The Bird­man of Topeka

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - BY GILES LAMBERTSON

Meet the in­ven­tor who had a longer im­pact on the U.S. air­plane in­dus­try than the Wrights.

Lon­gren’s restive ge­nius even­tu­ally both spurred and spoiled his legacy as an aviation pi­o­neer. He helped shape the early air­plane in­dus­try, de­sign­ing and build­ing state-of-the-art air­planes in Kansas, Missouri, and Ok­la­homa. He also played a chief role in the U.S. govern­ment’s first air­plane de­vel­op­ment cen­ter. Yet in the words of one Kansas aviation writer, Lon­gren even­tu­ally “wan­dered off into an al­most anony­mous life,” rob­bing him­self of his right­ful place among the pi­o­neers in the an­nals of aviation his­tory.

At the turn of the 20th cen­tury, Lon­gren, the son of Swedish im­mi­grants, was a teenager get­ting by with lit­tle but nat­u­ral me­chan­i­cal ap­ti­tude. He built a mo­tor­cy­cle in 1904, the same year Wil­liam Har­ley and Arthur David­son road-tested their first. In 1905, Lon­gren im­pressed the edi­tor of the

Leonardville Mon­i­tor when, at the age of 23, he drove his home­built car into town. “He made the car from prac­ti­cally noth­ing and it worked like a charm,” the pa­per re­ported. “Mr. Lon­gren is quite a ge­nius.”

Dur­ing 1911, he qui­etly built his first air­plane in Topeka, where he worked as a gaso­line en­gine in­spec­tor for the Atchi­son, Topeka, and Santa Fe Rail­way. Lon­gren, his brother E. J., and friend Wil­liam Jan­icke crafted the air­plane from ash, bam­boo, spruce-re­in­forced linen, and 2,500 feet of 1/16th-inch wire. While his design closely re­sem­bled the Cur­tiss he re­paired, it was nine feet longer, 75 pounds heav­ier, and four feet wider in wingspan; its eight-cylin­der, 60-horse­power Hal­lS­cott en­gine had more than twice the power of the Cur­tiss pow­er­plant. The fin­ished prod­uct was dis­as­sem­bled and trucked to a farm seven miles south of the city, where it was re­assem­bled in­side a tent to main­tain se­crecy.

Near sun­set on Septem­ber 2, 1911, with Lon­gren in the pi­lot’s seat, the rear-fac­ing prop was spun and the first air­plane built and flown in Kansas shud­dered for­ward. Its tri­cy­cle gear lifted gen­tly, and the air­plane flew a few hun­dred feet (ex­actly how many is in dis­pute), then touched down safely.

“The first time this plane was flown, I had never sat in any other air­plane, or re­ceived any in­struc­tions from any­one ex­pe­ri­enced in fly­ing,” Lon­gren wrote years later in a scrap­book he sent to the Kansas State His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety. “The plane was also an un­known quan­tity be­cause its bal­ance and air­wor­thi­ness was a big ques­tion. No one with any air­plane build­ing ex­pe­ri­ence was con­sulted or ren­dered as­sis­tance.”

Lon­gren went pub­lic a few days later. He first thrilled crowds at Topeka’s state fair­grounds be­fore pi­lot­ing the craft over the dome of the 325-foot-tall state capi­tol and scooted south, land­ing in a field be­fore the three-gal­lon fuel tank ran dry. News of the flight quickly spread. County fair orga- niz­ers and cham­bers of com­merce begged Lon­gren to visit their venues. Lon­gren, ever cau­tious, de­clined. “He wishes to per­fect him­self in the han­dling of the ma­chine a lit­tle more be­fore ac­cept­ing any of­fers” is what one as­so­ci­ate told the

, though by

Clay Cen­ter Dis­patch-re­pub­li­can then Lon­gren al­ready had. In any case, his flight over Topeka was the first of 1,372 ex­hi­bi­tions; in all that time, the worst ac­ci­dent he suf­fered, while land­ing in a roughly plowed field, re­sulted only in a cracked strut.

