Travel Air 6000B Photo Gallery
Tail No. Construction No. Location Date of Photo
NC8865 x Salmon, Idaho Feb. 1997
Notes: 1929 Travelair parked, Salmon, Idaho.


A Flight Back into Time

It was in the early spring of 1929 that a black and orange fabric-covered airplane made her debut in the rugged and dangerous backcountry of Idaho. The primitive Selway-Bitterroot mountain range was being mined for gold and other precious ores, big game hunters needed to be flown in and the homesteaders required food, mail and other supplies. This magnificent airplane was specially designed to lift off with large and heavy loads from the dirt strips out in that vast no-man's land.

Her orange, 48 1/2 foot long fabric-covered wings looked almost as wide as they were long. She seemed to jump into the air with what seemed like only a few feet of "cow path" runway being used. A jet-black fuselage of the same material, with bright-yellow painted stripes, made her one of the most beautiful birds of that glorious pioneering aviation era.

Now she comes home to where she was born. Sixty-eight years later, she commands the Idaho sky with all her glory. The sound of her nine jug Curtis-Wright 420 horsepower Wasp engine makes everyone look skyward when she flies in the emerald-blue skies of Idaho's beautiful wilderness. Like many of those great airplanes of yesteryear, the Travel Air 6000B never knew what asphalt runways were. The huge tires she carries today are the same type that allowed her to land just about anywhere the leather-jacketed pilot decided to put her down. Some of those backcountry strips were a one- way in, one-way out. There were (and still are), no go-arounds and the mountain cliffs on the other side of the runway were most unforgiving. They called them cumulo granite.

Pilots that flew the Travel Air knew about the extreme dangers in the mountains and it is most extraordinary to think about the hundreds or perhaps thousands of hours they put on that airplane in the mountainous and far reaches of Montana's and Idaho's areas and six decades later, there's not a scratch on her! Not many flatland airplanes can enjoy that kind of adventurous life and experiences for more than one-half of a century later!

In the summer of 1995, three Idaho backcountry aviators had a thirst for an airplane that provided a sound financial investment and maybe a bit of fun thrown in for good measure. In the back of each of their minds was the thought of owning a great airplane that had some history. Little did they know what they were getting into! When a records check through the FAA revealed that a Travel Air 6000B was sitting in the Staggerwing Museum in Tennessee, the Idaho boys jumped at the chance of owning it. They found that only two others existed that could be flown and much to their delight, this shiny baby was not in a thousand pieces but, actually was pristine and could be flown home! With cash in their hands, the deal was closed and they pointed her in a northwesterly direction to Salmon, Idaho and hours later, she came home.

The three aviators from Idaho were thrilled to have a vintage airplane they could call their own. It was a distinct pleasure not to have to put together an exhausting basket-case that never seemed to fly. Much to these backcountry fliers utter amazement, careful historical research led to a paper trail that concluded this was the ACTUAL airplane that flew the Idaho backcountry at the beginning of the century! Yes indeed, not only was she used for hauling supplies and miners out of the backcountry but, she was one of the first airplanes that was used by the U.S. Forest Service's newly-formed smoke jumpers! The 35 inch back door opening was large enough to allow the smoke jumpers to leap into the remote and dangerous fire areas of Idaho. What a plane she was!

A careful investigation showed the airplane was owned by Bob Johnson who was the proprietor of Johnson Flying Service located in Missoula, Montana. An old film clip about flying in the wilderness that was shown by the PBS television "Idaho Outdoors" featured the old Travel Air in actual conditions back in the early fifties! Stunned, the men's wildest dreams were met. Now they had their piece of aviation history.

