W H A T Z I T ?

9/4/04 - Richard Harris

This appears to be a Laird Swallow or early New Swallow. It might also be an early Travel Air—the first 160-hp B-6 "Special" racing model conceived by Lloyd Stearman and his former college classmate, MIT engineer Mac Short. The plane stomped all comers at the Tulsa Air Meet (at over 120mph, blasting away the Waco 9s, Swallows, and others).

You refer to that plane on your Travel Air page as, "B-6 1925 = B-2000 with 160hp Curtiss C-6 and 31'6" modified wing, without elephant-ears." (I was under the impression that it used a 160hp Hisso, but either way it had a vertical structure—possibly radiator—in about the same position, as I recall.)

The "elephant-ear" ("Fokker-style") balanced rudder was a particular trademark of Lloyd Stearman's, copied (sometimes half-assed) from the WW1 Fokker D.VII. Note the strong resemblance of the wings and ailerons to other Travel Air models; however, they are swept—experimentally, perhaps— possibly to counteract the yaw instability introduced by Stearman's apparent yen to shorten Swallows and Travel Airs from the greater length of their Jenny progenitor, to increase structural strength and reduce weight. Also note the Curtiss Jenny-style struts and bracing wires ABOVE the upper wing. And the paint job resembles the Swallow's traditional appearance.

The Swallow line originated with a Jenny variant crafted by Matty Laird (in Wichita, for the "E M Laird Airplane Mfg Co"). Lloyd Stearman was Laird's understudy, of sorts, until Laird left Wichita to return to Chicago's Cicero Field. (Laird's feisty, obnoxious Wichita factory co-owner and financier, Jake Moellendick, reportedly drove Laird off.)

When Laird took the company name with him back to Chicago, Mollendick renamed the Wichita operation "Swallow Airplane Mfg Co" and made draftsman/handyman Stearman the new Chief Engineer (test pilot/handyman Walter Beech became Gen Mgr and Chief Salesman).

Later, Moellendick also drove off Beech and Stearman, who promptly formed Travel Air Co with local barnstormer Clyde Cessna—Stearman was Chief Engineer there, as well.

It's conceivable that the plane in your photos was some interim Swallow, or preliminary Travel Air, design tweaked from an actual Jenny into a race plane, then labeled Travel Air or Swallow by Stearman.

Because of a resemblance to Fokkers, Travel Airs were used in the then-popular war movies, colloquially known as "Wichita Fokkers." Travel Air's California salesman, Fred Hoyt, convinced Stearman he could make a fortune building planes for Hollywood, so Stearman quit Travel Air (for other reasons, too) and opened his Stearman Airplane Co in Venice CA—just as the war-movie fad faded.

So, it might be one of Stearman's own first planes built by his own company—possibly in Venice—when he was struggling. During that hungry year, it might have been what he was reduced to building from surplus Jennys.

Please note that this is very unscientific of me, and it's shooting from the hip. I'm away from home and my documents on the Swallows, but perhaps this provides some clues.