The Travel Air Company of Wichita launched in 1925 under the stewardship of three people who would go on to make their mark in aviation: Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech, and Lloyd Stearman, along with Walter Innes, Jr.
Though less well-known, Wichita business leader Innes was an important officer in the Travel Air company, as well as the later Stearman Aircraft Co.
For many, the name Travel Air conjures visions of a series of three-place biplane sport trainers of the 1920s. Lloyd Stearman gets much of the credit for designing the basic airframe, with inputs from his partners.
The evolution of flying in the United States in the 1920s saw a lot of start-up companies offering basic biplanes for individual owners and company operators.
A front cockpit wide enough for a two-place bench seat, with a single cockpit aft, was the norm. Stearman used welded steel tubing in his design for the Travel Air fuselage in 1925, embracing the trend toward steel and away from built-up wooden framed fuselages of earlier construction.
The company’s original nomenclature called the biplanes Model A (the OX-5-powered prototype with an old straight-axle landing gear style); Model B (newer split-axle landing gear; still powered by the ubiquitous OX-5); Model BH (using V-8 power from either Hispano-Suiza or Wright); and the BW (with a 200-horsepower Wright J-4 radial engine).
A subsequent nomenclature system turned the OX-5-engined Models A and B into the Travel Air 2000, while the radial engine versions came under the Model 4000; the lesser-known Model 3000 was the renamed BH.
The nomenclature overload warning light is coming on, so let’s simplify this discussion and stick to the Travel Air 2000 and early 4000 series — the elephant-ear classics.
A salient characteristic of the Travel Air 2000 was its large aileron and rudder aerodynamic balances, known as elephant ears. Reminiscent of the World War I German Fokker D.VII fighter, the elephant ear Travel Air 2000 gained a nickname as the Wichita Fokker. The resemblance did not escape the notice of Hollywood, and Travel Airs masqueraded as German fighters in some World War I epics.
The design had a few iterations after its beginnings in 1925, most noticeably the institution of a newer split-axle landing gear. Around 65 airplanes were built by Travel Air in 1925 and 1926. By 1928, when Type Certificate Number 30 was issued to the Travel Air 2000, the company built about 530 aircraft of various models, the lion’s share being Travel Air 2000s.
Aviation historian and pilot Joseph Juptner, who performed a great service by compiling volumes about the U.S. type-certificated airplanes spanning several decades, was an unabashed fan of the OX-5 Travel Air 2000. Citing its handling characteristics and reliability, Juptner called the Travel Air 2000 “altogether just a downright lovable airplane.”
The classic OX-5 V-8 engine of World War I continued to power some Travel Airs built into 1930. In 1925, an OX-5 Travel Air cost $3,500. Subsequent price drops brought it down to $2,195 by early 1930.
The Travel Air 2000 had an upper wingspan of 34 feet, 8 inches and a lower wingspan of 28 feet, 8 inches. The biplane was 24 feet, 2 inches in length, and reached 8 feet, 11 inches in height.
The OX-5 engine, both loved and loathed at different times, could coax the Travel Air 2000 over 100 miles per hour, while its cruising speed was about 85. Gasoline capacity was 42 gallons. Range was about 425 miles.
Laminated spruce wing spars mounted spruce and plywood wing ribs. Streamlined steel tubing provided the wing struts and streamlined steel flying wires completed the wing structure.
Typical of the era, the vertical fin was ground adjustable, and the horizontal stabilizer could be adjusted in flight.
Various paint schemes were applied to the Travel Air 2000, but the norm was a Travel Air Blue fuselage and tail group with silver painted wings.
The last OX-5 motor was built in 1919. The cheap availability of surplus OX-5s was part of their attraction, but newer powerplants were available in the 1920s and 1930s. It was common for airframe manufacturers to adapt popular designs to fly with new air-cooled radial engines, and the Travel Air 4000 was the happy blending of the essential Travel Air 2000 airframe with the Wright J series of nine-cylinder radials.
Dimensions of the Travel Air 4000 were mostly the same as those of the 2000, although different engine sizes affected overall length by a few inches. But the big payoff with the 4000 was a boost in horsepower from the OX-5’s 90 to the radials’ output of 200 to 300 horsepower, depending on model.
The classic J5 Whirlwind produced 220 horsepower, and could be expected to give the Travel Air 4000 a top speed of 130 miles per hour, while cruising at a respectable 110 mph.
Gas capacity was increased on some aircraft. Range could be 450 to 575 miles, depending the gasoline carried. Available were features like an inertia starter, wheel brakes, and metal propeller.
All that uprating had a price, though. A new J5-powered Travel Air 4000 cost $9,100 in 1928. By comparison, that year a modest home could be purchased for half that amount.
Travel Air ultimately merged with Curtiss-Wright in 1929.