The Travel Air 6000B series weighed 4,500 pounds fully loaded, with a useful load of 1,960 pounds. This workhorse was designed to lift off from the treacherous gravel, dirt, grass, snow and rut-filled strips miles beyond civilization. Take-off distance was just 500 feet! "The powerful Wasp engine just hums like a well-oiled sewing machine", co-owner Mike Dorris states. By contrast, the modern Cessna Stationair 206 carries 61 gallons of fuel, maneuvering speed is 123 knots (IAS) and has a gross weight of 3,600 pounds. Considered by many to be a huge aircraft back in those days, the Travel Air was a graceful airplane that settled the frontier outposts, delivering the U.S. mail, food and sometimes even livestock. That big old bird on final approach to the backcountry strip was a welcome sight to those early pioneering people. The airplane was credited with being the "lifeline" of the wilderness folks.

The Travel Air was commonly referred to as the "Limousine of the Air". According to an oil-stained, dog-eared and time-worn 1920's promotional brochure, "A (sic) delux Travel Air combined Pullman car comfort (a train car) in air travel with precision manufacture and inbuilt Travel Air quality. Spacious cabin permitting passengers to exchange seats with the relief pilot while in flight". Elsewhere in the "flavored" testament to the quality of the Travel Air (perhaps to entice a purchase) it states, "Skilled (sic) air men are attracted to the Travel Air by it's economy of operation and the absence of replacement expense and attention."

The black, yellow and orange airplane that settled much of the Idaho backcountry requires just 16 minutes to climb to 10,000 feet, and landing speed is 60 mph. Her wing chord is 78 inches and top speed rounding out at 120 mph. Absolute ceiling is 18,000 feet and the Travel Air rises at 800 feet per minute in the best of conditions. The wing area spans 282 square feet when compared to a Cessna 206's, which is 120 square feet. Before the invention of wing flaps, the 6000B's method of losing altitude is less power and nose-down slips, simply cross-controlling the Allan and opposite rudder pedal. When her "anti-clockwise" tack shaft shows proper rpm, this "golden era" aviation dream machine seems to leap above the Rocky Mountains. Just 29 years after the turn of the century, the magnificent Travel Air 6000B commanded the skies. Nothing could be compared to her abilities or the flying public's fascination for this bird.


Comfort and Function

The Travel Air Corporation of Wichita, Kansas produced this airplane as a "Dual-Type" utilitarian-both for comfort in long-distance travel and heavy-load, short-strip landing capabilities. The brochure states, "Comfort is no way overlooked in the Travel Air. The days have passed when passengers or the pilot are expected to endure the discomfort in the ships they fly. Just as the days that have gone into history of automobiles without tops, windshields, or spare tires, Travel Air users, whether pilots or passengers, fly with a maximum of physical comfort and convenience, irrespective of the type of Travel Air."

Knights of the Skies

In the nostalgic days of tattered leather headgear, complete with frog-eyed goggles, the pilot of the Travel Air used this bird for many practical purposes. Besides freight and passenger hauling, there could never be anything more exciting than to jump into one of these glorious airplanes on a Sunday afternoon out of McCall, Idaho and head into the backcountry with his date. These pilots knew what they had. To be an aviator was one thing but, to fly a luxurious Travel Air elevated them to the heights of almost mythical knights of the skies.

By today's standards the airplane was box-like and poorly designed. Aerodynamically, she was poor because of the extremely large wing area, resulting in tremendous induced drag and retarding forward speed. Parasitic drag was also quite pronounced because of the large struts, wheels, shock absorbers and additional bracing of the wing membrane. Also, an engine that wasn't cowled produced unwanted drag. But, despite her design and subsequent problems involving such, she flew quite well. Travel Airs became trusted as a machine that could be relied upon for a safe flight in some of the worst weather that haunts the mountainous regions in the northwest wilderness. Density altitude, although hazardous, made the Travel Air work just a bit more for her keep. Built for short backcountry hops, the Travel Air 6000B was not efficient for a long-range trip. The company even offered Edo floats for pilots landing on the waters of Montana, Idaho or Alaska. Currently, one of the three flying 6000 series is in Alaska with floats!