A lo­cal fi­nan­cial backer sent Lon­gren barn­storm­ing across Kansas, Ne­braska, and Ok­la­homa, each ex­hi­bi­tion earn­ing the air­plane de­signer about $350. Awed crowds in­cluded a thou­sand Cheyenne In­di­ans en­camped near Wa­tonga, Ok­la­homa. The in­come paid for a sec­ond air­plane in 1912, a shorter, smaller ver­sion of the orig­i­nal.

The ex­hi­bi­tions and air­plane-build­ing con­tin­ued, but the law of av­er­ages fi­nally over­took Lon­gren: In a crack-up in Abi­lene, Texas, in 1915, he broke a leg. An ac­ci­dent two years later was fi­nan­cially painful: While fly­ing to Leroy, Kansas, to meet des­per­ately needed in­vestors, his en­gine mal­func­tioned, and the air­plane dropped from the sky and killed a cow. The cow cost Lon­gren $100; the wreck cost him his in­vestors.

So Lon­gren’s first aviation com­pany failed. But un­like many com­pa­nies at the time, the qual­ity of his prod­uct was not the prob­lem. He de­signed, con­structed, and sold 10 mod­els, from open-frame pusher types to “trac­tor” air­planes with three-blade pro­pel­lers. All re­sponded nim­bly to pi­lot con­trols, main­tained their struc­tural in­tegrity in flight, and with­stood the stresses of prim­i­tive land­ing sur­faces. One sur­viv­ing air­plane, his fifth (built with parts of the first), to­day

AL­BIN KASPER “A.K.” LON­GREN didn’t tinker with air­planes un­til 1910, the year a Cur­tiss pusher plane flew into Topeka, Kansas, not far from his home­town of Leonardville, for a pub­lic demon­stra­tion flight. The plane crashed, and the pi­lot gave Lon­gren the chance to help re­pair it. He fin­ished the job re­solved to build his own.

hangs in the Kansas Mu­seum of His­tory in Topeka. Each design roughly copied other man­u­fac­tur­ers’ air­planes, but the pat­tern would not per­sist. Lon­gren was an innovator, not a repli­ca­tor.

While barn­storm­ing in Min­neapo­lis, Kansas, Lon­gren met Dolly Trent and mar­ried her af­ter she be­gan work as a nurse in Kansas City. She be­came a key part­ner in her hus­band’s busi­ness. Dolly sewed cloth wing cov­ers, helped clean up castor oil spills in the fac­tory as­sem­bly line, and dreamed up mar­ket­ing slo­gans: “Watch it climb, see it fly, you’ll own a Lon­gren by and by.” She was a bub­bly coun­ter­part to her tac­i­turn hus­band.

Tem­po­rar­ily out of busi­ness, Lon­gren found a job dur­ing World War I as chief in­spec­tor of air­craft at Mccook Field in Day­ton, Ohio. For a year and a half, the self-taught air­plane-maker min­gled with test pi­lots and de­sign­ers at America’s first mil­i­tary aviation re­search and de­vel­op­ment cen­ter, and at war’s end in 1919, he re­turned to Topeka primed to build another air­plane.

This model would be for “the doc­tor, the ranch­man, the trav­el­ing man and the farmer,” he de­clared, and those buy­ers could con­ve­niently park the air­craft in their garages. The pop­ulist model was dubbed The New Lon­gren Air­plane, or some­times the Lon­gren AK.

The two-seat bi­plane was just 19 feet long. Weigh­ing 550 pounds, it was pow­ered by a 60-hp An­zani three-cylin­der ra­dial en­gine and could take off and land in short dis­tances. What re­ally set it apart from the com­pe­ti­tion were fold­ing wings and a fuse­lage con­tain­ing vul­can­ized fiber. A pair of wheels was at­tached to the tail­skid, and with wings tucked, the air­plane could be towed back­ward into a garage. It was, Lon­gren wrote in ad­ver­tise­ments, “by far the best so­lu­tion to the hous­ing prob­lem ever of­fered.” Dolly hit upon the mar­ket­ing idea of show­ing the wings locked in flight po­si­tion with the cap­tion “Open for busi­ness.”

