Travelair Mystery Ship: Model
"R" for Racing
Dawn of a New Era
It was September 2nd, 1929 and before the day was over,
the world of military airplanes had been changed forever.
As Doug Davis roared across the finish line and took the checkered flag
at Cleveland that afternoon, he had done more than win a race. He and
the red and black Travel Air Mystery Ship had thoroughly bloodied the
noses of the previously invincible Army and Navy fighters in the race.
In fact, he had made them look silly.
During the race, he accidentally cut a pylon and, as required by the
rules, circled it, but in pulling the tight circle, blacked out. Not
sure whether he’d circled it properly or not, he went around it
again. While he was circling that one pylon, the military fighters all
passed him and were far ahead. Davis, however, rolled out on course,
easily caught up and passed them. They didn’t have a chance
It was embarrassing to the military, but they got the message—the
biplane was dead. And the U.S. military was launched on a path to totally
redesign and re-equip its fighter force with monoplanes. Unknowingly,
Doug Davis and the Mystery Ship had set the military in a new direction
that would put them in much better position to fight a war they didn’t
know was coming.
Around Travel Air’s offices in Wichita, the radical new design
was officially known as the Model R. Travel Air is an interesting company
because it was founded and staffed by people who would all to on to
become legends of their own. Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman
were the founding partners of the small company and went on to be the
cornerstones of general aviation.
Travel Air didn’t set out to cause a revolution. In fact, they
didn’t decide they even wanted to go racing until only ten weeks
prior to the 1929 Cleveland Air Races. They had a problem, however—they
had no design, no airplane and no time. So, they called on the talents
of Travel Air engineers, Herb Rawdon (who went on to form his own company
building a series of trainers and ag-airplanes) and Walter Burnham.
As improbable as it seems, they designed and built what was to be the
most advanced land-based airplane of its time in only ten weeks. They
flew the airplane a few times, just enough to know they had a real rocket
ship on their hands, and left for the races.
Racing for them was a marketing ploy and in true marketing fashion,
they capitalized on the radical nature of the airplane. As soon as it
landed in Cleveland, it was covered with a tarpaulin and rushed into
a hangar under guard. No one was allowed to see the airplane, a move
that the press loved. They began referring to the airplane as the “Mystery
The 400 hp Wright J-6-9 (R-755) propelled Davis down the straights at
speeds over 235 mph out-running the competition by as much as 50 mph.
Its wire-braced, wood-covered wings and smoothly faired steel tube fuselage
was, even by then, traditional construction. But no one had ever seen
the materials combined in such a streamlined fashion.
In 1929 the Mystery Ship was a radical step forward by a small, civilian
company. By 1939, our military should have been thanking Travel Air
for opening their eyes to the future or they would have been caught
with their pants around their shoe tops when war rolled over the horizon.
September 2nd, 1929—A day worth remembering. .
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