Sunday, July 14, 2013

Introduction to My Travel Air Biplane Project

My wife, Jan, recommended that I start this blog about my 1929 Travel Air biplane project. I've never done this before, but here goes.

In October 2008 my neighbor, Leo Roberson, asked if I would like to fly his beautiful Aeronca Champ. Of course his invitation was accepted and he suggested we drop in on Jim Friedline and say hello. Jim is a retired Delta Captain who has his own airstrip near Hollonville, Georgia. He has been restoring and flying airplanes (especially Classics) for a very long time and is probably one of the leading gurus on radial engines in the area.

We were "hangar flying" with Jim when he mentioned that he was going to sell his 1929 Travel Air project he had acquired. I was intrigued, since I've always had a love of that particular airplane, but never felt that I would be able to afford one. Jim allowed as to how he was 80 years old and didn't have time for another project, especially considering he was in the middle of restoring his old Cabin Waco biplane. He wanted to get just what he had in it, and after getting his price, we made a deal.

The timing wasn't necessarily the best. I have built a metal airplane––an RV-4, and was in the middle of a car project––a 1958 Morgan. So not only did I not have time, but no expertise with wood and fabric. Although I rebuilt all the wood parts inside the Morgan, an airplane is different. But the deal being made, the Travel Air was moved to my hangar and placed in temporary storage until such time that the Morgan project was finished and roadworthy. There would also be a rest period after the seven-year sports car project wherein all the honey-dos that had built up over time could be tackled.
Jim and I talking wood




Parts...Lots of parts















Hauling an upper wing home




Upper Wings on Stand













Fuselage















Finally finished. Seven year project


Classic Cars are pretty cool, too


The Morgan was a fun project which involved doing everything. The car was a basket case. Almost nothing was useable in it's original state. The engine was rebuild-able, but the radiator was shot, as were the brakes, wheels, body parts, interior, etc. The body had been bashed numerous times and leaded! (They used lead in the old days instead of body putty...very smooth, but HEAVY.) I had to cut all that out and weld in new sheet metal. The engine overhaul was actually pretty easy. It had a Triumph TR-4 engine which uses cylinder "sleeves" that can be replaced. I rebuilt or replaced everything on the car except the upholstery...I don't sew.

So, now there is a Travel Air project crammed into my relatively small hangar which will have to sit for a while without getting damaged. It sits until 2013. I've decided to start on this project in earnest. And so it begins...


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Most airplane projects are never finished by the original builders; sad but true. This one was started by Oramel Rowe (Michigan) who decided to retire before completing it. The plane went through several owners before landing with Jim Friedline. Mr. Rowe was obviously an accomplished builder/restorer because all the workmanship was impeccable. The project consisted of four (mostly) completed but uncovered wings, two welded steel fuselages, metal tail feathers, upper wing center section, two welded aluminum fuel tanks, two old Continental W-670 radial engines rated at 220 hp, and many boxes full of small parts. Absent were a set of wing and cabane struts which will be expensive to make, but considering the cost of this project so far, not bad.

Charles Lindberg flew mail in a Travel Air

A Little History

The Travel Air Corporation was formed in 1924 by aviation legends Walter Beech, Clyde Cessna, and Lloyd Stearman. They, along with two Wichita businessmen, formed a company not unlike many others in pre-depression America. There were many automobile and aircraft companies springing up all over the country with lots of experimentation and innovation promising new and better products.
Jimmy Doolittle with a Travel Air "Mystery Ship"
Ford Reliability Tour Travel Air 2000










Educated at Kansas State College in architecture and engineering, Lloyd Stearman took a job with Laird Aircraft Company, whose chief designer was a self-taught engineer and aviation pioneer, E.M. "Matty" Laird. Stearman proved himself a very competent engineer, and after the departure of Matty Laird became the chief engineer, designing or better, re-designing the Laird designed "Swallow." Lloyd wanted to replace the Swallow biplane's wood fuselage structure with welded steel tubing, an idea that was vetoed by Company founder and President Jacob Moellendick. Walter Beech was also working there and the two men had started collaborating on the design of a new biplane along with employee Bill Snook. This design, which incorporated the welded steel fuselage, was to become the Travel Air 2000. After forming the Travel Air Mfg. Co. and building their first airplanes, Walter Beech took to showing the airplane at various aviation events and competitions like the Ford Reliability Tour. The orders began pouring in until the men realized that help was needed with orders, paperwork, and general office duties. They hired a young lady named Olive Ann Mellor as the secretary and bookkeeper, who would later become Mrs. Walter Beech. Many years later, Olive Ann Beech would become President of Beechcraft Corporation after the death of Walter.
The Travel Air proved itself a great improvement over other designs, but the original airplanes were powered by the ubiquitous OX-5 engine, which was a liquid-cooled V-8 that was heavy and produced only 90 horsepower. Later ships utilized the latest in powerplant technology like the Wright J-4 radial engine which produced up to 200 hp. Many other engines followed.

