KANSAS AVIATION CENTENNIAL
The Kansas Aviation Centennial got off to a rousing start, in Wichita, the "Air Capital City," Sept, 18, Sunday afternoon, at 1:30 pm, at the All Occassions Event Center, in Wichita.
Hosted by the Kansas Aviation Centennial Committee -- with support from other sponsors -- the event was
the start of a year-long commemoration and celebration of Kansas's rich aviation heritage.
A panel of the state's leading aviation history experts spoke to the audience about the significance of the Kansas Aviation Centennial, and the state's colorful aviation history -- and explained the significance of Kansas to world aviation.
International Aviation Historian
Nationally-known, British-born aviation historian John Davis noted that the first flight of Albin Longren -- Sept. 2nd, 1911, near Topeka, in a homebuilt plane -- is "realistically" the first flight of a successful Kansas aircraft. (Although Kansas-bred Clyde Cessna had made a few test hops before then, they were done in Oklahoma; Cessna returned to Kansas later.)
While occasionally noting various aircraft manufacturers scattered throughout the state. Davis -- an internationally recognized expert in aviation industry data research -- focused on Wichita, the "Air Capital City," as the heart of the state's aviation industry. Davis described Wichita as "one of the five [geographic] clusters of aviation in the world."
Davis added that "Kansas' [most famous] export -- and Wichita's main export -- to the world, has been general aviation. ...and thus of course when anyone thinks of GENERAL aviaton... of course, you've GOT to think of Wichita."
"I don't think you can say that anywhere else has ever had that sort of impact on avation," said Davis, "and the only other town which you can think of, that even had a similar impact, of course, was Detroit -- on the automobile."
Kansas Aviation Historian
Frank J. Rowe, co-author of the leading text on Kansas Aviation, "Borne on the South Wind" -- which documents the history of important Kansas aviation enterprises and people from Atchison to Liberal -- added that the history of Kansas aviation reflects something in the character of Kansans:
"Kansans dig in," said Rowe, "They won't let things drop out. It has a lot to do with who we are, and what we have inside of ourselves, as well. We have a very strong work ethic, and we're very sincere people, and it carries through."
Rowe, whose daytime job is Design Director for a major Kansas aircraft manufacturer, and who has served a similar role for another, noted that "Kansas aviation is a very dynamic thing. [Today], businesses are being held very strictly to re-inventing themselves... that's a big part of why Kansas aviation continues to exist: because we have had to re-invent ourselves continuously."
Citing hard times "after World War I... the Great Depression..." Rowe noted how Kansas aviation pioneers adapted, drastically at times, and industry leaders took matters into their own hands, doing much of the labor themselves.
"It says a lot about who we are as a people, and I think it continues to say a lot about who we are in the future."
WSU History Professor
Wichita State University history professor Jay Price -- who heads the university's Public History program, the state's leading program for historians specializing in "spreading the word" about history into the public arena -- added that the Kansas Aviation Centennial was a great way to "get the word out" about this state's second largest industry, and the state's rich aviation heritage.
"In terms of Kansas and aviation, I think it's striking how much we are people of the sky," said Price, who's currently working on a book about Tornado Alley. "We're definitely skywatchers. In fact, I don't say that we're 'flat'; I say we're 'sky-enhanced.'"
"Indeed," said Price, "I think that plays a bit of a role in it. In a place where you don't have hills to see in the distance, to be up to see a ways, you need to be elevated -- and aircraft are the way to do it out here"
Speaking to the character of Kansas aviation entrepreneurs, he added "There is an entrepreneurial component, that is very much a part of the Wichita story, with a number families and individuals.
"In some ways, aviation in Wichita was a product of the Golden Age of the family business, when you could start small and rise to national -- or even international -- importance. And I think Wichita was very much a part of that."
Price expressed concern about one segment of the state dominating the historic record. "One of the challenges of Kansas identity is, I think, that a lot of Kansas' identity is shaped by people in the northeastern part of the state," said Price.
"And so, to bring in aviation, is really -- in some ways -- to talk about a larger Kansas story (even if Longren is of Topeka)."
Praising the late WSU Professor Craig Miner (Frank Rowe's co-author of "Borne on the South Wind," the key text on Kansas aviation history), Prof. Price noted "one of his great talents, was realizing that Southern Kansas, Central Kansas, Western Kansas had a story, too. It's part of the state story, and should be thought of as such. It's not just an adjunct to what happened in Lawrence and Topeka and Kansas City, and so forth.
"And so that BROADER story," said Price, "is a part of what we can bring here, as well."
