Back in the early 1900s, when commercial aviation was little more than a handful of barnstorming pilots willing to take a passenger up for a short ride (typically at a dollar a minute), the very first practical multi-engine commercial airliner was built in Milwaukee by Alfred W. Lawson, aviation pioneer, loony visionary, and relentless self-promoter.
The Lawson C-2, as it was called, weighed six tons, had a wingspan of 80 feet, and its enclosed cabin seated 18 passengers in comfort. And in 1919, there was simply nothing like it on earth.
It was a new kind of aircraft, built to serve an industry that didn’t yet exist. Lawson even coined the word “airliner” to describe his invention.
The C-2 was built in a hall at the State Fairgrounds, partially disassembled, then towed by a team of brewery horses to Milwaukee’s first municipal airport (located at Currie Park in Wauwatosa), where it was put back together. On August 22, 1919, a large crowd gathered for the formal dedication of the big airplane. Most of them thought the ungainly craft would never fly.
Then the airplane’s two 12-cylinder Liberty aircraft engines sputtered to life. One of the most remarkable adventures in aviation history was about to take place.
All the seats are of wicker construction, upholstered with green leather and provided with safety belts. They are secured to the floor, but are readily detachable. The interior of the cabin is finished in polished mahogany, and the floors are covered with carpet. The depth of the body is sufficient to allow one to stand up without stooping when walking through. – Flight magazine, Sept. 11, 1919
The story really begins back in 1908. Lawson, a former minor league baseball player and failed promoter of his own baseball league, became fascinated by accounts of the first powered flights and decided to launch a magazine called Fly. At the time only three men in America actually knew how to fly an airplane (Wilbur Wright, Orville Wright, and Glenn Curtiss), but Lawson’s new magazine capitalized on growing public interest and was a success.
In 1910, Lawson took his first ride in an airplane. It was a single-seater and the pilot directed Lawson to sit on the wing, adding helpfully, “When we are going up lean forward so that you do not slide off backward, and when we are coming down lean backward so you do not slide off forward.”
Lawson, who did not slide off, greatly enjoyed the flight. Three years later, he took flying lessons and, with a typical flair for publicity, purchased a seaplane which he used to fly the 35 miles from his home in New Jersey to his office in New York City, making sure newspaper reporters were on hand to write about the “first air commuter.”
His publishing company ran into financial difficulties in 1916, which probably spurred Lawson into seeking a new venture. In early 1917, when it became apparent the U.S. would be drawn into World War I, the Green Bay Chamber of Commerce invited him to visit the city and explore building a military aircraft factory.
With the backing of 10 residents willing to risk $1,000 each on the endeavor, Lawson jumped into the airplane business. He rented a factory, purchased materials, hired a dozen engineers and mechanics, then designed, built, and flew a prototype biplane – and did it all in just four months.
Alfred W. Lawson was the Jules Verne of the 20th century, the Wright of commercial aviation, the Edison of flying. – Milwaukee Sentinel, July 22, 1955
That first aircraft, designated MT-1, was intended for training new military pilots. Lawson performed the test flight himself. Landing after an uneventful 15-minute flight, he told workers crowding around the aircraft, “Boys, any old woman that don’t drink, smoke, or chew tobacco ought to be able to fly the MT-1.”
Lawson and his workers had built a good plane in record time, but no government orders were forthcoming by war’s end in 1918. Lawson, ever optimistic, announced he would build “a great commercial airliner.” His Green Bay stockholders, having lost money with Lawson’s military trainer project, flatly refused additional funding.
Undaunted, Lawson turned his attention to Milwaukee. While experienced investors fretted over Lawson’s spotty financial record, Milwaukeeans from the wealthy to the working class were swept up in his grand dream and purchased $500,000 worth of stock in the new firm.
“It was quite a whoop-de-do civic campaign,” dryly observed the Milwaukee Journal in a Sept. 19, 1937 article.
Lawson called his engineers together in April 1919 and showed them a rough pencil sketch of a twin-engine 18-passenger airplane. At the time, the company didn’t even have a factory.
