1929 Travel Air Mystery Ship

Golden Age of Air Racing

Walter Beech and Loyd Stearman had approached Clyde Cessna and asked him to join with them in Travel Air. They began work in a small workshop at 535 W. Douglas Street in Witchita,Kansas. Their enterprise remained unnamed until the company president, Walter Innes, Jr. suggested "Travel Air."

Stearman, Cessna and Beech became a nearly unbeatable combination. Cessna was an excellent salesman, as well as a designer and pilot. Stearman, with background as an architect, had become chief designing engineer of the Swallow Co. by 1923. Beech, a highly accomplished pilot with an extra measure of daring and skill, entered competitive air meets around the country, winning numerous trophies, public approval and orders for more planes.

Competing in air meets was still the best way to market a plane. In 1925 and 1926, Beech won top honors for Travel Air in the Ford Reliability Tours. By 1929, Beech garnered 19 air trophies. Travel Air planes broke records of distance, time, endurance and altitude.

Olive Ann Mellor became the 12th employee of Travel Air, as bookkeeper. She was to be quite instrumental in keeping the peace among the strong-willed and opinionated principals. Six years later, in 1930, she would become Mrs. Olive Ann Beech. She would become the first secretary-treasurer of Beech Aircraft in 1932 and later its president.

Travel Air's big success was the Model R - commonly called the Mystery S, a racing ship designed by two of Travel Air's engineers in their spare time. By the time Beech asked for his racing plane, ten weeks time remained in which to design and build it. The engineers, Herb Rawdon and Walter Burnham, told him they might have just the thing.

The sleek little black and red Model-R mono-plane was flown to Cleveland from Wichita just before the National Air Races and was immediately placed in a hangar and covered with a canvas tarp.This secrecy resulted in the plane being nicknamed the "Mystery Ship".This striking red and black aircraft appeared in the grand finale race,the highlight of the closed course races, and was listed in the official program as Event No. 26 and described as follows:
  • (1)A free-for-all speed contest for any type of airplane equipped with any type of motor or motors.Superchargers,special fuels,or any other means may be used to increase the speed of planes entered in this race.
  • (2)10 laps of the five mile course.
  • (3) Prizes: 1st, $750 and the Thompson Trophy: 2nd $450: 3rd: $300.

    This event had been dominated by the Army and Navy until the "Mystery Ship" appeared,and Spectators expected a real battle between the Army's P&W R-1340-3 Wasp powered Curtis Xp-3A Biplane and the Navy's Curtis D-12 powered F6C-6 Hawk Biplane.

    Most were mildly curious when the small black and red low wing monoplane was pushed up to the starting line.

    Everyone quickly found out when the starting flag was dropped,the Mystery Ship quickly took the lead and walked away from the military biplanes.

    The Travel Air Mystery Ship was piloted by Doug Davis and he actually took the lead twice, Davis cut a pylon on the second lap, recircled it, as the rules required, and because he momentarily blacked out in the tight turn, circled it again.By this time Davis had been passed by the rest of the field,but took the lead again and easily won the race at an average speed of 194.9 mph...8.06 mph faster than the Army and 41.52 mph faster than the Navy!His fastest lap was 208.69 mph and he was doing 235 in the straight aways - faster than any other civilian airplane had ever flown in the U.S.

    Doug Davis's crushing defeat against the military biplanes was a defining moment in aviation history causing the military to get rid of their World War I aerial warfare and to start ordering state-of-the-art aircraft.This was probably air racing's greatest contribution to society,with World War II just over the horizon,and because of the Travel Air Mysteryships success most aviation historians say that the Golden Age of Air Racing Started September 2,1929 at the Cleveland Ohio National Air Races.

    Doug Davis also put on an aerobatic show that was highlighted by vertical rolls,which awed the crowd who had never seen this before.

    The 1929 Tavel Air Mystery Ship

    The Travel Air Mystery Ship was built by Travel Air incorporated whose president was Walter Beech, who loved air racing, and was designed by Herb Rawdon and Walter Burnham,The aircraft utilized a fixed landing gear and was one of the first low wing monoplanes.Wing span measured 29 feet 2inches,with an overall length of 20 feet 2 inches.With its advanced inclosed cowling and a 400+ H.P. Wright J6-9(R-975)radial engine,it was able to set speed records in excess of 235 mph.

    Travel Air built five Model R,s as they were called. The most famous was Frank Hawk's"NR1313"(Texaco No.13).Hawks set numerous city-to-city speed records and was constantly in the news in the early 1930's.

    This aircraft is on display in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

    "NR614K" crashed during a test run at the 1931 National Air Races.

    The one pictured above is a replica of "NR614K" owned and built by Jim Yunkin of Fayetteville,Arkansas.Jim's Mystery Ship is powered by a 300 H.P. Lycoming R-680-13.

    The famous Texaco Trave Air, NR1313, No.13 flown by Frank Hawk. (click picture for a larger view).

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    Written & Edited by Darrell Graves

    1998 dgraves549@aol.com

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