The fuse­lage con­sisted of a vul­can­ized fiber sheet in­cised in di­a­mond pat­terns and sand­wiched be­tween two wood ve­neers. The three-ply bonded ma­te­rial was soaked in warm wa­ter, placed in dies, and formed un­der three tons of pres­sure into a half-cylin­dri­cal aero­dy­namic shape. The fuse­lage halves were af­fixed to ash longerons to form the world’s first semi-mono­coque, truly com­pos­ite shell fuse­lage. Other builders had shaped fuse­lages of ply­wood or ve­neer strips, but Lon­gren in­tro­duced the (non-wood) fi­brous sheet that en­hanced the shell’s strength. Mil­i­tary re­view­ers later mar­veled that bul­lets didn’t shat­ter it.

The air­plane could fly well too. Lon­gren sent his Lon­gren AK to an in­ter­state air­show in Con­cor­dia, Kansas, where it fin­ished sec­ond in a climb­ing con­test, eclipsed only by one of his H-2 trac­tor mod­els. At an Amer­i­can Le­gion meet in Kansas City, Missouri, the air­plane set a record of 38 con­sec­u­tive loops, which must have been ex­haust­ing. It fin­ished sec­ond in a Spe­cial Class Ef­fi­ciency Race in Omaha—a con­test that cal­cu­lated points on an air­plane’s to­tal per­for­mance—then won a 100-mile race in Salina, Kansas. On another oc­ca­sion, a test pi­lot zipped up to 18,800 feet in it be­fore thin­ning oxy­gen forced him to de­scend.

When a U.S. naval air­craft gen­eral in­spec­tor, Karl Smith, vis­ited the Topeka

fac­tory, he was im­pressed to see that Lon­gren’s fuse­lage was formed with such pre­ci­sion from dies made of rel­a­tively rough con­crete, rather than cast iron. “How­ever, with this more or less un­sat­is­fac­tory equip­ment, The Lon­gren Air­craft Corp. is able to pro­duce a body which is phe­nom­e­nal in its strength and par­tic­u­larly easy to build,” Smith said in his eval­u­a­tion.

He rec­om­mended that the Navy pur­chase a New Lon­gren im­me­di­ately. “Per­son­ally I do not know the fi­nan­cial con­di­tion of the cor­po­ra­tion, but if nec­es­sary, in view of the un­usu­al­ness of this air­craft, I be­lieve it would pay the Bu­reau to bear the cost of (cast-iron) dies and jigs.” The Navy quickly bought three air­planes for test­ing at Mccook Field and Pen­sacola, Florida.

The tests went well. Lieu­tenant J.B. Kneip of the Navy’s Bu­reau of Aero­nau­tics gave the air­plane a thumbs-up. “It’s easy to land; plane prac­ti­cally lands it­self,” he wrote in his of­fi­cial as­sess­ment in Fe­bru­ary 1924, later telling the

Topeka “They are as sweet a small craft Jour­nal: as I ever pi­loted, and I think the Navy De­part­ment has fi­nally found the air­plane for which it wished.” Let­ters poured in from po­ten­tial buy­ers all over, in­clud­ing Europe, China, and the Soviet Union.

Nev­er­the­less, in 1926 the com­pany went bank­rupt. De­spite the air­plane’s rea­son­able $2,465 (about $30,000 to­day) price tag, sur­plus Cur­tiss Jennys from World War I were even cheaper. And peo­ple did not find the idea of an air­plane in the garage as ap­peal­ing as Lon­gren had imag­ined. The hoped-for Navy pur­chase fell through as well; de­spite as­sur­ances from lo­cal banks and politi­cians, fi­nan­cial

sup­port was not forth­com­ing, and the Navy con­cluded it never would be. Naval of­fi­cials were un­con­vinced the com­pany could pro­duce the air­craft in suf­fi­cient num­bers to war­rant a large pur­chase.

Smith called Lon­gren’s pro­duc­tion line tech­niques the best he’d ever seen, but he also saw the trou­ble Lon­gren cre­ated for him­self, not­ing in his eval­u­a­tion that Lon­gren’s in­sis­tence on per­fec­tion “is the one big bone of con­tention in the fac­tory.” Paul Lon­gren, a grand-nephew of the plane-maker, backs up Smith’s ob­ser­va­tion. “A.K. was a real stick­ler,” he tells me. “No smok­ing on the floor. No drink­ing. No chew­ing. And he was al­ways stop­ping pro­duc­tion af­ter ly­ing awake at night think­ing about some­thing.”

