Cessna, Clyde Vernon
EntrepreneurEnshrined 1978 1879-1954
After the fourteenth crash in the first plane that he built, Clyde told his brother Roy, “I am going to make this thing fly? Do you hear me? I am going to make this thing fly and then I am going to set it afire and I’ll never have another thing to do with airplanes. Automobiles and farm machinery – that’s what I’m going to stick to.”
- Cessna built his own monoplane and taught himself how to fly in 1911.
- He helped form Travel Air Manufacturing Company and developed advanced monoplane models as well as biplanes.
- In 1927, two monoplane models the City of Oakland and the Wollaroc set transpacific records.
- Cessna then formed Cessna Aircraft Company developing further improved monoplanes, racing planes and gliders. The plant was closed by the Depression.
- Cessna then formed Cessna Aeroplane Company with his son and built more racers. Their CR-3 racer set an international speed record in 1933.
One of the outstanding pioneers of aviation, Clyde Vernon Cessna was first bitten by the flying bug in 1911, and he set out to build an airplane. His creation was a promising monoplane constructed of choice spruce and linen, and powered by a modified motorboat engine. Taking his untried machine to the Great Salt Plains near Enid, Oklahoma, Cessna valiantly attempted to learn to fly. But to his dismay, on the first attempt the plane ground looped, and repairs to the damage that it incurred cost a hundred dollars. Cessna attempted time after time to take to the air. Each time he crashed and spectators mocked him. Finally, on the thirteenth try, Cessna’s plane bounced briefly into the air, but crashed into trees when he attempted to turn. In frustration he shouted, “I’m going to fly this thing, then I’m going to set it afire and never have another thing to do with aeroplanes!” Nearly discouraged, Cessna doggedly persisted until he finally made his first successful flight in June 1911. Before long, the scoffers acclaimed Cessna as a daring hero and called him “The Birdman of Enid.”
During the next few years he greatly improved the structure of his airplane and Cessna’s fame spread as he displayed aerial extravaganzas before huge crowds. 1915 headlines boldly proclaimed: “Cessna And His Monoplane!” when he made his first performance at Wichita.
As Cessna planned to build two new monoplanes, he was offered use of the Jones Motor Car plant in Wichita in 1916. In gratitude, Cessna painted “Jones Six” on one of the wings of the first plane to advertise the car, and “Cessna” on the other. His second plane, named The Comet, featured a partially enclosed cockpit and he made thirty breath-taking exhibitions in it, thrilling thousands with his twisting dives and steep banks and setting an unbelievable speed record of 125 miles per hour. Unfortunately, World War I ended Cessna’s flying career and he returned to his Kansas farm, apparently through with aviation. Fortunately, after the war, enthusiasm for flying swept the nation and Cessna was asked to help finance and become president of the newly-formed Travel Air Manufacturing Company. He readily agreed and the soon the company produced the popular Travel Air Special biplane.
But Clyde also believed strongly in the development of a monoplane. However, because he was unable at first to convince his associates of this need, Cessna rented a shop and built a monoplane himself. That convinced his associates, and when National Air Transport, who was seeking a plane to carry mail and even passengers, viewed the monoplane, it ordered an entire fleet of them. Other airlines soon followed suit. Travel Air Monoplanes also set historic records in 1927 when Smith and Bronte flew from California to the island of Molokai in their City of Oakland, and Goebel and Davis won the $25,000 Dole Air Derby from California to Oahu in their Woolaroc. In spite of these successes, Cessna was impatient to conquer new frontiers.
When he proposed to build a monoplane without wing struts, Travel Air officials dismissed it as folly. Disgusted with their lack of foresight, Cessna resigned from Travel Air and constructed a fully cantilevered wing monoplane on his own. After he flew this new Comet, he was excited and sought to form Cessna Aircraft Company. Meanwhile, he perfected his monoplane by enclosing the cockpit. To meet Department of Commerce requirements, Cessna deliberately loaded its wings to twice the required weight. Later he stood 17 men on the wing, knowing the lasting impression such a feat would create on safety-minded buyers.
In 1928, Cessna launched into production with the Model A series, available with five different engines. A Cessna Model AW soon earned nationwide publicity by winning the difficult 1928 Transcontinental Air Derby and the demanding 50-mile closed-circuit event in the National Air Races. Meanwhile, Cessna also built the improved Model BW and Model CW-6, as well as the speedy Goebel Special and MW-1 racers. By the end of 1928, business was booming. To expand production, Cessna commenced construction of a new factory. Meanwhile the Cessna introduced its Chief and Scout and they quickly acquire a reputation for economical operation.
Then the Great Depression struck, and aircraft sales plummeted. To keep his company from bankruptcy, Cessna introduced a primary glider. Over 300 were sold, and this was enough for the company to struggle through the year 1930. Meanwhile, Clyde’s son, Eldon, who served as Assistant Chief Engineer, believed that a market existed for a truly low-cost airplane. He built a two-place cabin monoplane. It was too expensive so he built a powered glider, followed by the Baby Cessna and improved versions. None were produced for there was no money in the market place to do so. In desperation, Clyde and Eldon turned to building racing planes. Their first, a midwing monoplane, was for the 1930 Cirrus All-American Air Derby with a $25,000 prize. Named Miss Blackwell by its owners, it experienced engine trouble and placed seventh in the contest. Later it captured fourth place in a 1930 National Air Race event. However, a second racer built for the Nationals took two second and a third place in men’s events and second in the Women’s Free-For-All.
When the Depression finally forced Cessna to close its doors in 1931, Clyde and his son formed a company to build custom aircraft. Their first product was a racer that promised a lot of speed. Clyde christened it Miss Wanda in honor of his daughter. It proved to be an able competitor in the 1932 National Air Races. Redesigned the following year, it roared to victory in the Colonel Green Cup Race and to second place in three other major races. Next, the Cessnas’ built their fastest and most famous racer. Its top speed of 255 miles per hour enabled it to do well at Omaha and Minneapolis, before winning two major races at Chicago, and setting a world speed record of 242 miles an hour. The Cessnas’ last plane was a special cabin job built for White Castle Hamburgers, which the Witchita Eagle later purchased.
In 1934, Clyde’s fortunes changed for the better when his nephew, Dwane Wallace, helps him regain the presidency of Cessna Aircraft. Aided by Wallace’s engineering expertise, a new highwing monoplane soon rolled out. Its excellent performance was augmented by its exceptionally clean design and wing flaps. One flown by Wallace to Mexico averaged nearly 17 miles per gallon. Cessna used another to later capture the difficult Detroit News Trophy and the Cessna C-34 earns the title of the “World’s Most Efficient Airplane.”
Cessna ended his quarter century aviation career in 1936. He played a vital role in the development of general aviation and the company he founded goes on to lead in bringing the pleasure of private flying to the world. Clyde Vernon Cessna, his name now a household word, will always be remembered as the outstanding pioneer who found his challenge in conquering new frontiers in the air and in “giving wings to the prairie,” as he takes his place in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
Clyde Vernon Cessna died on November 20th, 1954.
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