Dawn of a New Era
by Budd Davisson
It was September 2nd, 1929 and before the day was over, the world of military airplanes had been changed forever.
As Doug Davis roared across the finish line and took the checkered flag at Cleveland that afternoon, he had done more than win a race. He and the red and black Travel Air Mystery Ship had thoroughly bloodied the noses of the previously invincible Army and Navy fighters in the race. In fact, he had made them look silly.
During the race, he accidentally cut a pylon and, as required by the rules, circled it, but in pulling the tight circle, blacked out. Not sure whether heíd circled it properly or not, he went around it again. While he was circling that one pylon, the military fighters all passed him and were far ahead. Davis, however, rolled out on course, easily caught up and passed them. They didnít have a chance
It was embarrassing to the military, but they got the messageóthe biplane was dead. And the U.S. military was launched on a path to totally redesign and re-equip its fighter force with monoplanes. Unknowingly, Doug Davis and the Mystery Ship had set the military in a new direction that would put them in much better position to fight a war they didnít know was coming.
Around Travel Airís offices in Wichita, the radical new design was officially known as the Model R. Travel Air is an interesting company because it was founded and staffed by people who would all to on to become legends of their own. Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman were the founding partners of the small company and went on to be the cornerstones of general aviation.
Travel Air didnít set out to cause a revolution. In fact, they didnít decide they even wanted to go racing until only ten weeks prior to the 1929 Cleveland Air Races. They had a problem, howeveróthey had no design, no airplane and no time. So, they called on the talents of Travel Air engineers, Herb Rawdon (who went on to form his own company building a series of trainers and ag-airplanes) and Walter Burnham.
As improbable as it seems, they designed and built what was to be the most advanced land-based airplane of its time in only ten weeks. They flew the airplane a few times, just enough to know they had a real rocket ship on their hands, and left for the races.
Racing for them was a marketing ploy and in true marketing fashion, they capitalized on the radical nature of the airplane. As soon as it landed in Cleveland, it was covered with a tarpaulin and rushed into a hangar under guard. No one was allowed to see the airplane, a move that the press loved. They began referring to the airplane as the ìMystery Ship.î
The 400 hp Wright J-6-9 (R-755) propelled Davis down the straights at speeds over 235 mph out-running the competition by as much as 50 mph. Its wire-braced, wood-covered wings and smoothly faired steel tube fuselage was, even by then, traditional construction. But no one had ever seen the materials combined in such a streamlined fashion.
In 1929 the Mystery Ship was a radical step forward by a small, civilian company. By 1939, our military should have been thanking Travel Air for opening their eyes to the future or they would have been caught with their pants around their shoe tops when war rolled over the horizon.
September 2nd, 1929óA day worth remembering. .