Building the Backbone: Wichita

The forward nose section of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, known as section 41, is manufactured by Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Kan. (Photo: Boeing)

Welcome to the Building the Backbone series. In this short series, AirlineGeeks staff writers will go in depth in the history of cities that have helped create the backbone for aircraft building and have become icons for their advancements in aviation. The series will be brought to you by people who have seen first hand how aviation has helped the local area. 

Despite Wichita only being just over 150 years old, the Kansas city has made huge strides and great contributions to the aerospace community. Wichita started as a cattle town in the 1860s and gained momentum with the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in the 1870s.

The next major gain for the city on the plains came with the arrival of Fred Koch and Koch Industries. This money generated from Koch’s energy resources allowed for entrepreneurs to start businesses in the early 1900s.

One of the first arrivals to the Wichita area was an Oklahoman named Clyde Cessna and his invention, the Cessna Comet. The aircraft took flight on July 5, 1917 and set two records for both airspeed (124.6 mph) and range (76 miles). Cessna’s success was soon followed by the arrival of two businessmen who founded Swallow Airplane Company and hired two engineers by the names of Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman.

Swallow started operations in the 1920s and immediately found success with race planes and high-speed aircraft including the New Swallow of 1924, Swallow Mailplane (1926), and Swallow Dole Racer (1927). Despite the successes of Swallow, Stearman left the company in 1927 to start the Stearman Aircraft Corporation and created mail planes including the Stearman Model 75 and Stearman C3.

The Stearman Model 75 gained much success with the rollout in 1934 and Stearman sold over 10,000 frames over the next ten years. However, Stearman was given an offer he could not refuse and sold the company to the Boeing Company with former Stearman aircraft being named Boeing-Stearman.

1929 saw another Wichita aeronautical company start operations with Albert Mooney receiving monetary backing from a local machine company to start Mooney Aircraft Corporation. Mooney, swamped in competition and low on cash, closed up shop in Wichita one year later and moved to Kerryville, Texas, where the company still resides service today.

Although the city had earned the title ‘The Aviation Capital of the World,’ the Great Depression took a toll on the aviation side of the city. The Cessna DC-6 rolled out of the hangar the day the stock market crashed and slow sales forced Cessna Aircraft to close its doors in 1932. Swallow Airplane Company followed suit eight years later with the decline of air racing causing the manufacturer to shut its doors.

The thirties weren’t all bad for Wichita; the city saw the rise of a new company created by Walter Beech called Beechcraft Aircraft Company. Walter Beech started with the Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing and found immediate success with the Staggerwing generating over 750 deliveries in 17 years.

Cessna reemerged from bankruptcy thanks to Clyde Cessna’s nephews Dwane and Dwight Wallace in 1935 and began to find its stride again. The company reported strong performance in the 1940s with the rollout of the Cessna 140 in 1946, which earned ‘Outstanding Plane of the Year’ in 1948, due to its all metal body being made with tools and jigs rather than being hand-made.

World War II saw Boeing use Wichita Municipal Airport and the old Stearman space as a bomber assembly line as the Boeing B-29 Superfortress was rolled off the line in 1942. With Boeing building military aircraft in Wichita, the U.S. Air Force moved in and Wichita Municipal Airport became McConnell Air Force Base with the arrival of the 4156th AAF Base Unit.

Boeing’s production line in Wichita came to a close once the final Boeing B-50 Superfortress left the line after World War II. Despite the loss of Boeing’s production, McConell AFB is still in use today and houses the 22d Air Refueling Wing who operate a handful of Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers, which will be replaced by Boeing KC-47 Pegasus tankers in the near future.

With the military aircraft construction removed from Wichita, the city returned to building private jets and general aviation aircraft. Immediately following the war Beechcraft found the v-tailed aircraft wowed people and that allowed the Beechcraft Bonanza to see over 17,000 aircraft built with manufacturing still taking place today.

Cessna was the next to strike monetary gold with the 1956 creation of the Cessna 172. The high-wing aircraft has been the bread and butter for Cessna since then with 24 different models producing 43,000 airframes including some models having retractable landing gear or replacing un-retractable gear with floats.

Wichita hadn’t seen a new aircraft company since the 1930s, but that all changed with the arrival of William Powell Lear and Learjet. William Lear had been doing service as the Swiss American Aircraft Corporation in Altenhein, Switzerland but due to slow labor and delays, Lear quit and moved the company to Wichita in 1962, renaming it the Lear Jet Corporation in the process.

