The best stories only improve in the retelling. That’s true of the Air Capital. Last fall, Greteman Group published Wichita: Where Aviation Took Wing. Now our local Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) member station, KPTS – Channel 8, has created the documentary Wichita: The Air Capital.

It premiered at the city’s historic Orpheum Theatre this past Friday, March 6. The Wichita Aero Club hosted a private event prior to the screening, which was opened to the public. More than 300 people attended. You could tell it was an in-the-know audience by attendees’ frequent laughter and applause.

the wichita orpheum

The vaudeville-era theater was an appropriate setting. The Orpheum opened its doors in 1922, during Wichita’s barnstorming heyday. Pilots would buzz communities to announce unscheduled exhibitions at nearby farms, and towns would shut down as everyone headed to out to watch. Death-defying daredevils wing-walked, swung from trapezes mounted on landing gear, changed planes in midair, shot fireworks from their fabric-and-wood planes, flew upside down and put their aircraft through gasp-inducing spins and dives.

The first plane built in Wichita rolled out of production in 1917, when Clyde Cessna assembled his Comet. Wichita’s first commercial aircraft, the Swallow, came from the E.M. Laird Airplane Co. in 1920. By 1928, Wichita was general aviation’s manufacturing grand central, producing 120 airplanes a week – a quarter of all U.S. output.

A Chamber of Commerce Air Capital logo contest celebrated the city’s 16 aircraft manufacturers, six aircraft engine factories, 11 airports and dozen flying schools.

“With Wichita’s rich aviation roots, it just made sense to explore the city’s history and what the future holds for the ‘Air Capital of the World,’” says Victor Hogstrom, KPTS president and CEO.

Stories Told By Those Who Know

KPTS multimedia journalist Chris Frank recorded hours and hours of interviews of those who’ve lived and know Wichita’s aviation heritage. A partial listing includes:

  • Dave Franson, Wichita Aero Club president
  • Sonia Greteman, Greteman Group president and creative director
  • Don Grommesh, ret. Learjet chief engineer
  • Al Higdon, former Learjet marketing/Sullivan, Higdon & Sink cofounder
  • Clay Lacy, Clay Lacy Aviation founder
  • Russ Meyer, Cessna Chair emeritus
  • Tim Norton, Kansas Aviation Museum, Executive Director
  • John O’Leary, Airbus Americas Engineering VP
  • Mary Lynn Oliver, Walter and Olive Ann Beech’s daughter
  • Jack Pelton, Experimental Aircraft Association CEO/chair
  • Connie Palacioz, ret. Boeing WWII-era riveter
  • Edward H. Phillips, aviation author and historian
  • Ron Ryan, ret. Ryan Aviation founder
  • Dr. John Tomblin, National Institute for Aviation Research, Executive Director
  • Jeff Turner, ret. Spirit AeroSystems CEO
  • Dr. Sheree Utash, WSU Tech president

There is nothing like hearing firsthand accounts from people who lived this history. While I grew up in the Air Capital, I heard new anecdotes and learned a number of things about our community. It’s especially fun to see modern-day businesses existing in buildings that formerly held aviation trailblazers. Frank walks along the streets of Delano and points out former Travel Air locations. He even goes inside Salon 5 Thirty 5 and talks to a customer, Johnna Fussell, who recounts being a kid during WWII and playground games where instead of chanting, “A…B…C,” they’d say, “Beech…Boeing…Cessna.”

sonia greteman tells her chapter of the air capital's story

Of course, I loved seeing Sonia Greteman among those interviewed and her stories, learned from our deep dive into the Air Capital’s history when developing the aviation display at Eisenhower National Airport and our subsequent book.

Walter and Olive Ann Beech’s daughter Mary Lynn Oliver is especially touching in the documentary as she talks about her parents. She shows great emotion as she says Beech Aircraft wouldn’t have come to be without her father, but it wouldn’t have survived without her mother.

Missed Out? You Can Still Watch

Wichita: The Air Capital airs at 7 p.m., this Thursday, March 12 and Monday, March 16 during KPTS – Channel 8’s spring membership drive. Membership thank you gifts include both a DVD of the documentary and a copy of Greteman Group’s book. See the station’s website for membership levels and details:

If you care about the Air Capital’s history, I urge you to watch this documentary. I believe you’ll find it both touching and informative. I did.