A plant man­ager with au­thor­ity might have saved the day. In­stead, per­fec­tion­ism kept Lon­gren from en­joy­ing a prof­itable aviation ca­reer.

His ex­act­ing per­son­al­ity also may have af­fected his mar­riage. Af­ter years of toil­ing in fac­to­ries to­gether, the child­less cou­ple drifted apart amid the stress of the sec­ond busi­ness fail­ure. There was no bit­ter­ness in the part­ing, fam­ily mem­bers say, but they never saw each other again. Dolly Lon­gren suc­ceeded as a New York City an­tiques dealer and out­lived her hus­band by 20 years.

Job­less again, Lon­gren spent most of 1927 va­ca­tion­ing alone in Bri­tish Columbia, and if he did any plan­ning for the next stage of his ca­reer, the years im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing were not proof of it. He be­came an itin­er­ant aviation ex­ec­u­tive, car­ry­ing his ex­per­tise from com­pany to com­pany, never stay­ing long in one place.

First Lon­gren went to Tulsa, Ok­la­homa, to be­come vice pres­i­dent of Mid-con­ti­nent Air­craft Com­pany (later Spar­tan Air­craft Com­pany). There his com­pelling need to tweak got him into trou­ble: He im­pul­sively made a pro­duc­tion-line change while the com­pany pres­i­dent was away, and was fired when the pres­i­dent re­turned. In 1929, Lon­gren drifted down to San An­to­nio, Texas, where a group of busi­ness­men asked him to design and build an “Alamo” air­plane. That project dis­ap­peared shortly in the dust of Wall Street’s crash.

By then, Lon­gren had been in aviation long enough to be­gin to think about his legacy. So he re­turned to Topeka, checked into the Jay­hawk Ho­tel, and as­sem­bled pho­tos, rec­ol­lec­tions, and tes­ti­mony of his air­plane-mak­ing. He con­trib­uted the ma­te­rial to the Kansas His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety and ap­plied for mem­ber­ship to the Early Birds of Aviation, an or­ga­ni­za­tion founded in 1928 to honor pre-1917 avi­a­tors. He was ac­cepted, then he went back to work.

Rather than start yet another com­pany, Lon­gren be­came a con­sul­tant. His new sta­tionery let­ter­head de­clared, “Bet­ter Air­planes…faster Pro­duc­tion Meth­ods.” He was, af­ter all, a me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer, not a holder of aero­nau­ti­cal de­grees. He of­fered his clients ex­per­tise in aero­nau­tics and man­u­fac­tur­ing.

In 1930, Lon­gren moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where he took up res­i­dence in a se­ries of hotels, and con­tracted with But­ler Man­u­fac­tur­ing dur­ing the com­pany’s brief foray into aviation. Its Black­hawk air­plane was strug­gling to win Civil Aero­nau­tic Au­thor­ity cer­ti­fi­ca­tion; Lon­gren mod­i­fied the air­plane and got it cer­ti­fied. Just 11 Black­hawks were built, how­ever, be­fore But­ler aban­doned the project and re­treated to build­ing grain bins.

Lon­gren’s man­u­fac­tur­ing ideas were adopted by Lus­combe Air­craft, founded by Don Lus­combe of Mono­coupe fame. In the former Black­hawk fac­tory, Lus­combe’s Phan­tom took shape: the first mass-pro­duced air­craft with an all-alu­minum, semi-mono­coque fuse­lage—a patented Lon­gren idea.

His rev­o­lu­tion­ary “stretch-form­ing” man­u­fac­tur­ing process turned alu­minum pan­els into seam­lessly in­ter­con­nect­ing aero­nau­ti­cal forms, so air­plane-mak­ers could cre­ate com­plex fuse­lage pan­els in stan­dard­ized mass quan­ti­ties. Though the Phan­tom wasn’t a com­mer­cial suc­cess, its fuse­lage was the shape of things to come.

Lon­gren once again felt an itch to build and at­tracted enough Kansas City in­vestors—some of them a lit­tle shady, ac­cord­ing to Lon­gren fam­ily lore—to launch yet another it­er­a­tion of Lon­gren Air­craft

in the again-idle Black­hawk fac­tory. The re­sult was a sleek, alu­minum-sheathed bi­plane with a 120-hp Martin en­gine that

mag­a­zine fea­tured in Fe­bru­ary 1933.

