Clyde Vernon Cessna grew up on a farm in Kansas. Without formal school, Clyde made the most of his innovative nature to make mechanical improvements to farm machinery. After leaving the farm he became a successful car dealer but in 1910 at the 31-year old Cessna witnessed an aerial exhibition that would change his life.
Clyde caught the ‘aviation bug’ and soon moved to New York where he joined the Queen Aeroplane Company and learned how to manufacture aircraft. By 1911 he was working on his first design, a monoplane named the “Silverwing”. Made out of spruce and linen, and powered by a 40 hp motor-boat motor, the Silverwing made its way West to Oklahoma for flight testing. His first 13 flights ended in costly failures including ground loops and crashing into trees. After his 13th failure, Clyde declared, “I’m going to fly this thing, then I’m going to set it afire and never have another thing to do with aeroplanes!” Cessna began seeing better results and by the end of the year he was able to make a 5-mile flight with a safe landing at the point of departure. He also went from being mocked to being a local hero known as the “Birdman of Enid”.
Flying his subsequent designs at holiday events and county fairs proved to be a lucrative endeavour and Clyde used the proceeds to buy a building to begin manufacturing a new aircraft in 1916. Simultaneously, Clyde opened a flight school and immediately enrolled five students. His timing was terrible and business dried up when the nation’s aerial resources were directed to the World War I effort. Clyde returned to the family farm in Kansas.
In 1925, Clyde teamed with another pair of gentlemen who would become aviation giants in their own right: Walter Beech (founder of Beechraft Aircraft) and Lloyd Stearman (founder of Stearman Aircraft Corporation). The trio formed the Travel Air Manufacturing Company and business boomed. Despite financial success, international recognition, and a host of speed and distance records (all within just two years), Clyde left the company when he was unable to convince the other two to leave the bi-wing design behind in favor of mono-wing airplanes.
In 1927 Cessna tried to partner up again, and again, all quickly dissolved. Victor Roos sold Clyde his half of Cessna-Roos Aircraft after only one month. This time Clyde decided to go at it alone and changed the name to the Cessna Aircraft Corporation. Yet again misfortune found Clyde Cessna. As his company was building, thanks in part to the iconic DC-6 and his collaboration with his son Eldon, the Great Depression rocked the nation and CAC closed its doors in 1931. Cessna reopened a plant in Wichita three years later but quickly sold it to his nephews, Dwight and Dwane Wallace.
As before, Clyde returned to farming. He passed away in 1954 at the age of 74. The next year, the Cessna-172 Skyhawk aircraft made its first flight. By most measures, including longevity and popularity (over 44,000 built), the Skyhawk is the most successful aircraft in history. CAC also successfully expanded into the business jet market with the ubiquitous series of Citation jets. In 1991, Textron bought CAC for $600 million. Textron would also buy Beechcraft Aircraft years later (Stearman Aircraft Corporation merged with Boeing back in 1929).
Clyde Cessna was posthumously inducted to the International Air and Space Hall of Fame and National Aviation Hall of Fame.
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