Clyde Cessna: Barnstorming Farmer and Founder of One of the Largest Producers of Aircraft in the World
In 1975, when the Cessna Aircraft Company produced its 100,000th single engine airplane, the company was one to the highest volume producers of general aviation aircraft worldwide. But the story of Cessna’s rise to one of the most recognizable names in aviation had humble beginnings in the heartland of America.
Clyde Cessna was born in Hawthorne, Kansas on December 5, 1879 to a family of farmers. When Clyde was two, the family moved to a farm in rural Rago, Kansas. It was here that Clyde developed the skills that would later allow him to build the first airplane in the Heartland of America. As a farmhand and threshing-machine operator, Clyde showed an almost innate mechanical ability. He became a self-taught mechanic and would help neighboring farmers with their machinery. Building on these skills, he became a car salesman in Enid, Oklahoma, and by 1911 had saved $7,500.
Clyde’s interest in aviation began at an air show in Oklahoma City. He saw the “flying Circus” of John B. Moissant, whose French Bleriot monoplane caught Cessna’s attention during the exhibition. After the show he was determined to build and fly his own airplane. He hopped a train to New York and got a job at the Queen’s Airplane Company, which had built a few Bleriot imitations. A quick learner, Cessna studied the craft of airplane construction for only a month before he returned home with a dream and a fuselage.
Cessna’s First Flight
Cessna spent the year of 1911 working on his first plane, “Silverwing.” The aircraft was a monoplane modeled after the Bleriot XI and constructed of spruce and linen. It carried a 40-hp, 4-cylinder, 2-stroke modified Elbridge boat engine called the “aero special.”
Once he completed building his plane, Cessna took “Silverwing” to the Great Salt Plains for testing. The first attempt ended in a ground loop, or a rapid rotation of the aircraft in the horizontal plane, which would cost $100 to repair. The next 11 attempted flights also ended in failure. Then, on the 13th attempt, Clyde Cessna’s plane took off and flew for a short distance before he crashed it into a group of trees. After his crash, Cessna cried, "I'm going to fly this thing, then I'm going to set it afire and never have another thing to do with aeroplanes!”
Finally, in June 1911, Cessna had his first successful flight. Thankfully, he didn’t burn the plane. In December of that year he took off and flew a 5-mile route before landing at the point of departure. The people who had laughed at his multiple failures began to call Cessna the “Birdman of Enid.” Clyde Cessna was the first person to build and fly an airplane between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains – the Heartland of America.
Turning Cessna intro a Business
After multiple crashes and injuries, Cessna began to turn a marginal profit by flying at exhibitions. But he wasn’t making the money he had hoped, and times got tough. At one point, he had to resort to moving his family into a barn on family farmland back in Rago. During the winter, while his family lived in the hayloft, he worked on building an improved version of his plane. From 1912 to 1915, Cessna built several new monoplanes, all powered by an Anzani 6-cylindar engine.
In 1916, he was invited to build his personal show plane in the “Jones Six” auto factory In Wichita, Kansas. Cessna’s “Jones Six” was the first of a quarter of a million aircraft manufactured in Wichita, now known as the “Air Capital of the World.”
That same year, Cessna moved into his own factory where he intended to build planes for the next air show season. The building also doubled as a flight school and he enrolled five student pilots for training. When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Clyde offered to train pilots for the war, but his offer was refused. Instead he returned to farming for the duration of the war.
After WWI, public interest in private aviation increased. In 1925, Cessna, along with Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman, founded Travel Air Manufacturing Company. The company quickly became one of the leading U.S. aircraft manufacturers, but due to a dispute over whether to focus on monoplanes or biplanes, Clyde Cessna decided to go out on his own after only two years. He started Cessna Aircraft Corporation in 1927.
Cessna’s first commercially viable airplane was the four-seat Model A. It was also the first in a long line of the high-wing single engine monoplanes that Cessna has become famous for. Cessna built 83 of his A Model and the future looked bright for the young company. Clyde raised capital to build more of the aircraft, but the Great Depression put an end to production. The devastating economic crash forced Cessna Aircraft Corporation to close its doors in 1931.
Clyde continued his labor of love even though there was no longer a market for personal airplanes. He and his son Eldon (an aero-nautical engineer) moved into a corner of the boarded-up Travel Air factory and built custom race planes. Their CR-3, piloted by Johnny Livingston, won every race it entered and set a world speed record for aircraft with engines under 500-cubic-inches with a speed of 237.4 mph.
