Travelair Mystery Ship

THE 1929 NATIONAL Air Race spectators witnessed the beginning of a new era in commercial aviation. This was in the form of a sleek racing job built by the Travel Air Company of Wichita, Kansas. This racer, whose design and construction began in 1928, earned the name Travel Air "Mystery Ship". Its design and construction was a closely guarded project at the factory and even as it landed at the Cleveland airport to participate in the 1929 air races, the racer was hastily rolled into the hangar and hidden with a canvas cover.

One of the twelve short test hops flown by Travel Air  test pilot Clarence Clark, (in cockpit), was conducted with  the NACA cowl removed. On the initial test flight the cowl had broken loose and moved forward into the prop - as engineers  had stressed the cowl for drag but not forward lift. It was a problem that plagued many early racers incorporating the then new NACA engine cowl.

Two young engineers, Herb Rawdon and Walter Burnham, designed the ship and under the guidance of Walter Beech, president and founder of the Travel Air Company, the racer was built rigidly to design specifications. It is a surprising fact that on its first test flight the racer exceeded the calculated airspeed by 15 percent.

The little red and black racer, low-wing in design, engine cowled with an NACA streamlined cover, and the wheels fully enclosed in streamlined pants was a picture of speed. During construction two other types of cowling were tried but the NACA type proved to be the most efficient. The Travel Air "Mystery Ship" not only introduced the NACA cowl and wheel pants to commercial aviation but also contributed toward the trend of low-wing military and commercial airplanes.

The fuselage was constructed of steel-tube and plywood covered, and the wings all wood and also covered with plywood. The wing span was 29 ft. 2 in. The first famous "Mystery Ship", NR614K - race No. 31, actually had two sets of wing panels. One set for closed course racing and the other for cross country flights and competition. The closed-course racing wings were about one and one half feet shorter in span and three inches narrower in chord. NR-614K's short wings were purchased by Shell and were used, as required, through Doolittle's No. 400. Fuselage length was 20 ft. 2 in. and it was 7 ft. 9 in. high. Its empty weight was 1,475 lbs. and a gross weight of 1,940 lbs. Part of the gross weight was accounted for by the 47 gal. fuel capacity and the six gallons of oil. This gave the racer a wing loading of 15.5 lbs./sq. ft. and with the 300 hp 975 cu. in. displacement Wright J6-9 that had been upped to over 400 hp, it had a power loading of 4.6 lbs./per hp. The increase in the Wright R-975 to 400 hp plus was obtained by augmenting the compression ratio and the speed of the supercharger. The sleek little speedster had a top speed of 235 mph and a landing speed of 73 mph.

On September 2, 1929, the "Mystery Ship", with its super smooth finish, was rolled out of the hangar and with Doug Davis of Atlanta, Georgia at the controls, lined up for the Thompson Cup Race - Event 26. Entering the low power racer in this event against the high powered military ships was like throwing it out to the wolves. But Davis proved to the world that the "Mystery Ship" could perform and went on to win the event at a speed of 194.9 mph (one lap flown at 208.69 mph). The military entries finished a bad second and fourth behind him, with speeds eight to 30 mph less than that of the "Mystery Ship".

This was the first time in the history of air racing that a civilian racer had outraced a military job. This was a big moment for the builders of civilian aircraft and at the same time opened the eyes of the military to the fact that some changes were dictated. The Army and Navy entries were modified high speed pursuits, revamped just for this race and the little Travel Air with far less power had won by a large margin - and in the course of the race had recircled one of the pylons.

The balance of 1929 and in 1930 the NR-614K appeared at many air meets around the states. Clarence Clark, who flew the original test flights on the "Mystery Ship", divided the cockpit time with Dale "Red" Jackson during those demonstrations. Both did an excellent job doing acrobatics and speed runs for the air fair crowds through-out the country. During the 1929 and 1930 tour the ship was sponsored by the Gulf Oil Company and travelled with the Curtiss-Wright Exhibition Company. The ship was unchanged in 1930, except for the Curtiss-Wright and Gulf Oil insignias. It did not make an appearance at the 1930 National Air Races.

It did appear at the 1931 National Air Races. Walter Hunter was the pilot and a new black and orange paint job changed the appearance of the racer. The ship caught fire in the air while Hunter was testing it prior to the Thompson Trophy Race and Hunter was forced to bail out. It was rumoured that the fuselage was gas soaked and that an area between the fire wall and engine was also fuel soaked. These areas should have been thoroughly cleaned, but not enough time existed before the race, and this was not done. This could have been the reason for the fire but the cause was never definitely determined.

Walter Hunter (in flying gear) acquired the 1929 Thompson Cup winning "Mystery Ship"  NR6114K in 1931.  Aircraft was damaged when Hunter purchased it from the Curtiss-Wright exhibition Co.

Travel Air produced a second "Mystery Ship" and it also was present and unveiled at the 1929 National Air Races. This one was powered by a six cylinder Chevrolair, manufactured by Arthur Chevrolet Aviation Motors Corporation of Indianapolis, Indiana. This was a test model six cylinder inverted inline engine. Designated the D-6 it developed 165 hp and 2175 rpm, was air cooled and had a 508 cu. in. displacement. The Chevrolair powered "Mystery Ship" has the same dimensions as 614K. The cowl to fuselage flare used on 614K was not needed on 613K as both fuselages were built for inline engines.

Chevrolair powered NR613K was entered in several events at the 1929 Nationals. The six cylinder experimental engine produced over 200 hp, but various engine problems prevented the racer from showing its full potential. After the Nationals a Wright J6-7 was installed.

