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Clyde Cessna

Clyde Cessna

Clyde Cessna looked out from the cockpit of his new airplane toward the flat Salt Plains of Oklahoma. The winds were fairly calm but the white sand still stung his face. He had been anticipating this moment for months. He was going to attempt the first test flight of the monoplane he had built.

Cessna was concerned about his lack of flight experience along with the performance of his untested aircraft. He called his wooden monoplane Silverwing, for its shiny body. She was fragile, made of spruce and linen; he worried that he would damage her before mastering his skills.

Taking a deep breath, Cessna motioned for his brother, Roy, to turn the propeller. When the engine fired, Cessna smelled the strong scent of castor oil and his pulse quickened with anticipation.

The plane responded as he adjusted the throttle then bounced as he was attempting take off. Cessna lost control as the plane went into a spin and crashed into a ditch. He breathed a sigh of relief, having escaped injury, but the damaged nose would require repairs back in the shop at home.

After growing up in Kansas, Cessna had moved with his family to Enid, Oklahoma. He had been inspired by Louis Blériot’s crossing of the English Channel in a monoplane in 1909. The single wing design, Cessna reasoned, was simpler and more elegant than the biplane with its struts and wires. When he had the chance to see a flying circus in Oklahoma City in February 1911, he became convinced he could build a plane. When he discovered he could make as much as $10,000 from flight exhibitions, he sold his automobile dealership and set his sights on aviation. He spent one month learning about construction at a factory in New York and used his savings to purchase an airplane fuselage for $7,500. At his home in Enid, Cessna began assembling the plane kit with his own water-cooled engines. On May 11, 1911 he began testing on the Salt Plains some 35 miles from home, along with other would-be fliers.

The Cessna brothers returned once repairs were complete but the plane failed to lift on the second attempt. They spent 10 days on the plains living in a tent and surviving on water and flapjacks. Each time they sustained a “crack-up,” they made repairs. During one attempt Cessna was so badly injured he remained on a pallet for several days before he could drive back to Enid.

“I am going to make this thing fly,” Cessna said in frustration to Roy after 13 attempts. “Do you hear me? I am going to make this thing fly and then I am going to set it afire and I’ll never have another thing to do with aeroplanes.”

For the 14th time Cessna donned his goggles and fired the engine. The salty dust and sand burned Roy’s face as he tried to stabilize the plane in the wind. Clyde nodded for him to release his grip and step away from the machine. He throttled the engine and fought to keep the plane on track amidst the wind gusts. Building speed, the plane reluctantly rose to 50 feet as another gust shifted the balance. The engine spurted in resistance and began to overheat. Cessna  frantically worked the rudder, just as the plane stalled and struck the ground, bouncing then hitting again before coming to rest.

The 15th attempt proved successful and Clyde and Roy celebrated. The engine had performed well, but Clyde knew there was much to learn if he was to become successful. He soon forgot about quitting.

While making another trial flight on the Salt Plains he fell 75 feet, escaping serious injury but crashing his plane. Cessna planned his first public appearance in Enid on Independence Day. He didn't make that deadline but later flew two successive days in Jet and received $300, then another $300 in Cherokee. He rebuilt and tried in vain to support his family with proceeds from the exhibition flights.

In December 1912 Cessna made a solemn decision. He sent a message to his mother in Rago, Kansas. “Will make a flying trip home Saturday,” he wrote. He shipped his plane by rail, assembled it at the station, and flew home. Circling over the family farm, he landed near the front yard and climbed down from the cockpit while his mother watched. Cessna rushed to give her a kiss on the cheek.

“Beats old Dobbin, doesn’t it mother?” he asked.

Clyde Cessna with CometFinances required that Cessna move his wife and two children back home where he resumed farming. He continued to pursue his dream, building new and improved models. In 1916 the Jones Motor Car factory invited him to build the first airplane in Wichita. He flew the Comet in 30 exhibitions and set a speed record of 125 miles per hour, becoming known as one of the most successful aviators in the West. Then the outbreak of World War I put a temporary halt to Cessna’s career.

After working on the family farm Cessna decided to join with Lloyd Stearman and Walter Beech to form Travel Air Manufacturing Company in January 1925. Olive Ann Mellor became the business manager. The members of this team would each make an indelible mark on aviation.

Within weeks Beech demonstrated Travel Air’s new Model A biplane. The company quickly became one of the nation’s leading aviation manufacturers. Then Cessna decided to part ways to forge a different design direction. Forming his own company, he introduced a monoplane model “AW” in 1927 to initial success. Yet the Great Depression two years later ultimately led to shuttering the business. Cessna Aircraft Corporation reopened the Wichita plant in and by 1936 the company was on firm footing. He turned over ownership to nephews and returned to the family farm in Rago. The Cessna name may still be the most recognized in general aviation. The Cessna 172 was the most produced general aviation plane in history.

Quick Facts
Born:   December 5, 1879 Hawthorne, Iowa
Married: Europa Elizabeth Dotzour June 6, 1905 Enid, Oklahoma
Died:   November 20, 1954 Rago, Kansas


Primary sources in Kansas Memory

Guest commentary on Kansas Public Radio: Clyde Cessna

Entry: Cessna, Clyde

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2003

Date Modified: March 2024

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.