Clyde Cessna’s name is one that is instantly recognized by pilots around the world. He was one of the first to recognize the possibilities of general aviation. The Cessna Aircraft Company has produced a variety of aircraft, the most popular of which are the Cessna 152 trainer, Cessna 172 Skyhawk, Cessna 182 Skylane, and Cessna 206 Stationair, Cessna 180, Cessna 185 Skywagon, Cessna 210 Centurion, Cessna 340, and many more . The Cessna 172 is one of the most produced general aviation aircraft. Clyde Vernon Cessna was bitten by the flying bug after witnessing an aerial exhibition in 1910. Born in Hawthorne, Iowa in 1879 and raised in Kansas, Cessna had a natural mechanical ability and loved to pull apart and reassemble equipment. He was self-taught and had a natural aptitude to improve efficiency of farm equipment from an early age. He was working as an automobile salesperson, when he saw the Moisant traveling air circus and was impressed enough that he quit his job, and went to New York and started working for the Queen Aeroplane Company.
Inspired by the Bleriot X1, Cessna created his first monoplane known as the “Silverwing” using a 40hp, 4-cyclinder motorboat motor. He conducted his first test flights in Great Salt Plains in Oklahoma. He was not discouraged after crashing on his first attempt. After thirteen failed attempts, he was finally airborne in the Silverwing but only, for a few minutes, before he crashed into the trees. In 1911, he earned the nickname of “The Birdman of Enid” after completing a successful five-mile flight with a landing at the point of departure. Over the next three years, he built several monoplane designs. In 1916, Cessna rented the Jones Motor Car factory and the manufactured the first aircraft in Wichita, Kansas. The entry of United States into the World War, exhibition flying came to a halt and led him to abandon aircraft manufacturing and return back to farming, but not for long.
In 1924, Cessna along with Lloyd Stearman and Walter Beech formed the Travel Air Manufacturing Company. The company built the Travel Air 5000, a four-place monoplane based on Cessna’s design, which later became the first aircraft to fly between American mainland and Hawaii. A conflict between Beech, who favored biplanes and Cessna, who preferred monoplanes, arose and Cessna left Travel Air in 1927 and formed Cessna Aircraft Company. The first aircraft designed was an internally braced cantilevered aircraft . Cessna hired 20 employees and produced his A series using different engines and later also upgraded his B, C and D series airplanes. He sold 78 aircraft and was in the process of expanding his factory when the Great Depression began. Demand for private planes disappeared and the company went bankrupt forcing Cessna to close the plant in 1931.
In 1934, the Cessna Aircraft Company saw a new beginning under his nephews – Dwane and Dwight Wallace. They persuaded Cessna to reopen the company, convinced the stockholders that all would work for free until company was seeing profits. The iconic Airmaster series aircraft C-34, a four place, high winged aircraft featuring Cessna’s first flaps was built during this time. Averaging 17 miles per gallon, it was considered a very efficient aircraft. It was also used for racing and considered unbeatable. It earned the title of “World’s Most Efficient Aircraft”. In 1936, Cessna, after selling his shares to his nephews and retired moving back to farm, where he lived until his death in 1954. With the success of the C-34, the company under the Wallace brothers introduced the Model T-50, a twin-engine design. The start of World War II, brought thousands of orders for the T-50 trainers from United States and Canada. By 1944, Cessna Aircraft Company occupied several thousand feet of factory space and employed more than 6,000 workers. The end of war also saw the revolution in flight, an increase in what was termed “family flight”. The planes designed were light affordable and rugged . By the 1950s, Cessna Aircraft Company built 8,000 trainers and continued to grow and expand. Today it remains the largest private aircraft company in the United States.
Clyde Cessna is remembered for his outstanding contribution in designing the early monoplanes, founding and managing aircraft manufacturing companies and producing high efficiency general aviation airplanes . He never held a pilot’s license, had only rudimentary education, self-taught, smart and resourceful. He was successful because he pushed forward despite repeated failures. Despite his limited involvement with the Cessna Aircraft Company, his contribution to aviation is apparent. Without his vision and dedication, the designs that continue to be flown today would not have materialized. Clyde Cessna was unarguably an incredible designer, engineer and entrepreneur who was instrumental in creating the most iconic general aviation aircraft brand that continues to thrive today. He was posthumously entered into the National Aviation Hall of fame in 1978 and Flying Magazine ranked him 27th in their 51 Heroes in Aviation. Clyde Cessna definitely deserves a spot amongst the Wright brothers, William Boeing, Louis Bleriot and other early aviation pioneers .