A Brief History of the People Who Created the Light Aircraft Industry in the U.S. – Part 3

by Martin Maisel
(photos used with appropriate permission)
Lloyd Stearman

Lloyd Carlton Stearman was born in 1898 in Wellsford, Kansas. After graduating from high school in nearby Harper, Lloyd enrolled at Kansas State
College (later renamed Kansas State University) in Manhattan, Kansas, to study engineering and architecture – but left in August 1918 to enlist in the U.S. Naval Reserve Flying Corps. After completing ground school in Seattle, Washington, he was transferred to Naval Air Station North Island at San Diego, California, where he received flight instruction in Curtiss N-9 seaplanes.

When the World War ended, Stearman was released from his military duties before he could earn his wings and he returned to Kansas in December
1918. Stearman briefly ran an electrical repair shop in Harper but moved to Wichita to accept employment with an architectural firm. Still interested in aviation, in 1920 he landed a job as a mechanic for the E.M. Laird Aviation Company that was building the Laird Swallow airplane. As the company grew, having delivered nearly 40 Swallows by 1923, Stearman was rapidly promoted – first to foreman in the Assembly Department, then to Senior Draftsman, and before long, Assistant Engineer. With the stability of a secure job, Lloyd married his high school sweetheart Ethyl Trusty. However, job stability did not prove to be one of Lloyd Stearman’s virtues.

Stearman’s piloting experience was quite limited at the time he joined Laird, so fellow employee Walter Beech helped him improve his flying skills. Stearman took to the air every chance he got and, with Beech’s instruction, he became a proficient pilot. At the same time he was also advancing his knowledge of aeronautical designs.

The financier behind the E.M. Laird Aviation Company was Kansas oil tycoon Jacob “Jake” Mollendick. Because of escalating business disagreements with Mollendick, Matty Laird elected to sell his stock and surrender to Mollendick all rights to the Swallow airplane. Laird then moved to Chicago and founded a new airplane company with a similar name, the E.M. Laird Airplane Company. The Wichita Laird company was renamed the Swallow Airplane Company in January 1924 and was under Mollendick’s full control. Lloyd Stearman was appointed as the Chief Engineer of the new Swallow company.

Stearman was directed to design improvements to the company’s product and, by the spring of 1924, the New Swallow was being flight-tested. The New Swallow incorporated many innovative features including a fully enclosed engine, an auxiliary fuel tank and a wider front cockpit.

While the New Swallow was popular among America’s sport pilots, Stearman and Walter Beech tried to persuade Mollendick that the aircraft could be further improved by replacing the wood fuselage and empennage with a welded steel-tube structure. Mollendick curtly rejected their proposal. The relationship between Mollendick and the two young employees rapidly deteriorated and, in late 1924, Stearman and Beech left Swallow to form their own aircraft company.

Seeking business leadership as well as technical and financial support, they teamed with Clyde Cessna, a well-known local aviation figure. Cessna had not been actively involved in aviation for about six years, but the prospect of developing new aircraft intrigued him. With Cessna and other financial backers in place, the Travel Air Manufacturing Company was incorporated in February 1925.

Stearman, now chief engineer of Travel Air at the age of 25, designed the company’s first airplane – a three-place biplane. The Travel Air 1000 prototype was designed to carry air mail and two passengers. The production models based on that aircraft was designated as the Travel Air 2000. As sales grew, Stearman modified the aircraft with higher horsepower engines and other improvements to meet customer demands. These aircraft were labeled the Travel Air 3000 and 4000. By 1926 Travel Air was established as a leader in the manufacture of light commercial aircraft.

In October 1926, Stearman was lured away from Travel Air by Travel Air salesman Fred Hoyt. With the promise of funding and the prospect of leading a company that would build planes of his own design, Stearman moved his family to Venice, California, in October 1926. He established the Stearman Aircraft Company in early 1927, but financial backing turned out to be inadequate and within a year the company was on the verge of collapse. Wichita businessman Walter Innes Jr., a key player in raising capital for the city’s developing aircraft industry, persuaded Stearman to move his company back to Wichita with initial funding of $60,000.

In late 1927, production of the Stearman C2-B began in a factory five miles north of Wichita to help meet the orders that could not be filled in California. Demand for the C2-B and, later, the C3-B accelerated through 1928 and the rate of aircraft rolling off the production lines was increased to meet the market’s needs.

As the economic turmoil of the Great Depression set in, Stearman Aircraft became a division of the United Aircraft and Transportation Corporation in 1929, with Lloyd Stearman continuing as president of the Stearman Division. At the time, the United Aircraft and Transportation Corporation consisted of Varney Airlines, National Air Transport, Pacific Air Transport, Boeing Air Transport, Hamilton Aero (propellers), Standard Steel Propellers, Boeing Aircraft, Sikorsky Aircraft, Pratt & Whitney (engines), Chance Vought, and Northrop.

In 1930 the Stearman Division, seeking its first sale to the military, offered the Model 6 Cloudboy as a trainer for the U.S. Army Air Corps. The trainer, built in limited numbers, was designated the YPT-9. Two versions of the type, with different engines, were labeled the YPT-3 and the YPT-5.

Four years later, the U.S. Government concluded that large holding companies such as United Aircraft and Transport were anti-competitive. By federal order United Aircraft was divided into separate companies with the western manufacturing interests folded into Boeing, headquartered in Seattle. Stearman, therefore, became a division of Boeing.

However, by the early 1930s the depression was dealing a devastating blow to the American aviation industry. Many commercial orders were withdrawn and layoffs began. Furthermore, by the summer of 1931, Lloyd Stearman had tired of United Aircraft’s management style and decided to sever his connection with the company he founded.