Even so, in August, just four months later, the biplane was ready for a test flight.
In his book, “Lawson, Aircraft Industry Builder,” Lawson neglects to mention that his sketch became a reality largely through the efforts of his chief engineer, 23-year-old Vincent Burnelli, then embarking on a long and successful career in which he would be awarded 60 patents, discover the lifting body principle, invent full-span flaps, leading-edge slats, camber wings, design the first multi-engine aircraft with retractable landing gear, as well as the first American aircraft to use metal stressed-skin construction.
The plane now nearing completion is equipped for daytime travel; seats for the passengers are inside the body, one at each window, one passenger to the seat with an aisle between. The machine is powered by two Liberty motors and is painted red and green. – The Milwaukee Journal, July 14, 1919
Burnelli disliked the look of the Lawson airliner, calling it a “streetcar with wings.” Also, it lacked one essential feature – a pilot.
Lawson wrote, “I wanted a better pilot than myself to take the airliner off of the ground and bring it back again. Several good pilots who had written for a position came to Milwaukee from distant points, but after looking over the new craft they left without wanting the job and with a look of pity in their faces for me.”
A professional ballroom dancer and pilot named Charles Cox heard about the plane and traveled on his own expense – and without an invitation – to apply for the job. His brashness and complete confidence in the aircraft appealed to Lawson and he decided to give him a chance. It was only much later that Burnelli and Lawson learned that, at time of his application, Cox had less than 8 total hours flying time, and that in a single-engine aircraft.
With the airliner reassembled at the Milwaukee airport on August 22, 1919, Lawson spread the word among the crowd that he planned only to taxi back and forth to test the engines and control surfaces. In his memoirs, Lawson recalled that several people laughed and said it would never fly – that day or any other day.
Lawson wrote, “Well, as soon as that airliner began to move forward at 4:30 o’clock in the afternoon and the two 400 H.P. engines began to roar, and the wings began to lift, I could not resist the temptation of pushing the throttles wide open and, within a few seconds, it literally jumped from the earth into the sky in a manner that was both thrilling and satisfying.”
The first flight, with Cox and Lawson at the controls lasted only a few minutes before a fuel line came loose and forced the plane to land. A week later the same two men, accompanied by mechanics and engineers from the factory, were ready to try again.
“After we got into the air and I found everything worked smoothly, I told Cox to nose her south and 58 minutes later we landed at Ashburn Field, Chicago, a distance of 85 miles from Milwaukee,” Lawson wrote. “As we arrived at sundown and nobody in Chicago expected us, there was but a half-dozen mechanics at the field when the airliner glided to the earth with the ease and lightness of a bird.”
“I had flown in all sorts of aircraft prior to that time and under all sorts of conditions, but that trip in the first airliner from Milwaukee to Chicago was by far the most enjoyable experience of them all.”
Shortly afterward, Lawson and his crew embarked on a record-setting 2,500-mile demonstration trip to the East Coast and back. Shrewdly inviting reporters from Chicago’s leading papers to ride along, Lawson set off on the first leg to Toledo, 250 miles away.
In 1919, any flight could end unexpectedly and this one would be no exception.
The Toledo landing field was not only too small but also covered by the remains of an arena built for a championship prize fight. Lawson circled a bit, then made a smooth landing on a farm pasture outside of town. The farmer and his wife, after recovering from their surprise, treated their unexpected guests to a huge meal.
The Lawson C-2 then flew from Toledo to Cleveland with a fresh batch of reporters aboard, and on from Cleveland to Buffalo.
Up to that point, Lawson had refused to allow women aboard his aircraft but he relented when a woman representing herself as a reporter for the Buffalo paper asked to ride the next segment to Syracuse, N.Y.
Approaching the tiny aero club flying field in Syracuse, Lawson backed off the throttle too early and the massive plane landed in the soft dirt of a cabbage patch short of the runway, its right wingtip striking the ground, skewing the aircraft around, and sending it careening into a drainage ditch. It came to rest nose down and tail sticking up at a 45-degree angle.
