Flying high: Cleveland soared in early aviation history

While many people are aware of Cleveland’s once-thriving automobile industry, few today realize the prominent role the city played in the aviation industry. 

Starting with Glenn Curtiss flying from Euclid Beach to Cedar Point in 1910, Northeast Ohio was quick to embrace aviation. Just a few years later, the Glenn L. Martin Company produced its large twin engine Martin Bombers at its factory in Glenville.

Great Lakes Aircraft Corp., 1930'sThe roster of employees included names that were bound for glory. Donald Douglas was destined to head the company responsible for an extraordinary line of Douglas Commercial aircraft—the companies DC-2 being recognized as the country’s first modern airliner, while its successor, the DC-3 made airlines profitable for the first time.

Douglas’ colleague Larry Bell was responsible thirty years later for the design of the X-1, which Chuck Yeager flew to break the sound barrier in October 1947.

The Glenn L. Martin Company moved to Baltimore in 1926, leaving its former manufacturing plant and its adjoining airfield vacant.

But the vacancy was not for long, as a new enterprise was about to take over—The Great Lakes Aircraft Company. This new firm designed and built torpedo bombers for the navy and other designs in small numbers. Where it really came into its own was the 1920s design of the Great Lakes Trainer. This was a two-place fabric covered open cockpit biplane with tandem seating—a very common format in that era.

Entering production in 1929, the Great Lakes Trainer airplane, designated the 2T-1A, was part of the vanguard of new designs created to replace WW I vintage Curtiss Jenny trainers powered by OX 5 engines, which were definitely yesterday’s technology.

The new Great Lakes Trainer, originally powered by a four-cylinder inline 85hp American Cirrus engine, was smaller than many of its contemporaries with a wingspan of 26 feet and a length of 20 feet.

Aviation promoter & real estate developer Cliff Henderson, c. 1933 The airplane played an important role in the 1929 National Air Races held at what was then the Cleveland Municipal Airport (today’s Cleveland Hopkins International Airport). Event promoter Clifford Henderson flew a colorfully marked Great Lakes Trainer daily, while another example was part of a float during a parade down Euclid Avenue to introduce the event.

Originally offered at $ 4,990, Depression economics dictated a price reduction to $ 3,985—still a very substantial price when brand new cars cost well under $ 1,000.

Initially thriving, the Great Lakes Aircraft Company at one time had deposits for 650 airplanes. Financial problems intervened. In the end, just 264 trainers were actually built. The company went out of business in 1936.

The company may have passed into history, but the airplane itself had plenty of life left.

By no means a museum piece, the Great Lakes Trainer, when repowered with more powerful radial engines, became the mount of choice of some of America’s finest aerobatic pilots over the next 30 years—writing some significant aviation history in the process.

The pilots included Hal Krier and Charlie Hillard, as well as such notable female pilots as Betty Skelton, “The First Lady of Firsts,” and Dorothy Hester.

Daredevil Flyer Dorothy Hester As an interesting sidelight: When Cleveland Model Supply began operations in 1926. For almost 70 years the company produced balsa wood kits to make model airplanes that modeled the Great Lakes. In recent years the company has it become a supplier of model plans.

This was the first kit to be an accurate scale model of an actual airplane ever marketed in the United States and led the way to Cleveland Model Supply becoming the leading purveyor of model airplane kits to aviation enthusiasts across the nation.

The Great Lakes Aircraft factory in the former Glenn L. Martin facility was a large complex at 16800 St. Clair Ave. in Collinwood. After Great Lakes went out of business the factory passed into other hands and continued as a production facility.

Ironically, the building where navy torpedo bombers were once built was for many years used to build torpedoes for the U.S. Navy when operated by Gould Ocean Systems. The former airfield has largely been given over to new construction and aircraft engines have not been heard there in more than 80 years.

Refusing to die, the Great Lakes Trainer reappeared several times in later years, with newly built models giving modern-day pilots a chance to experience flying as it was meant to be.

The curious can visit the Crawford Auto Aviation Museum to see a restored original displayed in the exact configuration of a new production airplane from the 1930s.

If an aircraft is heard overhead, look up. It just might be a Great Lakes Trainer.

Read more articles by Tom Matowitz.

Recently retired after a 37-year career teaching public speaking, Tom Matowitz has had a lifelong interest in local and regional history. Working as a freelance author for the past 20 years he has written a number of books and articles about Cleveland’s past. He has a particular interest in the area’s rich architectural history.