You would think that an aircraft company founded by Clyde Cessna (1879 – 1954), Lloyd Stearman (1898 – 1975) and Walter Beech (1891 – 1950) – all later to become giants of the aviation world – could not fail. You would be wrong. These three founded the Travel Air Manufacturing Company in 1925, to manufacture training and touring aircraft, just before the Great Depression hit. Despite some success in the air racing world and a few sales to private owners, the company failed in 1929 and the rights to the Travel Air designs were taken over by the Curtiss-Wright Aircraft Corporation Inc.
The Model 12 trainer (and its related three-seat Model 16) were designed by Herbert Rawdon and Ted Wells; they were built by Curtiss-Wright in several versions – usually distinguished by engine type - for a total of 41 aircraft. For example, the Travel Air 12Q was powered by a Wright-built D H Gipsy, 4-cylinder inline engine, of 90 hp, and the Model 12W was powered by a Warner Scarab seven-cylinder radial engine of 125 hp.
Here we can see a beautiful example of this classic biplane, a Curtiss-Wright Travel Air 12 Q/W, G-AAOK, at Cotswold Airport, Kemble, Gloucestershire. It is owned by Shipping & Airlines Ltd, a company which has been responsible for the restoration and survival of many rare aircraft from the 1920s and 30s. The 12 Q/W designation is caused by the fact that many 12Q’s had their original Gipsy engines replaced with Warner Scarabs (it is 30 lbs lighter and has 35 hp more). G-AAOK was built in 1929 (c/n 2026), and had American civil identities of N370N, NC370N, NC352M before coming onto the UK Register of Civil Aircraft in November, 1981. It is believed that G-AAOK is the oldest flying aircraft on the UK Register. If you look closely, you can just make out the flexible fuel pipe, running from the tank in the centre-section of the upper wing to the engine (an arrangement very like its contemporary, the De Havilland DH 60 Moth). Unfortunately, you cannot see the venturi tube, which provides vacuum to power several aircraft instruments, as this is located on the port side of the fuselage. At least G-AAOK has the benefit of an electric starter and doesn’t need to be swung by hand. Like most ‘tandem’ aircraft of this period, it is flown from the rear seat when the front cockpit is unoccupied.
The surviving Travel Air aircraft are ably supported by TARA, the Travel Air Restorer’s Association, based in San Jose, California. It is (quote) ‘….an independent, non-profit organization, dedicated to the preservation and flying of Travel Air aircraft.’ There are eight Model 12W aircraft listed on the U.S. Register, as well as five 12Qs; not all of them are ‘active’ with some being exhibits in museums. At least two 12Ws have uncowled Scarab engines (N11713, N418W), whereas G-AAOK has a very fine close-fitted cowling. This 12Q/W was fully restored, in their spare time no less, by a group of engineers from Shipping & Airlines Ltd. at Biggin Hill Airport, Kent, the famous ‘Biggin On The Bump’, the former WW2 fighter station, RAF Biggin Hill. The personnel involved were Chris Bond, Gary Duncan, Mike Pearson, John Davy and David Saunders and they have done a superb job. The aircraft’s first post-restoration flight was on 19th October, 2004, and Tony Habgood of Shipping & Airlines Ltd, who started working at Biggin Hill in 1978, has registered many hours in G-AAOK, attending airshows and air rallies all over the U.K.
If you wanted to buy a Travel Air aircraft today, you had better have access to a substantial bank balance! The last I heard, a Travel Air 6000 (a six-seater high-wing monoplane) was being offered for $399,000! G-AAOK is a monument to the aircraft preservation movement, and a really beautiful biplane.