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Travel Air Model R 'Mystery Ship'
The Question of Wings

The dearth of detailed documentation on each of the five Type R monoplanes has created uncertainties about the construction and disposition of wings that were reportedly built for the airplanes. Although the Wright-powered ship was fitted with its original, standard set of wings having a span of 29 feet, two inches for the 1929 National Air Races at Cleveland, Ohio former Travel Air employee Theodore “Ted” Cochran told the author in 1981 that he helped build one set of “small wings” for the Wright-powered monoplane (614K) before the races. He stated in another interview that the wings were fitted to the airplane and test-flown at the factory, but that they were removed and the standard wings reinstalled.

These short-span wings apparently were built, but there is no known evidence in Travel Air company records, in Herb Rawdon or Walter Burnham's engineering files, or from other reliable sources that reveals their exact dimensions or eventual disposition. According to Clarence Clark, Travel Air's chief pilot, the wings were shorter than the standard set for the Wright-powered Type R. In 1981 Clarence Clark said that he flew R614K with the short-span wings installed, but that the increase in speed was minimal and the panels were removed in favor of the standard wings.

But Rolf Norstog, who had researched the “Mystery Ships” during the 1950s and 1960s and interviewed both Rawdon and Burnham, claimed that the standard wings were removed from R614K before the Cleveland races and were placed in storage at the Travel Air factory. He contended that the short-span wings were installed and remained on the airplaned throughout its career, but there is no evidence to support that position. To the contrary, in a letter written by historian William Fleming to Walter Burham on October 3, 1962, Fleming asked Burnham about the existence of two sets of wings for R614K. In response Walter Burnham scribbled a note stating, “only one set of small wings, Doolittle had them, R614K didn't.” Although Burnham's comment is open to interpretation, he apparently was implying that the short wings built for the Wright-powered Type R were eventually acquired by Doolittle and were not installed on the Wright-powered airplane.

In another interview Ted Cochran claimed that the racing wings for R614K eventually were acquired by Frank Hawks for use on “Texaco 13”, the fourth Type R built. In the 1970s these wings, still carrying the Texaco logo and NR1313's paint scheme, were placed on display by the Staggerwing Museum Foundation in Tullahoma Tennessee. The museum obtained the wings from antique airplane enthusiast David Jameson, who also claimed they were from R614K. Although this is possible, there is no known documentation to substantiate the Museum's or Jameson's position.5

Research by the author, however, indicates that James Doolittle may have obtained the wings from R614K in March 1930, for occasional use on the third Type R, the Shell Mystery Ship, which was built before the Texaco 13. In addition, Doolittle wrote to the author in 1984 and stated that he had installed and “extra set” of wings on the Shell Mystery Ship when he had the wrecked airplane rebuilt to his specifications in 1931. Doolittle wrote that the wings “were from an old ship” – a possible reference to R614K.

Based on the available evidence, it appears that Doolittle, not Hawks, may have acquired the racing wings from R614K and that the airplane flew most of its career with a standard set of wing panels. Records of The Texas Company indicate that a separate set were later built for use on Texaco 13. 6

In addition, a short-span set of wings for the Chevolair-powered Type R may have been built for Florence Lowe “Pancho” Barnes, who bought the airplane in 1930 after it had been reengined with a Wright J-6-7 powerplant. According to Rolf Norstog, the racing wings were placed in storage at H.C. Lippiatt's Travel Air dealership at Grand Central Airport in Glendale, California after Barnes took delivery of the airplane.

5 In February 1999 Dave Jameson told the author he did not know the origin of the short-span set of wings donated to the Staggerwing Museum Foundation, and that he had only assumed they were the set built for R614K. Jameson said he had no documentation of other information that would serve as evidence to support that contention. In addition, he agreed that the wings could have been built specifically for Texaco 13.

6 The short-span wings for Texaco 13 eventually were donated to the Staggerwing Museum Foundation in Tullahoma, Tennessee and placed on permanent display.


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