The first aircraft to come out of Lear Jet was the Learjet 23 in 1963 and was immediately followed with success and later versions of the Learjet 24 and Learjet 25 both in 1966. Learjet sold a combined 732 aircraft between the three variants and revolutionized the business aircraft industry by making it quicker and more efficient.

Cessna was not going to be outdone though and in 1969 rolled out the Cessna Citation I business jet. The jet immediately became successful and the Citation line of aircraft have produced over 7000 aircraft across ten variants.

Since then the big three companies have continued to field some of the most famous aircraft across the skies. Beechcraft rolled out the popular twin propeller Beechcraft King Air in 1963 and the Beechcraft Model 2000 Starship came out in 1985. Cessna has continued to produce variants of the Cessna 172 and Citation as the two have become aviation staples. Learjet has seen increased success with the Learjet 35 in 1973 and Learjet 45 in 1995.

While all three companies have made progress with individual aircraft, the business names and owners have shifted hands just as commonly. Lear Jet Corporation merged with Bill Gates’ Gates Aviation of Denver in 1967 to create Gates Learjet Corporation.

Gates Learjet was eventually acquired by Canadian regional and private jet builder Bombardier Aerospace in 1990 who still use the Learjet name in Wichita with aircraft and buildings being titled Bombardier Learjet. Cessna was sold to General Dynamics Corporation in 1985 but eventually was moved over to Textron Inc. in 1992.

Beechcraft’s history is muddier than that of Learjet and Cessna. Oliver Ann Beech ran Beechcraft Aviation after Walter’s death in 1950 but sold it to Raytheon Aircraft Company in 1980. Raytheon held on to Beechcraft for over twenty years but the subsidiaries’ struggles caused Raytheon to sell Beechcraft to Goldman Sachs in 2006.

Goldman Sachs merged their two aeronautical companies to form Hawker Beechcraft but the struggle continued and the company filed for bankruptcy in 2012. Hawker Beechcraft was able to dodge closing permanently and reemerged in 2013 with Textron wanting to buy the struggling aerospace legend. The deal was made and Hawker Beechcraft was sold to Textron Inc. on Dec. 26, 2013.

European aerospace giant Airbus started engineering and development work in Wichita in 2002 with a downtown office with 30 engineers doing wing work for the Airbus A380. With Airbus in town and military work slowing down, Boeing abandoned Wichita altogether in 2005 and spun off the aerostructure business to a private company called Spirit AeroSystems.

The self-proclaimed ‘Aviation Capital of the World’ had over fifty companies that do aircraft work inside city limits in 2015. Bombardier is utilizing the empty skies and Learjet building on Wichita Dwight Eisenhower National Airport to test the Bombardier CS100 and CS300 aircraft as well as to continue building Learjet 45 aircraft.

However, Learjet is starting to bog the struggling Canadian company with the Learjet 85 only generating 45 orders before being indefinitely delayed. Cessna, who builds the Citation, Caravan, and 206 across the airport from Learjet, has moved the 172 production from Wichita to Independence to allow for more space to work in Wichita.

Cessna is currently seeing success from the launch of the Citation Latitude in 2015 and the preparation of the larger Citation Longitude, which is currently in the testing phase. Cessna is also looking into alternative power sources for future Cessna 172 aircraft, with plans for a diesel motor and electric engine both being considered.

Beechcraft operates away from Cessna and Learjet at the Beechcraft Airport across town and still build the Bonanza, Baron, and King Air. Spirit AeroSystems creates all Boeing’s 737 fuselages as well as Boeing 787 forward fuselage and Airbus A350XWB wing and fuselage sections.

Airbus has expanded their Wichita operations by employing over 400 people to work at a recently completed building on Wichita State University campus.

Ian McMurtry

Ian McMurtry

Ian has been an avgeek since 2004 when he started spotting US Airways Express planes at Johnstown Airport in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He now lives in Wichita and enjoys spotting planes in Kansas City and Wichita as well as those flying at high altitudes over his home. He is a pilot with more than 40 hours of experience behind a Cessna 172, Diamond DA-20, and Piper PA-28. He flies Southwest Airlines on most of his domestic flights and Icelandair when flying to Europe. Ian’s route map spans from Iceland and Alaska in the north to St. Maarten in the south. He is a student at Wichita State University, where he will study aerospace and mechanical engineering.
Ian McMurtry