Lawson recalled, “I didn’t feel in any mood to study facial expressions but as I looked backward and slightly upward, I was surprised to see the lady reporter with a powder puff in one hand and a looking-glass in the other, busily engaged powdering her nose. Later on she told someone she did not know that anything unusual had happened, thinking that when the airliner went up on to its nose that was the usual manner in which it landed.”
There were no injuries, and very little damage to aircraft. After a week of repairs, the C-2 flew on to Long Island. Lawson spent several days basking in the glow of favorable media attention and taking local dignitaries up for short flights. On September 19th, the Milwaukee airliner, with 14 passengers aboard, flew to Washington D.C., where it generated another tidal wave of flattering newspaper articles.
The leather seats are comfortable and most of us sat throughout the entire trip. Occasionally one of the passengers would walk up and down the aisle. It was just as though we were floating through the air. – Felicity Buranelli, quoted in the Washington Post, Sept. 20, 1919
After a lengthy stay in Washington, the airliner started its homeward journey, intending to make a stop in Dayton, Ohio. Instead, the plane ran into severe storms over the Allegheny Moun tains accompanied by an 80 mph headwind. With fuel running low, Cox spotted a farm field near Connesville, Pa., that could accommodate the big aircraft. As the plane descended, it was caught in a violent downdraft and stuck ground hard enough to blow out all four tires.
Once again passengers and crew emerged without a scratch but the damaged plane had to be dismantled and shipped by railroad flatcar to Dayton. Repaired and completely overhauled, the airliner flew to Indianapolis, on to Chicago, and finally arrived home in Milwaukee on Nov. 14, 1919. It had been gone three months, flown 2,500 miles, and had safely carried 400 passengers.
Until recently the airplane has been of no commercial value. From now on, how ever, there will be commercialized air routes not only in this country but in many others, and the Lawson airplane will be the first to pave the way. – Alfred W. Lawson quoted in the Milwaukee Sunday Sentinel, Oct. 26, 1919
By early aviation standards, the demonstration had gone incredibly well. Lawson was in his element, bubbling with optimism and fantastic claims. He would, he said, establish a coast-to-coast service within six months with a number of intermediary stops using purpose-built aircraft for both day and night flying.
In September 1920, the government awarded Lawson Airline Co., a subsidiary of the aircraft manufacturing company, air mail contracts on three routes worth $687,000 annually. The contracts specified aircraft capable of hauling 1,500 pounds of mail and Lawson was the only successful bidder. The company planned to carry passengers on the mail flights, adding still more revenue. Three hundred and six round trip flights were planned per year on each route.
Looking back in a Sept. 2, 1937 article, the Milwaukee Journal recalled:
“Sitting on top of the world in the knowledge that at last his dreams were coming true, Lawson laid on paper plans for building 100 airliners, of establishing air routes from coast to coast and from Texas to Canada. … In 1920 he designed and built his second ship, which he called the Midnight Airliner. It was larger than the first, was powered with three motors and provided sleeping berths and a shower and lavatory for its 34 passengers.”
Behind the scenes, his dream started to look like a nightmare. An economic downturn made it impossible to attract the vast investment needed to fund Lawson’s outsized plans. Production of the complex new airliner ran into delay after delay at the company’s factory in South Milwaukee. More seriously, Lawson was forced to ask the government to cancel the air mail contracts.
As the weeks dragged into months with no aircraft emerging from the Lawson factory, shareholders began grumbling.
Many South Milwaukeeans, including my Aunt Rose, had invested heavily in this company and tension was high as they awaited the initial run. For many days prior to the takeoff day, the plane could be seen taxiing up and down in front of the factory. Each day, the townspeople would wonder, “Is today the day?” – Florence Roth Johnson (quoted in the April 2002 South Milwaukee Historical Society newsletter)
According to the Lawson biography, “Zig-Zag-and-Swirl” by Lyell D. Henry Jr. (1991 University of Iowa Press), Lawson was given an ultimatum by stockholders: Get the new plane flying or resign from the company.
