Photo Detective: The Plane Truth
9/27/2009
It's no mystery who posed for this portrait. The couple on the left are Jacqui Marcella's grandparents Arthur and Theresa Henschel. What she can't figure out is when it was taken, where they were at the time and why they're posed in front of an airplane. This picture proves genealogy and history are closely related, and delving into one can lead to learning about the other.

Theresa Henschel wears a coat with fur collar and cuffs, and a close fitting cloche hat. The woman to the right sports a cloth coat with fringe trim and a similar-shaped hat to Henschel's. Both women are fashionably dressed for the late 1920s. Hats in all shapes and sizes, some with elaborate decoration, were common during the early 1920s, but we most identify the cloche hat with the decade of flappers and chic, short women's hairstyles.

Henschel's attire reflected her husband's business success in the years just prior to the Great Depression. According to Marcella, Arthur, born in Kansas City, began his career as a ?packer? in northern California's retail industry and quickly progressed to store manager. His conservative, dark striped suit and round crowned hat are signs of his status. The couple on the right is dressed in less-conservative colors and styles. Their identity is unknown, so it's difficult to assess their choice of garments.

Look closely at the airplane rudder, which bears the name of the airline, Travel-Air. The T on the side of the plane is the beginning of the name. A quick trip to the library and a few keyword searches in Google gave me the historical significance behind the picture.

Travel-Air Manufacturing Company began building planes in 1924 under the direction of Walter Beech. The company built aircraft for racing and transport, and within a few years, became the leading producer of commercial airplanes. Beech started constructing airplanes out of material around his house, successfully flying a homemade glider at 14. By the time he started Travel-Air he'd already set speed records racing planes for other companies. In 1930, he married his secretary, Olive Ann Mellor, and their company merged with Curtiss-Wright. Two years later the couple founded Beech Aircraft. For thirty years after Walter's death in 1950, Olive ran the company until it merged with Raytheon Corporation in 1980. Today Kansas is still the center of the airline industry. The Beeches' influence on the aviation industry is reviewed in several online exhibits:

By consulting A Century of Triumph: The History of Aviation by Christopher Chant (out of print) at my library, I learned more about airplane design: The bi-plane (two parallel wings), popular during World War I, gave way in the 1920s to the mono-plane design seen here. Passengers willing to take the risk could ride planes as early as 1916, but commercial service really began in the 1920s. Planes could handle only small numbers of people at one time. Travel-Air was at the forefront of that industry. An online album of Travel-Air planes shows the types of planes the company made, but not an exact match to the one in this picture.

It's obvious from this photograph that Arthur and Theresa Henschel were successful and forward-thinking people. They took a trip either for business or pleasure between about 1926 and 1930 in a Travel-Air manufactured plane, at a time when few people flew. It was common to commemorate these early flights with photographic proof. The Henschels likely posed with their fellow passengers in front the plane they traveled in. But where this photo was taken is one mystery that remains unsolved for now.

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