By L&T Columnist Gary Damron
A number of things brought me to today’s subject. First, I’d begun looking at what was going on in Kansas 100 years ago and was surprised at how many automobiles there were in our state. In the early 1900s the auto and air industries were both “taking off”, taking advantage, wrote Craig Miner, of “relative lack of regulation and small capital needed to turn invention into industry.”
That got me thinking of the two times I’ve flown in something other than commercial airliners. The first was with a college friend who took me up in a two-passenger prop plane. I was feeling fairly comfortable until we approached the small landing strip on top of a West Virginia mountain. Then I heard the pilot say,”Oops – let’s try that again” and got a little nervous as he pulled up for another go at the landing.
The second came after moving to Liberal when I made a chance remark about how uneventful my week had been. The next thing I knew another friend had me up in his Polish fighter jet, where at one point the earth flashed past my window as we flew through a canyon. Finally, coincidentally this week I’ve started reading an adventure book about the early days of barnstorming and flying machines.
It’s hard to fathom all the early aeroplane builders and pilots who accomplished what they did with little training or experience – or regulation. All it took back then to become a pilot or airplane builder was the will to do it. Many early planes were developed by people who’d been involved with bicycles, such as Glenn Curtiss and the Wright brothers in 1903. But in Kansas, two of the earliest came from the infant automobile industry: Albin Longren ran a car dealership in Clay Center and Clyde Cessna began his career as a car salesman.
Each of these men had attended air shows in 1910 and 1911 and each was taken by the adventure of flying machines. Separately they began following the aircraft trade, Longren building his own from scratch and Cessna going to work for a manufacturer where he learned on the job. Cessna’s craft began as a kit “which he wrecked and repaired so often that it soon became his own design” (Craig Miner, Kansas).
Albin Longren who’d grown up on a farm north of Manhattan was one of the first to actually fly a Kansas-built plane in Kansas in 1911. His airplane, now on display in the lobby of the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka, was a biplane that could be hauled on a trailer with wings folded and filled up at a gas station. He started producing aircraft in Topeka, and gained popularity when he sold one to Philip Billard, the mayor’s son who flew it around the city. Longren ended up building only 21 planes, using mostly money he earned at barnstorming exhibitions.
Clyde Cessna’s first flight was also in 1911, in the model he’d built from a kit. To begin his company he first opened a shop in Wichita in a building that formerly manufactured stock cars for trains, and which later housed the first Coleman plant. While Longren had used his own money, Cessna received funding from a Wichita man who’d made his money in the Eldorado oil fields. His monoplane which was faster than the biplane design obviously proved to be more popular.
Photos and fascinating descriptions of those early aircraft can be viewed at kshs.org and kansasmemory.org. If anyone has stories about air or autos in southwest Kansas in the early 1900s, please contact me at