When you think of corporate aviation, you probably don’t think of Newton, Iowa, as its birthplace. You should, says Drew Schumann, an amateur historian and president of EAA Chapter 456, which is based there.
“Newton was the home of the first business aircraft, a 1929 TravelAir 6000 B built by Walter Beech for Henry Ogg, president of the Automatic Washer Co. based in Newton,” Schumann said. “The airplane, known as ‘Smiling Thru,’ was kept in a hangar at the municipal airport.”
Schumann, his wife Ellen (past president of the EAA chapter), along with numerous members, are volunteering their time to rebuild the hangar that held the famous airplane. Their plan is to turn it into a museum dedicated to business aviation.
“It’s a part of local history,” he said. “Although the hangar spent most of the 20th century as a storage building, it is still known as the Smiling Thru hangar in certain circles. We’d like to see it return to aviation.”
According to Ellen Schumann, the hangar stayed behind when the rest of the municipal airport was relocated to the other side of town after World War II. “The hangar became a storage facility for the county,” she said. “It was a garage and it was beat up by dump trucks and bulldozers for years.”
In 2000 the city of Newton decided to do away with the old hangar.
“They planned to tear it down and we said ‘Hey! Wait a minute!’ The city told us we could have the hangar for $1 if we took it down and moved it,” Drew Schumann said. “So we numbered every piece of it and took it down. It is not as easy as it sounds. You have to understand this is a metal hangar with weird corrugated panels with fittings the likes of which have not been used since the 1920s and have weathered 70 years of fierce Iowa summers and winters. Our metalsmith, Brian Healy, had to build a special machine to work the panels and the seams. He’s a volunteer and he did it because he loves aviation.”
Since it made sense to have an aviation museum at an airport, plans were made to reassemble the hangar at Newton Municipal Airport (TNU).
“The city granted us a lease at the municipal airport for $1 a year,” said Ellen Schumann. “The concrete pad for the facility was poured, then the City Council discovered that they had given us the wrong location. The hangar pad was 150 feet south of where they wanted it to be!”
The concrete was torn out, and like so many projects in aviation, the hangar raising was delayed while funds were raised. While this was going on, Drew, who is an Army reservist, was deployed to Iraq.
“While he was gone it was up to me to keep the momentum going,” said Ellen Schumann.
The group hopes to have the new foundation poured this summer. “The city is taking care of that,” she said.
Meanwhile, chapter members are busy washing the panels and doing other preparation work for the building’s reassembly.
“It is our plan to get the hangar to as close as it looked in 1929 and still comply with modern building codes,” Drew Schumann said.
Once the building is up, the hunt for artifacts will begin in earnest. Much of the display will come from the private collections of the chapter members.
“Some of the older pilots have pretty good collections,” said Ellen. “There is even one fellow who built a model of the Smiling Thru hangar, which we would like to display.”
Ultimately, Drew Schumann, who is an airframe and powerplant mechanic, says he would like to see a replica of “Smiling Thru” built.
“It would be great if we could get a program where visitors, especially the kids, get a chance to build part of the aircraft,” he said. “It would be great if, instead of a guest book, they could sign a rib of the airplane.”
THE MAIN ATTRACTION
The first executive aircraft of the day, “Smiling Thru” had an enclosed cabin. Inside the cabin was a desk, Dictaphone, telephone and lavatory. Ogg had a pilot who flew him from place to place in his flying office. Ogg’s secretary regularly traveled with him, sometimes typing letters in flight.
The airplane could fit up to five people. When the seats were removed, it was used to deliver washing machines. Often Ogg would bring a demonstrator model along. The demo unit was powered by the airplane’s electrical system to the delight of crowds.
Not only did the airplane help Ogg get around the country, it also put Newton on the map as the “washing machine capital of the world,” says Drew Schumann.
“At one time we had six washing machine companies in town,” he said. “Maytag is still here. These days pretty much everyone has an old washing machine on the porch for decoration or what have you.”
A few photographs of the Travel Air survive. Aircraft of that era were flying billboards featuring bright paint and elaborate designs touting the sponsor’s wares. “Smiling Thru” was no exception. “It was one of the gaudiest airplanes you ever saw,” says Schumann. “It was painted bright green and blaze orange and every inch of it was covered with commercial slogans.”
The name “Smiling Thru” is a reference to the company’s motto of “buy a automatic washer on Monday and you will be smiling thru the rest of the week.'”
In addition to hauling Ogg and his washing machines the airplane occasionally provided transportation for local politicians and once was flown by movie star Gary Cooper. It also facilitated romance. The pilot and the secretary hit it off and were married.
“Their daughter still writes us sometimes,” he said.
“SMILING THRU,” WHERE ARE YOU?
The Schumanns say they would love to have the actual TravelAir 6000 that was “Smiling Thru” in the museum, but admit it is a long shot. In 1934 Ogg sold it to someone in Mexico and it hasn’t been seen since.
“For all we know it went into a mountainside in the jungle or it is a rotting pile of parts in a hangar someplace,” Drew Schumann said. “We do know that the tail number, NC677K, went unused until 2000 when the FAA gave it to a Mooney.”
If you have information on what became of “Smiling Thru” or want to help with the museum project, contact EAA Chapter 456 through the Schumanns at Drewnel@pcpartner.net.