Delta Air Service
As an employee of Delta Air Lines, the history of this company is of particular interest. When the company first started it was called Delta Air Service, a crop-dusting service located in Monroe, Louisiana. The company started with a fleet of Huff-Daland dusters and three Travel Air biplanes. Two of these Travel Airs were configured as crop-dusters while one was a plain, off-the-line Travel Air 2000. It was used to transport the founder and President, C.E. Woolman from place to place and also served as a charter airplane and trainer. I once asked a former Delta Air Service crop-duster
pilot, Jim St. Julien about it. He remembered the airplane from stories and pictures, and allowed as how it was named "Miss Tallulah," which recalled the town in Louisiana where Mr. Woolman started as a county agent. It was there where he met Dr. Bert Coad and collaborated on an idea of starting a crop-dusting service to serve the Mississippi Delta farmers. I had hopes of building this airplane in the image of Miss Tallulah for the sake of historical significance, but this may not be the best use of the airplane. Miss Tallulah had an OX-5 engine.

The Bad News
While researching various elements of Travel Air design and construction, I joined the Travel Air Restorers Assn. (TARA) and began studying drawings and photos. It was at this time that I discovered that the wings weren't made according to the original specifications. Dimensionally, they are correct, but the wing ribs are of truss type construction rather than the original plywood webs with lightening holes. There was one type wing that Travel Air used the truss rib, and it was called the "Speed Wing" because of it's reduced thickness, but these were not speed wings. Also, one fuselage was an original type that was designed to utilize bracing wires, while the other replaced the wire bracing with extra 4130 steel tubing welded into the spaces. A much stronger and only slightly heavier technique, for sure, but not original. After contacting the builder, who was not easy to find, I learned that he never intended to certificate the airplane as a Travel Air 4000, but as a replica of that airplane licensed in the "Experimental" category. This changed everything. Now instead of a Travel Air restoration project, this would be a replica project of all new construction. In fact, everything in the project was of new construction, except for one aileron. It is not unusual for restoration projects, especially very old airplanes, to turn into full rebuilds using all new components. But to be certificated in the Standard category, it would have to use the original design concepts and techniques. Decision time.
A. Do I build the airplane as an experimental? This actually has benefits. I do not have an A&P mechanic's license. When you build an experimental airplane and do the majority of the work (51% rule) you may apply for a Repairman's Certificate, which allows the rights and privileges of an A&P license with an Inspector's Rating for that one single airplane. The cost savings are significant. I do all the work and inspections on my RV-4. If I want to add a centerline fuel tank or mount a machine gun pod (just joking), I can do it legally.
B. Do I attempt to obtain a Standard Type Certificate for the airplane? This could only be accomplished through the use of STCs–––Supplemental Type Certificates or possibly the easier "Field Approval." Three would be required; one for the fuselage, one for the metalized tail structure, and one for the wings. I'm just not sure it would be worth the hassles to have a certificated Travel Air. Although if I croak, or get run over by a cement truck, my widow would certainly benefit. A Standard certificate Travel Air would be worth much more $$$. Is this a logical consideration? I'm just not sure.

From my personal perspective it would seem more beneficial to build an experimental airplane. The only restriction of any consequence is that the airplane cannot be used for hire. The other restrictions on the use of experimental aircraft are too silly to even consider. Now the airplane does not have to be signed off by an A&P at every turn. It will not require an A&P/AI to sign off each Annual Inspection. I will do a "Condition Inspection" each year. It will look like a Travel Air and I will even call it a Travel Air. As the builder, I may call it whatever I want. And I like Travel Air. Maybe it will be a Travel Air E4000 "Extra." It will be much stronger. The added weight should not be a problem with a fire-belching Continental 220 up front doing the pulling. So that's it. Any suggestions? Email me.