The Planes That Clyde Built

The Planes That Clyde Built

On Course

In terms of fatalities, general avi­ation has the advantage over recreational boating. In 1997, more people died in noncom­mercial boating accidents than in general aviation accidents. So why does it seem that flying is so dangerous? Airplane crashes grab more headlines than boating ac­cidents, and generally have more witnesses. Once the media rushes to a plane crash, particularly one involving a celebrity like John P. Kennedy Jr„ the coverage can capture our attention for days.

Clyde Cessna rates as one of the most eccentric airplane builders to ever turn a wrench. Cessna, who turned to aviation at the age of 31, trudged around his shop in threadbare old clothes and a shapeless fedora that made him look more like a panhandling drifter than the creator of the modern spirit of general aviation. In a plane he built himself in 1913, he would fly around on his errands. Whether it was going to the store or going to church on Sunday, Clyde Cessna did it by air.

He was absent-minded, too. In June 1917, he opened a flight school that quickly enrolled five students at a price of $400. But Cessna was so preoccupied with building his planes that he forgot to show up to teach the lessons, and all five students quit in a rage and sued Cessna for their money back.

Cessna, a gangly former car salesman, revolutionized the design and construction of airplanes by hiding the strength-giving parts inside his airplanes’ wings, imbuing them with a graceful appearance. Where other designers had placed supporting struts and braces on the outside of the airplane, he created structural parts that would provide strength from the inside, reducing the number of exterior supporting struts and wires from a dozen to just two. But graceful though Clyde’s planes were, they became known as bullishly strong, amazingly light, and quick to forgive the ham-handed pilot.

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