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HEAR THE ONE ABOUT LAWSON AIR LINE?
By Chris Barnett
December 5, 2013 -- William "Billy" Mitchell, the World War I combat aviator who is generally considered the father of the United States Air Force, gets all the glory in his hometown of Milwaukee. The city's airport bears his name. And the Mitchell Gallery of Flight Air Museum, in the airport's main concourse, devotes a full third of its space to his legend.
Alfred W. Lawson has just one exhibit in the museum and little fanfare. Yet it could be argued that he deserves the homage and honor accorded Mitchell. Not only in Milwaukee, but everywhere business travelers fly.
Lawson launched the nation's first passenger airline and is credited with inventing commercial aviation in America in 1919. He built his first passenger airplane in Milwaukee and took it on a 2,000-mile "initial tour" with only two incidents and no loss of life.
At least the Milwaukee's airport, which is a joint civilian-military installation, should add Lawson's name to the marquee.
Lawson, whose first career and passion was baseball--he played, managed, organized and promoted minor league teams--was more than an airplane buff. In 1908, he published an aviation magazine called, simply enough, Fly. A decade later, he launched the Lawson Airplane Company in Milwaukee to build aircraft for the U.S. military.
Beginning in 1917, he built two pilot trainer bi-planes, but the Army ignored him. Even without orders, he plunged ahead and was building a bigger version when World War I ended. Undaunted, Lawson figured that civilian travelers were impatient with slow trains, so he retooled and built America's first passenger plane.
The airport museum displays a model of the Lawson C-2: a bi-plane with 95-foot-long, corrugated-metal wings held together by steel wires and a 50-foot fuselage powered by two single-blade wooden propeller engines generating 400 horsepower each. The wings were painted a deep red, the fuselage green. He understood branding. LAWSON AIR LINE was emblazoned in giant capital letters on both sides of the fuselage and LAWSON was painted on the tail.
The 16 passengers traveled in style. Lawson installed roomy wicker chairs in a 1x1 configuration. The plane was bright and airy. Each seat had a large window and the doorless cockpit and the nose were all glass.
The museum's scant history on Lawson (as well as other documents) contend Lawson wanted to establish a nationwide commercial airline. But here's where history gets murky. The airport museum and a post by John Dorcey on the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame Web site agree the Lawson C-2 took off on August 27, 1919. The museum says it was the aircraft's "trial" flight, but Dorcey says it was the second flight of what was called "the House on Wings."
Either way, the flight was a success. Lawson and a crew of four flew the plane 100 miles to Ashburn Field in Chicago. Idiosyncratic and superstitious, the nation's first commercial aviator refused to tell his flight crew his aircraft's destination until just before takeoff. In a 12-page journal boldly entitled A Two Thousand Mile Trip in the First Airliner, Lawson wrote, "I decided that I would act as captain and navigator of the airliner and that my assistant would do most of the steering."
After a couple days in Chicago inspecting the sturdiness and "different fittings" of his aircraft, Lawson abruptly announced a flight plan. The C-2 was Toledo bound and he invited three Chicago newspaper reporters aboard to make the 250-mile flight on August 31. It went off without incident. The next day, Lawson added a couple more reporters to his odyssey and piloted the craft 80 minutes to Cleveland. He added three more reporters for the next leg, an uneventful flight to Buffalo.
The Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame posting and the flight museum historical account both agree that the next flight, from Buffalo to Syracuse on September 4, was a triumph and a disappointment. The Lawson C-2 easily beat a New York Central train between the two cities, but the aircraft went nose first into a ditch after landing.
On September 13, after a week of repairs, the House on Wings flew from Syracuse to a military installation on Long Island and made the 313-mile flight in two hours and 43 minutes. In his journal, Lawson claimed "thousands of people" streamed out to the airstrip to see his "air monster and its surprising performance." Then Lawson, who would make Richard Branson seem shy by comparison, packed the plane with reporters, photographers and a newsreel cameraman and took off on a 30-minute demonstration flight.
On September 19, with nine passengers aboard, the plane flew to Washington, where Lawson's journal says he "shook hands with all the senators."
The September 25 flight from Washington to Dayton was a disaster. The C-2 hit bad weather. Facing a stiff headwind and with fuel running too low to make it to Dayton, the plane got slammed by a "top wind of tremendous force" and crash landed in a cornfield.
The plane was badly damaged and Lawson and his crew had to disassemble it and ship it to Dayton. Repairs took a month. On October 24, the reconstituted C-2 flew to Indianapolis. Twelve days later, it was flown to Chicago and on to Milwaukee in "zero weather" where, Lawson chronicled, "most of the passengers kept themselves warm by walking up and down the aisles."
His 2,000-mile trip essentially a success--airplane, passengers and crew all survived the two-month ordeal--Lawson won a federal contract to carry mail to "all of the important cities" in the United States. So he designed and built several larger airplanes, but facts about them are skimpy.
A magazine from 1920 carried a photograph of the L-2 Lawson Midnight Airliner, described as the "largest passenger-carrying heavier than air aircraft in the world." It was a 65-foot-long tri-motor bi-plane with a 120-foot wingspan. The top speed was 125 miles per hour and the aircraft could fly at 25,000 feet for up to eight hours without refueling. There was even a shower on board.
There are no accounts of the L-2's performance, but the Mitchell flight museum says a Lawson L-4 "crashed on takeoff" in 1921. Unable to get financing to regroup, Lawson shut down his aircraft firm. But seven years later, Lawson doggedly tried to convince backers to underwrite a "super airliner" that could transport 100 passengers nationwide. The double-decked aircraft would be powered with a dozen engines.
This time, though, his vision never got off the ground.
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ABOUT CHRIS BARNETT Chris Barnett writes about business-travel tactics and strategies that save time and money and help minimize hassles. He is based in San Francisco and has written for a wide variety of major newspapers and national magazines.
THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Chris Barnett in the spirit of free speech and to help encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Chris Barnett.
This column is Copyright © 2013 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe is Copyright © 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.