Back in the 1920s, the National Air Races were as popular as NASCAR events are today. The race got its start on Long Island but relocated to Cleveland in 1929. That year, a couple of employees of the Travel Air Manufacturing Company in Wichita, Kansas, and its head honcho, Walter Beech, who was one of the founders (Clyde Cessna and Lloyd Stearman were the others), got it in their heads to build a racer that would beat the fast and powerful military pursuit aircraft that dominated competition. But because the factory was running full bore to fill orders for its airplanes, the two race enthusiasts couldn’t build a racer on company time.
In 1928, Travel Air delivered more than 400 aircraft, and the following year it became the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial monoplanes and biplanes: A workforce of about 1,000, producing at a peak rate of 25 a week, delivered 547. One reason for the impressive sales figures is that aircraft straight out of the factory were making headlines by setting records and winning races. In 1927, a Travel Air 5000 owned by Phillips Petroleum won the Dole Race by flying from Oakland, California, to Wheeler Field in Hawaii.
From the beginning, Herbert Rawdon and Walter Burnham kept their racer project a secret from the public. They named it the R (for Rawdon) and, working nights and weekends, incorporated every new breakthrough in the science of aeronautics. One, developed by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, was a cowl—a shroud around a radial engine that greatly improved cooling airflow and reduced drag.
The airplane’s later “Mystery S” moniker, which seems to have come from newspaper stories, reflects how secretive Travel Air was about it, covering it with canvas and hiding it in hangars. It was compact and light, and built around a 400-horsepower Wright Whirlwind engine that may have been tweaked to produce more power. The plywood monoplane wings were thin and braced with wires. The fuselage followed the shape of the cowl; in front of the brief opening for the cockpit was a windshield so small it looked flush with the skin. A turtle deck extended from there to the vertical tail, constituting a kind of fairing for the helmeted head of the pilot. Enormous wheel pants extended the painstaking effort to reduce drag.
On race day in September 1929, pilot Doug Davis flew the airplane, no longer a mystery but forever after known as the Mystery Ship, in a 50-mile, closed-circuit, pylon race, took the lead, and never looked back. After that, the Travel Air R set a list of records that few have matched since. In a 1971 book on the history of Beech Aircraft commissioned by the company, writer William H. McDaniel quoted a report from an undisclosed source on the airplane’s triumphal 20,000-mile tour of the continent: “The old world had justly prided itself on the achievements of its Schneider [Trophy] fliers…but it had not a single machine that could stand long flights day after day with the same engine at speeds above 200 miles per hour.” And that was the Mystery Ship’s true contribution to aviation.
George C. Larson, Member, NAA