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
One of the twelve short test hops flown by
test pilot Clarence Clark, (in cockpit), was conducted with
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
It was a problem that plagued many early racers
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, 2020, 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
Walter Hunter (in flying gear) acquired the 1929
Thompson Cup winning "Mystery
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
showing its full potential. After the Nationals a Wright J6-7 was
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, 2020 at
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
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
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
before changing the wing panels when this picture was taken.
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
Frank Hawk's "Texaco 13" at the 1930 Chicago
National Air Races.
Dropped out of Thompson in third lap.
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
by S.H. Schmid and Truman C. Weaver