‘Wichita Fokker’ Takes Flight

Eric Berens' Travel Air 2000 makes its first flight since 1937. The Model 2000's superficial resemblance to the Fokker D.VII earned it a role in Howard Hughes' "Hell's Angels." [Image: Jim Weeden]
Eric Berens' Travel Air 2000 makes its first flight since 1937. The Model 2000's superficial resemblance to the Fokker D.VII earned it a role in Howard Hughes' "Hell's Angels." [Image: Jim Weeden]

The first production Travel Air, the Model 2000, was an American classic. It was the first successful replacement for the weary, worn-out, war-surplus Curtiss JN-4 Jennys that in the mid-1920s comprised the bulk of the country’s civil fleet. It was built by a company founded by Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman, pioneers who, along with William T. Piper, would go on to own the worldwide general aviation market. And between 1924 and 1929, more Travel Airs, including 2000s, were built than were any other make of airplane.

Retired Delta pilot Eric Berens’ newly restored 1929 Model 2000 had a pretty easy life. In 84 years, it has flown just over 700 hours free of crop-dusting, bush flying and barnstorming. From October 1937 until Brodhead, Wis., Travel Air specialist Kent McMakin began restoring the Berens airplane in September 2008, the airframe and engine sat on the same North Dakota family’s farm near Fargo, dry and indoors, the engine even kept warm in winter, without ever being flown. Berens bought the fabric-stripped hulk from the son of the same man who’d put it up on blocks in 1937—and who had soloed in it just a year earlier. Restoration consisted largely of sandblasting and polyurethaning the steel-tube airframe, re-covering and painting it in original “Travel Air Blue,” replacing the tailskid with a Stinson 108 tailwheel, adding period instrumentation to an airplane that in its most basic form didn’t even have an airspeed indicator, installing a scrupulously detailed interior using original fabrics and renovating the liquid-cooled Curtiss OXX-6 V8 engine.

Berens made the Travel Air’s first post-restoration flight last November, and by mid-January he had put 13 hours on the open-cockpit airplane. (No small feat: It was 20 below in Stevens Point, Wis., when I last spoke with him.) Berens found it straightforward and delightful to fly, with particular praise for the counterbalanced ailerons—which helped make the original Travel Air 2000 a film star.

Travel Airs resembled World War I Fokker D.VII fighters, the similarity enhanced by the fact that both airplanes had what were familiarly called elephant-ear ailerons. To make his remarkably realistic air combat film Hell’s Angels, Howard Hughes used Travel Air 2000s to flesh out his small fleet of real D.VIIs. As a result, this most American of airplanes was forever thereafter nicknamed the “Wichita Fokker.”
 

 

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