Once the economy began to revive, Cessna reopened his Wichita factory and sold it to his nephews Dwayne and Dwight Wallace. Clyde Cessna remained with he company only in name and in a ceremonial capacity. He returned to a life of farming. He died on November 20, 1954.
Clyde Cessna was posthumously inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame and the International Air & Space Hall of Fame. His name is, to this day, one of the most recognizable in aviation.
OBX Airplane’s Fleet of Cessna Aircraft
OBX Airplanes is proud to own a fleet of Cessna aircraft – the perfect planes from which to view the beauty of the Outer Banks. The high wings and panoramic windows of our Cessnas give you the best view possible of the beaches, bridges, inlets, shipwrecks and lighthouses along our coast. Book a flight with us for an adventure and memory of a lifetime.
In 1837, the U.S. government commissioned an expedition to locate a site for the construction of a new
lighthouse north of the existing one at Cape Hatteras. The light was to be a beacon to mariners traveling
south along the Outer Banks as they approached the treacherous waters around the shifting sands of
Diamond Shoals. Lieutenant Napoleon L. Coste, who led the expedition, wrote that "more vessels are
lost there than on any other part of our coast.” In fact, up to 600 vessels have been claimed by the
waters around Diamond Shoals and 2,000 along the entirety of the Outer Banks in what is known as the
Graveyard of the Atlantic.
The first lighthouse was a failure. Coste decided on a location near the ocean on Pea Island, but due to
complications around the acquisition of land, construction did not begin until 1847. A capable engineer
from Baltimore, Francis Gibbons, was chosen to build the lighthouse, but rather than being allowed to
design the structure he was given plans for a fifty-four foot tower of questionable design. To make
matters worse, his supervisor was an ex-customs inspector who knew nothing of construction. Gibbons
was prevented from driving piles to secure a foundation and instead was forced to lay bricks over the
sand. Once completed, it did not take long for the lighthouse to begin to lean. Nevertheless, the
lighthouse was used (and regularly repaired at great cost to the government) until 1859, when it was
A second lighthouse, built by the Army Corps of Engineers, didn’t fare any better. It was packed with
explosives and blown up by retreating Confederate troops in 1861.
The third lighthouse (and the one that stands today) was built on a 15-acre site on Bodie Island
purchased from John Etheredge for $150.00. Construction of the 164-foot tower was completed in
under a year by Dexter Stetson and his crew who had just finished building the new light at Cape
Hatteras. Bodie Island Lighthouse was first lighted on October 1, 1872. The tower’s lantern was focused
by a first-order Fresnel lens, fabricated by Barbier and Fenestre of Paris, that cast a beam visible up to
nineteen miles out to sea.
The lantern was fueled by kerosene that had to be carried up the 214 steps by the lightkeeper daily. In
1932, the light was electrified and an on-site keeper was no longer necessary. The lighthouse underwent
a recent renovation that was completed in 2013 and is now open for public tours.
New Inlets and Shifting Sands
Folklore attributes the name Bodie Island to the bodies of drowned sailors that washed up along the
shore of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. In reality, the name comes from the Bodie family (variously
written “Body,” “Boddy,” “Boddye,” or “Boddie”) that settled in the area. Bodie Island (though no longer
technically an island) once extended from Roanoke Inlet, which flowed through what is now Nags Head,
to New Inlet, which was cut by a strong hurricane in 1738 north of Rodanthe. When Roanoke Inlet
closed in 1811, Bodie Island was joined with the Currituck Banks and they now form one contiguous
In 1846, another powerful hurricane cut Oregon Inlet. The inlet was named by the ship Oregon that first
saw the new opening to the ocean after having survived the storm in the Pamlico Sound. The newly
formed Island between Oregon Inlet and New inlet 11 miles to the south became known as Pea Island.
See Bodie Island Lighthouse and Oregon Inlet from The Sky
OBX Airplanes offers an Inlet Air Tour in a Cessna aircraft that will give you an amazing aerial view of
both Bodie Island Lighthouse and the shifting sands of Oregon Inlet. You will also fly over the Wright
Brothers National Memorial, Nags Head Pier, Jockey’s Ridge, Jennette’s Pier, Bonner Bridge, and
multiple shipwrecks along this stretch of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. This Air Tour is truly a
photographer’s dream come true.
As a Certified Flight Instructor on the Outer Banks of North Carolina I am pleased to say that when you fly with me you will be sure to have fun, be safe and learn to fly!