But the com­pany folded af­ter build­ing just three air­planes. Lon­gren kept one and flew west to Wichita, where he had been in­vited to be­come vice pres­i­dent of Cessna Air­craft Com­pany.

Kansas pi­o­neer avi­a­tor Clyde Cessna (who be­gan his fly­ing in Ok­la­homa a few months be­fore Lon­gren did in Kansas) went bank­rupt in 1932. Two years later, Clyde’s neph­ews Dwane and Dwight Wallace restarted the com­pany, with Clyde as pres­i­dent. In 1935, Lon­gren was of­fered the vice pres­i­dent’s spot plus $22,000 in Cessna stock in ex­change for his half-dozen aviation patents.

It was an odd pair­ing. Lon­gren brought to Cessna his valu­able patents, man­u­fac­tur­ing cre­den­tials, and air­plane design suc­cesses. He served as the num­ber-two ex­ec­u­tive, yet he ap­par­ently had no voice in de­ci­sion-mak­ing, and com­pany records make vir­tu­ally no men­tion of him. “I’m a lit­tle em­bar­rassed,” says Russ Meyer, a former Cessna chief ex­ec­u­tive. “I con­sider my­self some­thing of an his­to­rian, cer­tainly of aviation, but I have never heard of Mr. Lon­gren.” A 1937 cover let­ter from Dwight Wallace to Lon­gren refers to an agree­ment con­fer­ring “man­u­fac­tur­ing rights of all four, five and six-place fuse­lages.” Lon­gren’s fam­ily mem­bers spec­u­late that Lon­gren helped with the de­vel­op­ment of the Cessna T-50, the twin-en­gine light trans­port plane that first flew in 1939.

Lon­gren and Clyde Cessna, who be­came friends, were both even­tu­ally turned out to pas­ture by Dwane Wallace. The of­fi­cial Cessna story is that Clyde re­tired in 1936 to re­turn to his farm­ing, but his aviation part­ner and son, El­don Cessna, dis­puted that in a 1987

Wichita ar­ti­cle: “He was put out of Cessna Ea­gle Air­craft Co. He was forced out in a power play.” Lon­gren told the same story, ac­cord­ing to his grand-nephew, Paul Lon­gren. “He said Clyde got the shaft and wasn’t happy about it at all,” he tells me. “A.K. thought it was pretty shabby treat­ment.”

Lon­gren left Cessna and in 1938 flew his per­sonal New Lon­gren to Cal­i­for­nia to start a busi­ness in Tor­rance—and this time Lon­gren Air­craft had last­ing suc­cess. It did not pro­duce any air­planes. Rather, it em­ployed Lon­gren’s hy­draulic stretch-form­ing process to pro­duce bulk­heads, fuse­lages, and other aero­nau­ti­cal parts for World War Ii-era air­plane­mak­ers. Lon­gren’s West Coast clients in­cluded Santa Mon­ica-based Dou­glas Air­craft, Bur­bank- based Lock­heed, Seat­tle’s Boe­ing, and a young com­pany called Northrop. Lon­gren pros­pered be­fore sell­ing the firm in 1945, and the com­pany flour­ished un­til at least 1960 be­fore be­ing ab­sorbed into the larger Acme Air­craft Com­pany.

Lon­gren re­tired to a 3,000-acre north­ern Cal­i­for­nia ranch, where he let lapse thou­sands of acres of leased graz­ing land and in­stead grew wheat and al­falfa, and had log­gers drop Pon­derosa pine trees. He bought a Ford trac­tor and an Al­lisChalmers round-baler (the en­gi­neer­ing of which he con­stantly be­rated) and lived out his days in agrar­ian com­fort.

Al­bin Lon­gren never re­turned to Leonardville. He was a celebrity in his home­town but per­haps not beloved; many friends and neigh­bors had bought stock in his com­pa­nies, and some bit­ter­ness de­vel­oped upon bank­ruptcy. When Lon­gren died in 1950, his body was brought to the ceme­tery out­side Leonardville, a short bi­plane ride from his birth­place.

Aviation En­gi­neer­ing

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