This "Mystery Ship" was painted red and carried license number NR613K and race No. 32 for the 1929 Nationals. Both of these ships were known as the "Mystery S" but were actually Travel Air Low-Wing R's. Doug Davis flew the Chevrolair powered job to first place in the Experimental Ship Race. He turned in a speed of 113.38 mph to beat out Ed Heath in the "Baby Bullet", H. A. Speer in a Barling NB-3 and H. S. Myhres in a Wright J-6 powered Simplex monoplane.

After the 1929 National Air Races the Chevrolair engine was pulled out of the "Mystery Ship" and sent back to the Indianapolis factory and the airframe was shipped back to Wichita. At Wichita a Wright J6-7 was placed in the ship and was purchased by the Barnes family. They made the purchase through an aircraft dealer in Los Angeles. The ship was now painted yellow and red and appeared from time to time with a townsend ring covering the Wright. Pancho Barnes flew the ship to many records on the west coast and appeared at one race meet at Kansas City. She flew the ship with or without the speed ring as well as with the long and short wings. Pancho Barnes used the short wings when setting a woman's speed record August 5, 1930 at 169.19 mph.

NR-613K was bought by Paul Mantz and was used in many aviation movies, playing the part of foreign fighter aircraft, Schneider racer and many others.

Pancho Barnes with 613K after the inline engine  had been removed and a Wright radial installed.  Several years ago Barnes' son acquired the racer  and planned on restoring it to original 1930  configuration but he was killed before restoration was completed. 

In 1930 the Shell Oil Company ordered a Travel Air "Mystery Ship" to be used at air races and meets to advertise their products. Jimmy Doolittle and Jimmy Haizlip gave stunting exhibitions with the racer and Haizlip flew it in the 1930 Thompson Race. The ship was licensed NR-482N and was identical to the 1929 "Mystery Ship" except that the NACA cowl had been lengthened. The racer was painted with the Shell colours of red and yellow and carried race No. 35 for the National Air Races in 1930. Jim Haizlip flew the Shell job to a first spot in the 1,000 cu. in. displacement race, clocking 183.36 mph, and placed second behind Speed Holman in the Thompson Trophy Race with 199.80 mph. He trailed the Laird flown by Holman by only two miles per hour.

Ordered by Shell Oil Company in 1930, Jimmy Doolittle and Jim Haizlip  flew Travel Air NR482N before thousands at air shows and race events.  Haizlip flew this aircraft to second place behind Speed Holman in the 1930 Thompson in Chicago. 

Later in the season the ship picked up race No. 26 and was raced throughout the United States by Doolittle and Haizlip. In May, 1931, Haizlip and 482N finished two laps ahead of his nearest competitor. As an added thrill for the crowd, he flew the last few miles and finished the race in an inverted position. The second and third spots went to Casey Jones flying a stock Cessna and Art Davis in his Waco.

"Texaco 13" as originally painted. Following a crack-up shortly after delivery, the aircraft was repainted as shown below,  and retained this colour scheme throughout its career.

A fourth "Mystery Ship" was purchased by the Texaco Company and was perhaps the most famous of the five. This was Frank Hawks' "Texaco 13". Frank Hawks had flown Mr. Hull, president of the Texas Pipe Line Co., and won a berth as superintendent of aviation for the Texas company: "Texaco 13" was identical to the other "Mystery Ships", but included a cockpit full of special instruments for long distance flights, so the ship was heavier than the other three. The cockpit was fully enclosed and almost flush with the top of the fuselage. The racer was painted a Stearman vermilion and white, with a blue stripe separating the red and white. The ship had two different paint jobs, the first being on the ship a very brief period. Hawks hit some wires and cracked the ship up. It was repaired and repainted at this time. On two other occasions he cracked the ship up, one time injuring himself very, seriously. He never did well at the Nationals as his plane was not set up for pylon type racing. However, he raced at the 1930 National Air Races, his "Texaco 13" wearing their Texaco shorter racing wings - race No. 28. This wing switch was made at the factory prior to the races. Hawks entered the Thompson Trophy Race but pulled out of the race on the third lap. A piece of masking tape placed over the gas cap (for streamlining) caused a loss of pressure and the engine would not operate at full throttle.

"Texaco 13" at Wichita in March 1931. Hawks had just arrived to swap the short racing wings for the longer span cross-country panels.  The Travel Air Company was conducting wheel pant modifications  before changing the wing panels when this picture was taken.  The short wings were originally installed in mid-August of 1930  and were test hopped by Clarence Clark prior to Hawks'  departure and entry in the 1930 Chicago National Air Races. 

But Frank Hawks and the Travel Air "Texaco 13" did set hundreds and hundreds of cross country records. Not only in this country but also in England and Europe. The European pilots were amazed at the records he set day after day. They had been setting records over short courses but had nothing that would take this long day after day gruelling grind. After Hawks' death, in another aircraft, the racer was given to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry where it hangs as a symbol of the racing airplane that started the trend toward low-wing military and commercial airplanes.

Frank Hawk's "Texaco 13" at the 1930 Chicago National Air Races.  Dropped out of Thompson in third lap.  During 1930-19332 Hawks set hundreds of national speed records  with this aircraft which now hangs in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. 

The fifth "Mystery Ship" was built for the Italian government. Many of the later Italian fighters were direct copies of this ship and scored victories for their air force.

The history of the Travel Air "Mystery Ships" was short, but the aircraft's imaginative design set a trend for racing, military and civilian aircraft that left a permanent mark in the history of speed and air racing.

The fifth "Mystery Ship" was built for the Italian government and undoubtedly influenced later Italian aircraft design.

reproduced from   'The Golden Age of Air Racing' by S.H. Schmid and Truman C. Weaver