Men who flew her said she was a dream machine flying next to those snow-capped peaks. The heavily-forested ground below sometimes gave a few passengers a creditable white-knuckled flight since they knew there were no landing strips for miles around. If an engine quit, the chances for a survivable crash were very small indeed. Worse yet, if they survived a crash, the extreme remoteness and harshness of the area probably would kill them anyway. There was no way anyone could walk out of it in good condition much less if they were injured. A search party would be useless since the ELT locator had not been invented yet. But, in spite of all the obstacles that presented themselves, the trusty Travel Air gained an incredible reputation for "Bringing 'em back in one piece."

The basic purchase price of the airplane in 1929 came to a grand total of $18,000.00-a princely sum for that era. If a buyer desired additional and highly-specialized lighting equipment, an increase of $550.00 was tacked on to the sticker price. In that day none of the airfields had lit runways. Imagine, they didn't have VOR's, GPS or even control towers! If a potty was needed for the newly built airplane an additional $125.00 was added to the price. They didn't specify what that was but one could imagine it was quite Spartan to say the least! When the Curtis-Wright Co. purchased the Travel Air Company in 1929, it stunned the aviation world. But this acquisition did little to change the actual design of the airplane that ruled the western skies or the way business was conducted. The evolution came as minor changes in the windshield and vertical shapes of the airplane. Beyond that, operations returned to normal at the manufacturing plant in the midwest.

Industry Ups and Downs

Then, the Great Depression reared it's ugly head and sank it's fangs into the entire country. The once-prospering aviation community floundered and the huge Kansas plant shut it's doors. All production on the airplanes was relocated to the St. Louis, Missouri plant. But, with advent of World War Two, Travel Air became instrumental in serving the war effort by supplying airplanes as personnel and equipment carriers. It became somewhat of an irony that an airplane that was created for purposes of transporting private citizens and their equipment now had become vastly important to a world war.

Aviation industries' demands for more functional metal components produced the inevitable downward spiral of the wood Travel Air as a forerunner in luxury aviation history. New and exciting technologies began to emerge and structural superiority claimed it's victory over the now-obsolete wood spars and other support members. The age of sandpaper, woods saws, nails and varnish began to give way to metallurgy. The time-tested skills of the craftsmen that worked with wood were cast aside for the new age in aviation manufacturing. Aviation metals and associated castings were created by processes never known before. "Twice the strength at half the weight", was a slogan heard around the small-knit community of fabricators when they spoke of the newly-founded methodology.

Metallurgy testing of these newly-discovered metals yielded a much more secure way of joining pieces together and offering superb support and also a quicker way of building airplanes. Wood, although a wonderful product to work with, deteriorated and was very susceptible to inherent splitting, cracking and rotting. Newly forged metals, although prone to corrosion, were functionally more appropriate for aircraft. With this sophisticated engineering and advanced technology, the stage was set for a more modernized aircraft of the future and the commercial demise of the famed Travel Air as it was known.

The Beginning of the End

America was looking for a cheaper, faster aircraft that could carry the same loads or larger with more economy. They demanded the industry to supply advanced avionics, comfort and airplanes that were more suitable than wood-stock spars that were covered with fabric. Additional burdens of costly rebuilding of the now-obsolete engines motivated the factories to invent and advance modern aircraft power plants too.

Now this beautiful, backcountry black, orange and yellow airplane comes home. Her birthplace was Idaho and it is here where she'll stay. She is regularly flown to special events, airplane shows and state-wide fly-ins. Sometimes as if she herself demands, allows a lucky pilot to join her in the heavens above the grand and magnificent Rocky Mountains simply for the pure joy of it, to fly the emerald-blue skies that she did so many, many years ago. To see the Travel Air fly in the Idaho sky, one might produce a tear down their cheek. A common reaction is a snappy salute to one of aviation's tributes to the heavens as she flies overhead. The Travel Air, what a great piece of American history!

The End

Written by

Jim Oltersdorf

Copyright 2000

All Rights Reserved

Jim Oltersdorf/photographer/writer
337 Riverside Drive
Soldotna, Alaska 99669-7846
(907) 260-7756