Q&A / SHOW & TELL
Centennial Committee Acting Chairman Richard Harris -- Kansas Aviation History speaker for the Kansas Humanities Council -- then called on
audience members, and others in the community,
and throughout the state, to join the Centennial Committee and its Boosters, to participate in helping the Kansas Aviation Centennial become a major event recognized and celebrated throughout Kansas.
Harris noted that the goal of the Centennial was "better informed Kansans, learning valuable lessons from the past, so we can make even better decisions going forward."
The panel presentation was followed by a question-and-answer session, with particular audience interest in "how" Kansas became so pioneering and important to aviation. The historians provided general answers, ranging from "wide open spaces," to local "oil money" fueling investors, to the mechanical genius of the farmer.
Most of the panel noted that an early "booster" mentality among community leaders triggered a sequence of events that snowballed into the Kansas aviation industry of today.
Historian & aircraft design executive Rowe -- whose own aircraft manufacturer received a large financial "incentive" package from state and local government to help it remain in Kansas, and retool for the future -- emphasized the importance of public support for the state's #2 industry in hard times:
"I'd especially say that it's VERY gratifying to see the state and local government step forward to partner with aircraft companies to make that work," said Rowe, "and I think that's a critical -- absolutely critical -- part of making Kansas aviation advance into the future."
During intermission, the audience wandered amongst displays of dozens of Kansas aviation history books (some authored by the panelists), and a dazzling array of models of Kansas-related aircraft provided by the
Air Capital IPMS Modelers,
and collector Donald Nitcher.
The panel discussion switched to a dynamic slideshow/lecture presentation -- crafted with assistance from the
Kansas Humanities Council
-- in which Chairman Harris told "the story of Kansas aviation."
Through vivid photos and enthusiastic narration, Harris told tales from the early tinkerers and visiting showmen, to the first successful flight of a Kansas plane by Topeka's Albin Longren, to the generation of aviation industrial centers in Kansas City and Wichita, to the spreading of aviation activity, industry and enthusiasm throughout the state -- and its ripples throughout the nation and the world.
Explaining "why Kansas?" Harris said, "Kansas is unhampered by the complexities and restrictions of life on the more densely populated American coasts, so is better able to try new things -- especially things that require mechanical skills, courage and initiative, and wide open spaces -- like aviation."
Citing farm-bred aviation pioneers like Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman, Harris emphasized the historic aviation influence of Kansas's "culture of the farmer" who was a "jack of all trades -- handy in working with wood and metal, living in comparative solitude without distractions, willing to work long hours with little or no pay, for a risky chance at a reward in the future."
Harris emphasized that Kansas aviation history is not just Wichita and Kansas City. "We have aviation factories, and major aviation operations, all over the state.
"Southeast Kansas has been home to several aircraft manufacturers," said Harris, "like Helio in Pittsburg, Funk in Coffeyville, and Cessna in Independence.
"Farther west, Beech has had factories in Liberal, Herrington and Salina, while Cessna has had factories between Winfield and Arkansas City. Both had factories in Hutchinson, and Alon built "Aircoupes" in McPherson."
Not content to stop there, Harris notes that today, Augusta assembles Australian "Eagle 150B" trainer planes for the U.S. market, and Belite builds ultralight single-seaters near Wichita, while ultralight and light-sport aircraft maker RANS, in Hays, is one of the world's leaders in its class."
Harris also noted the role of military aviation, with Kansas having served as a key center of aircraft manufacturing, innovation and training throughout World War II, not only in factory cities, but at airbases spread throughout the state, where many bomber crews trained for combat.
Harris noted that the Air Force's entire fleet of B-52 bombers still flying are all Kansas products, and that Wichita's McConnell Air Force Base has served as a key training and development site for the KC-135 jet tanker, F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bomber, B-47, B-52 and B-1 jet bombers, and others. He added that former airfields Forbes AFB in Topeka, and Schilling AFB in Salina, have had significant histories of their own, and continue as busy civilian airports.
Harris noted that many Kansans created, led or greatly influenced key aircraft manufacturers nationwide --including Boeing, Lockheed, Martin, Northrop, Ryan, and Bell Helicopter -- and the airline industry.
Kansas was birthplace of a formative early regional airline (Central Airlines), the first certified commuter airlines (Air Midwest) and home to TWA -- "the world's largest airline for decades"
Heroes like Wichita's Bleckley (first Medal of Honor for an airman), and Jabara (America's "first jet ace"), were noted, and the show finished on the achievements and fame of Atchison-bred aviator Amelia Earhart, "the most famous and influential woman of her time."
The event concluded with the Committee's call for all Kansans to support and get involved with the Kansas Aviation Centennial, and a promise of bigger upcoming events to celebrate the 100th year of Kansas aviation.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
, contact the:
Kansas Aviation Centennial Committee
Richard Harris, Chariman,