On May 8, 1921, the Midnight Airliner lined up for takeoff on an improvised 300-foot dirt runway next to the factory. (By comparison, Milwaukee’s Mitchell International Airport has a runway more than 9,000 feet long.) It is likely finances had become so tight the company could not afford the additional expense of dismantling the craft, towing it to the runway at Wauwatosa, and assembling it there.
Lawson and pilot Clarence H. Wilcox took the controls, lumbered the length of the too-short runway and on into the deep soft earth of a freshly plowed adjoining farm field before struggled into the air. But the gigantic three-engine plane (its wingspan was longer than that of a Boeing 737) was moving far too slowly to gain altitude. To avoid hitting a farmhouse, pilot Wilcox banked the plane sharply, grazed an elm tree, then slammed hard into a telephone pole. The plane crashed seconds into its first flight.
The aircraft was demolished but Lawson and Wilcox emerged from the mangled wreckage unscathed. Lawson calmly ordered coffee and doughnuts delivered to the crash scene and told reporters he would soon have the aircraft repaired. In fact, the company was shattered as completely as its airplane and closed its doors soon afterward.
The loss of the Midnight Airliner is especially sad, as author Lyell Henry notes, because it was, in many ways, a highly advanced design and among the largest biplanes built to that time. Furthermore, it did get off the ground and was responding well to controls.
Had the Midnight Airliner taken off from a proper runway … Lawson’s airline probably would have failed anyway. Lawson was, Henry concluded, a full 10 years ahead of his time. In the early 1920s, the science of safe, long-distance, all-weather flight was simply not advanced enough to support regular a airline service.
At the time Lawson was building the Midnight Airliner, another early aircraft maker – Boeing – had converted its Seattle factory into a furniture making operation in an effort to keep its doors open. In June 1921, a month after the crash in South Milwaukee, Boeing won a contract to build 200 fighter aircraft for the U.S. Army Air Corps. A few years later, when the airline industry finally got off the ground, it would be flying Boeing products.
Alfred Lawson went on to found the Direct Credits Society, a program of economic reforms he devised, and later launched a quasi-religious philosophical movement called Lawsonomy. (Many Wisconsin residents will recall the large University of Lawsonomy sign that stood for many years along Interstate 94 near Kenosha.)
Lawson died in San Antonio, Texas, on Nov. 29, 1954, at the age of 85
Why aren′t Lawson′s aviation accomplishments better known? As it happens, the invention of the first true airliner is open to debate. In Russia, Igor Sikorsky built a very large biplane in 1913 with a luxurious 16-passenger compartment (including insulation, heating, electric lights, and the world’s first airborne toilet). Designed from the ground up for carrying passengers, the use Sikorsky had in mind was taking high-ranking military officers on flights intended to demonstrate the practicality of his large airplanes for military use. Regular passenger service was apparently never contemplated.
Immediately after World War I, Frederick Koolhoven of the British Aerial Transport Co. (BAT) designed and built the BAT F.K. 26. The ungainly aircraft looked like an immensely fat World War I fighter plane. It had one engine, a pilot in an open cockpit, and space for four passengers in a very cramped enclosed compartment in the fuselage. The plane, the only one of its type ever built, briefly flew a scheduled weekly service between London and Amsterdam starting in September 1919.
If define “airliner” as a plane built for the express purpose of carrying ordinary passengers on regularly scheduled flights, the BAT F.K. 26 is probably the one. It first flew in April 1919, four months before Lawson – and Lawson Airline never operated a scheduled service. On the other hand, Lawson′s plane seated many more people in far greater comfort than the F.K. 26, making a reasonable case for a Milwaukee origin of the first practical airliner.
In aviation circles this argument will never end.
The Lawson factory stood until a few years ago, when it was torn down to make way for an apartment complex.
Today they play golf on the site of the old runway at Currie Park. Its replacement, Mitchell International Airport, hosts hundreds of flight operations each day. But in 1919, Alfred Lawson built an airliner in Milwaukee and successfully demonstrated it on an amazing long-distance tour that began and ended here.