and is home to five major aircraft manufacturers: “Airbus Wing Division,” “Bombardier/Learjet,” “Textron Aircraft,” (Rowe) (with the Beech, Cessna & Hawker brands) and “Spirit AeroSystems.” Kansas’s largest and busiest commercial airport is also found here. The “Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport” (formerly known as Mid-Continent Airport) serves five airlines (Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines)and was renamed in 2015 with the new building to honor Kansan President Dwight D. Eisenhowerwho made flying a regular practice for United States Presidents.

The National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR), with headquarters at Wichita State University,greatly expanded its physical presence and technical offerings in 2012 by transforming the former 12,000-seat Kansas Coliseum into the Aircraft Structural Test and Evaluation Center (ASTEC). The sheer size and scale of the 130,000-square-foot facility, once a venue for rock concerts and rodeos, will allow NIAR to now run full structural testing on aircraft the size of Boeing 737 and 787s, a B-1 Bomber or up to eight full-size aircraft at once.

Land north of Wichita’s Colonel James Jabara Airport underwent a transformation that would become a long-range investment in terms of providing the Wichita aviation community with future generations of skilled workers. The $52 million  National Center for Aviation Training (NCAT), founded in Oct. 2010, occupies 230,000 square feet of state-of-the-art technical training facilities to address the need of ensuring that a source exists to supply the projected need of over 15,000 skilled workers over the upcoming 10 years. Fifteen hundred students have access to more than 21 classrooms and 25 labs offering training in CATIA, general aviation manufacturing and powerplant mechanics.

A Glimpse Into Wichita’s Aviation Brave New World

Boeing KC-46 Pegasus tanker on refueling mission to meet up with warfighters. Source: U.S. Air Force PhotoAnd finally, going into the future, the partnership between the city of Wichita and Airbus North America, originally moving to Wichita’s Old Town district in 2002, has also transformed from a 12,600-square-foot converted warehouse to a brand-new, state-of-the-art technical center strategically situated within the Wichita State University Innovation Campus. The Innovation Campus, consisting of 120 acres of interconnected partnership-businesses, is planned to span a development timeline of some 20 years, and includes Airbus Americas Wichita Engineering Center as an initial member of the partnership. Investment by the U.S. Economic Development Administration in the order of $10 million underscores the faith that the EDA has in the WSU Innovation Campus. Housed in a two-story, 90,000-square-foot building specifically built to its needs, Airbus is joined along with Dassault Systems as among the first residents of what many within the industry consider to be a cutting-edge business model of collaborative Research and Development communities operating within the fertile environment of talent-rich universities.

Considering that Wichita aviation companies account for approximately half of all U.S. aircraft deliveries (general aviation light aircraft and business jets), and that a combined workforce of nearly 30,000 skilled employees constitutes one of the largest aerospace labor pools in the world, investment and transformational change became a mandate to ensure continued, multi-generational growth. With Fort Worth-Arlington (Texas), Seattle and Everett (Washington) and Connecticut noted as competing U.S. aviation clusters, a commitment to long-term exponential growth has been envisioned to secure Wichita’s future position among not only U.S. aerospace clusters, but also worldwide clusters like Toulouse (France), Montreal (Canada), Singapore, Bangalore (India) and Sao Paulo (Brazil).

Aside from transformational realignment of companies and expansion of R&D/training infrastructure, the markets for General Aviation light aircraft has remained challenged at best, with only moderately promising 5-10 year forecasted deliveries/revenue for mid-size business jets and to a lesser degree mid-light-size business jets. For short to mid-term, most of the sales/deliveries appear to be trending to remain U.S.-centric while the global market will remain slow-growth and subject to potential buyers opting in-favor of favorable deals on used aircraft inventory.

Ever-expanding use of composites and the more widespread use of “additive layer manufacturing” (3D printing) to grow parts using powdered metal fused by laser (instead of subtractive manufacturing operations that mill away metal) should find greatly increased application.

With that said, most major players have and continue to invest R&D funds to explore advanced cockpits that utilize intuitive/intelligent avionics and flight control systems (as well as augmented reality systems) that could assist the pilot. An extension of this could also eventually lead to the expanded development of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAVs), perhaps even for (initially limited) general aviation cargo-hauling operations.

As pressure mounts from environmental concerns, alternatives to leaded avgas will also continue to be targeted, with aircraft such as the Cessna Skyhawk JT-A Turbo diesel forming the vanguard of a new wave of diesel-engine general aviation aircraft offerings. With the ability to use both diesel fuel, or Jet-A jet fuel (rather than the more expensive and increasingly scarce Avgas), diesel engine aircraft will utilize less moving parts, incur lower maintenance costs and provide increased operating efficiencies (roughly 40 percent), which in-turn yield increased range and payload benefits. Other alternative fuels include a combination of bio-fuels (made of used cooking oil) along with traditional fuels.

Perhaps the most challenging yet exciting technological prospect is the exploration of either completely all-electric propelled aircraft, or hybrid electric-fuel light aircraft. Potentially offering the power of traditional engines, there would need to be significant progress made in improving battery capacity and battery recharging times. With projections of over $22 billion in the next 15 years, the electric aircraft market is anticipated to be the “Next Big Thing” in dramatically transforming general aviation global markets.

To underscore the significance of the transformational change during this period, perhaps the most defining experience has been the revising of “14 CFR Part 23” (Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations – Part 23 – Airworthiness Standards) to reduce the costs, constraints and resources required for general aviation manufacturers certifying and introducing new technologies and aircraft design to market. Targeted for normal, utility, aerobatic and commuter category aircraft (maximum seating capacity of 19 or less, and with a maximum certified takeoff weight of 19,000 pounds or less), the new FAR (Federal Aviation Regulations) rules add “performance-based standards” as criteria for developing new aircraft as compared to “prescriptive-based standards.” 

Essentially, the new performance-based standard sets forth a specific level of targeted performance that a manufacturer must meet via its design but does not tell the manufacturer how (prescriptive) it must achieve that level of performance. This approach should allow room for increased innovation by the manufacturers, thereby fostering increased advancements within the industry. It should also theoretically reduce the number of exemptions and streamline the overall process of certification. Initiated in 2008, and with a congressional mandate for new regulations set forth in the Small Airplane Revitalization Act of 2013, the FAA new rules went into effect Aug. 30, 2017. AOPA President Mark Baker best expressed the importance of the FAR Part 23 re-write when he described it as “…the most significant and pivotal reform for the future of GA (General Aviation) aircraft.”

While it remains to be seen just how successful and long-term these physical and philosophical changes will be, there certainly exists renewed enthusiasm for a great new transformational age of flight. “With these sweeping and bold changes, Wichita, the state of Kansas, as well as the nation as a whole, are well-poised to continue to grow one of the greatest manufacturing industries in modern-times into a renewed and revitalized business entity that is prepared to compete and prevail in a brave new world.”


Cited Sources: Frank Joseph Rowe. Contributing Editor, Wings Over Kansas. Manager-Design/Textron Aviation. Aviation Historian & Author.

Carl Edward Chance, Managing Editor/Writer/Consultant. Historian/Author.

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