The famous “Stearman” Model 75 trainer, of which over 10,000 were built during World War II, were actually Boeing-Stearman aircraft produced long after Lloyd Stearman left the company. After leaving United Aircraft, Stearman moved his family back to California and joined with Walter Varney and Robert Gross to form the Stearman-Varney Aircraft Company in Alameda. Walter Varney served as a pilot in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War I and established an aviation school and air taxi service after the war. In October 1925 Varney was awarded one of the first contracts for private companies to fly the mail. In 1930 he sold the expanded mail and passenger service to the United Aircraft and Transport Corporation, and the airline’s name was changed to United Airlines.

In 1932 the Lockheed Aircraft Company, hit hard by the effects of the depression, was near bankrupt and went up for sale. (The company was originally founded by brothers Allan and Malcolm Loughhead, but the spelling of the name was changed to the phonetic “Lockheed” to prevent mispronunciation). Allan Lockheed was interested in regaining control of the company, which at that time was held by the Detroit Aircraft Corporation, but could only raise $50,000 – an amount he felt was too small to make a serious bid – so he did not submit an offer. Walter Varney and business partner Robert Gross, however, offered $40,000 and their bid won. Gross assumed the role of CEO of the new Lockheed Corporation and Stearman was appointed president.

Under Gross and Stearman, Lockheed set out to design a twin-engine all-metal transport, a significant gamble given the severe economic conditions of the time. They took on further risk by hiring relatively inexperienced young engineering and science graduates to accomplish that task. Among the new hires were Hal Hibbard and Clarence “Kelly” Johnson. The product of that work was the highly successful Lockheed Model 10 Electra. Much of the general design of that aircraft has been credited to Lloyd Stearman.

Once again, Stearman felt the need to move on. In May 1935 he resigned from Lockheed and accepted a position with the Bureau of Air Commerce, a forerunner to the current Federal Aviation Administration. The next change in Stearman’s career occurred after he traveled to Ypsilanti, Michigan to inspect and evaluate a radical new airplane design. Earlier, in 1934, the Bureau of Air Commerce had held a competition for a safe and practical low cost aircraft. Dean Hammond won the competition with an enclosed cabin, all aluminum, twin-boom, twintail, pusher-prop aircraft. Stearman approved of the Hammond Model Y, but thought that it needed much improvement. It was a challenge that Lloyd Stearman could not resist. He resigned from his government position and formed the Stearman-Hammond Aircraft Corporation in San Francisco in 1935. Production of redesigned aircraft began in 1936, but due to its high cost (of about $5000) only about 15 were sold. Sales of the Y-1S ceased in 1937.

Stearman next served as vice-president of the Transair Corporation in San Francisco from 1938 through 1939. In 1941 he became the manager of the airplane division of the Harvey Machine Company in Long Beach, California. During the war years his division designed and manufactured cowlings for military airplanes.

Shortly after the end of the war, Stearman resigned from the Harvey Machine Company. He then founded the Stearman Engineering Company at Dos Palos, California, with the intent to design and build airplanes for agricultural use. However, it soon became apparent that the market was flooded with
surplus Model 75 (Boeing-Stearman PT-13/PT-17) trainers, that could be readily converted for crop duster and spraying operations.

That venture was soon terminated and, for a brief period, he worked for the National Aviation Corporation in San Fernando, California, where he designed an all-metal wing for the PT-series trainers. In 1946, with partner George Willett, he started up the Inland Aviation Company at Los Banos, California, to convert the ubiquitous “Stearman” PT trainer biplanes to crop dusters with upgraded Pratt & Whitney R-1340 radial engines.

Lloyd Stearman’s next job search resulted in an ironic and somewhat amusing story. In June 1955 a middle-aged man entered the employment office at the Lockheed Corporation headquarters at Burbank, California. He filled out an application and left. When the employment executive looked at the form later he was startled and confused. He picked up the phone and called Lockheed’s senior vice president, Hal Hibbard. Years later, Hibbard recalled the phone conversation this way:

“Hey, we got some kind of a nut here who says he knows you,” the employment executive said. “And get this, where the application asks about previous
employment at Lockheed, the guy writes down: President.” Hibbard gasped. “That’s no nut,” he said. “That can’t be anyone but Lloyd Stearman.” Hibbard was right, of course, and he certainly did know Lloyd Stearman.

In 1928, when Hibbard was 25 and fresh out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stearman gave him his first job as a draftsman and engineer at Stearman’s aircraft factory in Wichita. And Stearman gave him two other jobs during the 1930s, the last one when Stearman took over the defunct Lockheed Aircraft Corporation.

So, in 1955, when Stearman applied for work at Lockheed, the company jumped at the chance to hire him.

As a Senior Design Engineer at Lockheed, Stearman worked on advanced projects such as swing-wing aircraft, Vertical Take-Off and Landing aircraft, and re-entry space missiles as well as resolving technical problems with the Lockheed Constellation aircraft.

Lloyd Stearman retired from Lockheed in August 1968 and promptly formed a new company, the Stearman Aircraft Corporation, in Los Angeles.
Stearman had dreamed of developing a multi-purpose turbo-prop aircraft that could haul passengers or be converted for agricultural use. However, Stearman’s ill health prevented that plane from becoming a reality. Lloyd Stearman died of cancer in Northridge, California, on April 3, 1975.

For over a half-century, Lloyd Stearman’s contributions earned the respect and admiration of the American aviation industry – an industry that he helped to create.

It appears that all Stearman wanted to do was design and build airplanes, which he did very well. But he had no interest and little aptitude for running his airplane businesses. While Stearman consistently designed highly successful aircraft, his companies were, in the end, not profitable.

Lloyd Stearman was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio, in July, 1989.