The Travel Air 2000/3000/4000 (originally, the Model A, Model B and Model BH were open-cockpit biplane aircraft produced in the United States in the late 1920s by the Travel Air Manufacturing Company. During the period from 1924–1929, Travel Air produced more aircraft than any other American manufacturer, including over 1,000 biplanes. While an exact number is almost impossible to ascertain due to the number of conversions and rebuilds, some estimates for Travel Air as a whole range from 1,200 to nearly 2,000 aircraft.
Design and development
Design and development
The Travel Air Model A was engineered chiefly by Lloyd Stearman, with input from Travel Air co-founders Walter Beech, Clyde Cessna, and Bill Snook and could trace its ancestry back to the Swallow New Swallow biplane. The Travel Air, however, replaced the New Swallow's wooden fuselage structure with a welded steel tube. An interim design, the Winstead Special, was developed by the Winstead brothers from a metal fuselage frame developed at Swallow by Stearman and Walter Beech, but subsequently rejected by Swallow president Jake Moellendick, a decision which triggered the departure of both Stearman and Beech, and the creation of Travel Air. Until the appearance of the all new 12/14/16 series, all subsequent Travel Air biplanes would be derived from the Model A.
In common with the Fokker D.VII that they resembled, the rudder and ailerons of the first Travel Air biplanes had an overhanging "horns" to counterbalance the aerodynamic loads on the controls, helping to reduce control forces and making for a more responsive aircraft. These were the distinctive Travel Air "elephant ear" ailerons which led to the airplane's popular nicknames of Old Elephant Ears and Wichita Fokker. Some subsequent models were offered without the counterbalance, providing a cleaner, more conventional appearance with less drag. Pitch forces could be trimmed out with an inflight-adjustable horizontal stabilizer.
Different, interchangeable wings were offered, including a shorter and thinner wing known as the "Speedwing" which improved speed.
A considerable number of engines were installed, including nearly every mass-produced engine in the 90–300 hp (67–224 kW) range available at the time, and a number of more obscure prototype engines, as can be seen in the list of designation prefixes.
Travel Air entered the specially-modified Model 4000-T in the Guggenheim Safe Aircraft Competition of 1930, but it was disqualified, as were all production aircraft entered during the qualification trials. The Travel Air biplanes were noted for their good flying qualities which may have helped Travel Air outsell all rivals by 1929.
In addition to a wide range of normal aircraft applications, the Travel Air biplanes saw extensive use in early motion pictures, where they often stood in for the increasingly scarce Fokker D.VII.
Aside from surplus military aircraft such as the Curtiss JN-4 Jenny, during the late 1920s and very early 1930s, Travel Air biplanes were, along with their chief competitor, WACO, were the most widely used civilian biplanes in America.
Travel Air biplanes were popular as executive transports, and many were purchased by wealthy-sportsmen adventurers who entered them in the competitions and air races that were frequently held during that era. Like many aircraft of the period, they also operated as air taxis and provided air charter services, carrying passengers and light air cargo, and some would find their way north where they worked as bushplanes.
As the supply of war-surplus aircraft declined and they became available on the used aircraft market, many were also used for barnstorming, which included exhibition and stunt flying, and selling rides.
Commercial operators found the Travel Air biplanes to be versatile, owing to their useful payload, rugged construction and (for the times) speed and efficiency.
Towards the end of their career elsewhere, from the late-1930s through the early 1960s, they were increasingly used for the harsh work of bush flying and cropdusting, and Travel Air biplanes were among the most commonly used cropdusters, perhaps second only to surplus Stearman Kaydet biplanes.
Most remaining Travel Air biplanes have been restored, and are in museums, while a small number continue to be used for personal recreation or selling rides and flying at airshows. A 1929 Travel Air normally based in the San Diego area is the oldest regularly flying aircraft tracked by FlightRadar24, an aviation tracking website. A 1927 Travel Air is regularly used to give sightseeing rides from Orcas Island, Washington.
As the 2000/3000/4000 series was nearing the end of its development cycle, a pair of new designs, the Travel Air 12 and 14 were developed to replace it - the 12 as a slightly smaller two-seat trainer, and the larger 14 as a direct replacement, even to continuing some of the marketing names. Both would fly while Travel Air retained its identity, but would be incorporated into the Curtiss-Wright line with the same numbers.
Travel Air biplanes were widely used in 1920s/1930s war movies, particularly to represent the airplanes they were patterned after: Germany's Fokker D-VII fighter, the top fighter of World War I. In the motion picture industry, they were known as "Wichita Fokkers." In fact, Hollywood's demand for Travel Air biplanes was so intense that Travel Air's California salesman, Fred Hoyt, coaxed Travel Air co-founder and principal airplane designer, Lloyd Stearman, to come to Venice, California in 1926 to exploit the movie industry demand for his aircraft by starting the short-lived independent Stearman Aircraft Company (re-opened back in Wichita in 1927).
Some of the many movies using Travel Air biplanes (2000 and 4000, in particular) included:
Variants were distinguished with prefixes and suffixes in a particular order, and denoting different fittings.
The prefix S, preceding all other prefixes meant it was a Seaplane and was fitted with floats.
Next it was wings. B was the Standard wing, not to be confused with the original basic elephant ear wing, and D indicated the aircraft was fitted with a Speedwing.
The engine code followed this, and due to the long service period when considerable experimentation occurred, a wide variety of engines were installed in production airplane as follows:
Following the engine code in a very small number of cases, M, indicated that it was a single seater configured as a Mailplane, and then the model number. The same system was also used with the later numerical desigation sequence. The sole example of the mailplane seems to have been the BM-4000, a Wright J-5 powered mailplane, of which 7 were built. Not all possible variations were built.
Suffixes were also added that were specific to modifications made and often referred to conversions or post-production versions.