Why Not Model... 

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The following article is intended as a research aid on finding and understanding the wealth of information and resources available to the virtual modeler...basically, this is a put-it-all-together tutorial.  I hope this helps to spark your interest...

Aircraft during the last century sparked the imagination of designers, pilots, engineers, and modelers.  A few aircraft designs literally set the aviation industry on its ear, and this month's subject was one of them.   

The Model R Mystery Ship is known by its nickname, rather than by its maker.  When introduced, it was shielded from the public—and especially from its competition.  This and many other special airplanes manufactured from the 1920s until the outbreak of World War II were part of what we call the "Golden Age of Air Racing."  Walter Beech, Lloyd Stearman, William Snook, and Clyde Cessna formed the Travel Air Company in 1924. Travel Air produced a large line of aircraft in its short history, including biplanes and monoplanes.

Model R Mystery Ship at the Factory

The company was absorbed into the Curtiss-Wright Corporation after the 1929 Cleveland National Air Races. Beginning operations in 1925, Travel Air's idea was to use steel tubing instead of wood for aircraft construction. The primary building material had been wood until near the end of WW I. The most-glaring exceptions to the use of wood were Anthony Fokker's WW I biplane fighters, such as the Fokker D.VII. This was the only German aircraft specifically named in the treaty at the end of the war. 

The Model R Mystery Ship was designed by Herbert Rawdon. He and coworker Walter Burhan worked on the design in their spare time after-hours; they didn't bring the design to Walter Beech until it was almost finished and ready for construction. As with many racers of that era, the construction had to be rushed. Test flights on the two aircraft were completed shortly before the races.

The US Army Air Force was in for a shock to the status quo at the 1929 National Air Races. 

The Model R was a purpose-built aircraft. Walter Beech kept it hidden in the Travel Air hangar until just before the Open Class race at Cleveland; no photos were taken, and no one was allowed to get a good look at the new racer.  The Mystery Ship was faster and more-maneuverable than the US Army's best biplanes. It was powered by a Wright 300 hp radial engine.  However, the military pursuit aircraft flown at the National Air Races were also specially prepared! They were further streamlined and polished, and their liquid-cooled high-performance V-12 engines were tweaked and modified just for the competition.  The race was 50 miles on a five-mile course, for a trophy and prize money. Thompson Products Company and Fred Crawford were the main sponsors.

Doug Davis

The Mystery Ship was clocked at 194.9 mph on a triangular course that weekend. It has been reported that the aircraft was also timed in Cleveland that year at more than 208 mph.  Flying the Travel Air Mystery Ship, it took well-known Air Racer Doug Davis less than 15 minutes to end the domination of military biplanes.  When Doug thought he cut a pylon during the race, he was far enough ahead to go back around the pylon, not once, but twice—to make sure he didn't miss it.  Imagine how much faster his time would have been compared to the rest of the field if he hadn't thought he had missed the one pylon.  Doug correctly rounded the pylon three times, opening up the Nationals for others who wanted to try new designs. The military aircraft were not a consistent factor in the National Air Races again until after WW II. 

Five Travel Air Mystery Ships were built, and two survive:

Texaco No. 13 now hangs in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, IL.

The other airplane belonged to Pancho Barnes, and according to some sources is still unassembled
   somewhere in California.

The Travel Air Model R Mystery Ships

A brief illustrated history of the aircraft below is available HERE.  Take a quick look; it helps to understand what follows.

Built at the same time as R-614K, but was powered by the inline air-cooled Chevolair engine. R-613K lacked power, with a top speed of only approximately 150 mph. 

Sold to Pancho Barnes, and by that time, the inline engine had been replaced with a Wright radial.  Pancho had R-613K repainted at the Travel Air factory in 1930, in a scheme similar to that of R-614K.

Built for and flown by Doug Davis in the 1929 National Air Races.  The paint scheme was red and black, with a green trim stripe. Power was provided by a Wright Whirlwind 400hp radial engine.  The aircraft was lost in 1931, when it caught fire and crashed.

Built for the Shell Oil Company, to specifications set by Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle. There were more than 30 modifications to the basic Mystery Ship design, including aileron horns, stabilizer spar, wheel brakes, an Eclipse inertia starter, and an adjustable seat.  The airplane was flown mostly by company pilot James (Jimmy) Haizlip; he performed at many air shows and races. In 1930, the Shell Travel Air Mystery Ship finished second in the Thompson Trophy Race to Earl "Speed" Holman.

Crashed in November 1930. Jimmy Doolittle bought the aircraft, and rebuilt and further modified it, to try to set a speed record for land-based aircraft.  After the complete rebuild, including a new fuselage, the airplane was lost in its first flight because of aileron flutter.

The most successful of the five Travel Air Mystery Ships.  The red-and-white racer was ordered in 1930 for Frank Hawks, who was the Superintendent of Aviation for the Texas Co. (Texaco).  The Mystery Ship performed at air shows, and set many speed records, including the transcontinental speed record and more than 200 records for point-to-point flights between cities.  Texaco No. 13 crashed in 1932 because of engine failure. It was repaired for show purposes and donated to the Museum of Science and Industry, where it rests today.  If you're ever in Chicago, stop by and see No. 13. Some of the panels are bent, and it could use a good cleaning, but the old monoplane still looks like a record-setter. (The museum is poorly lit in this area.)

11717 and MM185
Air Minister General Italo Balbo ordered The "Italian Mystery Ship" after Texaco No. 13's visits to Italy, and after Travel Air had been absorbed by Curtiss-Wright.   The influence on Italy's aircraft designs can be seen in the Ba 27 fighter of the mid-1930s.  The last Mystery Ship was decommissioned in May 1937.

There is also a flying replica Travel Air Model R and it has been flown many hours at the hands of owner Jim Younkin of Arkansas.  This Mystery Ship was finished in the color scheme from the 1929 Cleveland Air Races -- NR614K.  It was first seen at the Experimental Aircraft Association Fly-In at Oshkosh, Wisconsin on the 50th anniversary of the 1929 Cleveland Air Races.  Imagine the people standing around watching the different aircraft land, when this ghost from the past touched down.  Younkin modernized his version; he added larger tires, fiberglass wheel pants, and modern rudder pedals, and he installed a Lycoming R-680 in place of the Wright R-975, which powered the original.  Since most airports have paved runways, he also installed a tail wheel.  The replica was finished in Randolph Insignia Red dope and black gloss.  The green pinstripe of the original was not added.

So, now that all that has been discussed, how does this offer any assistance to you the virtual modeler?  Well, here's how I see it.  You are probably attracted to the project because you find the subject interesting.  So an understanding of the historical context helps to appreciate the aircraft itself, but you now have to put the pieces together to be able to replicate the airplane in a virtual context.

So what resources can you tap into?  Here's what I suggest:


Start with the primary resource -- photographs.   The more the better!  Ideally you could also use color photographs to be able to paint the model as well...but I get ahead of myself.  So, photographs...these can be found in several resources, magazines, books and on the internet.  In the case of our Travel R Mystery Ship some of the published resources include:


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Travel Air: Wings Over The Prairie.
by Edward H. Phillips.  Flying Books International, 1994.

Travel Air: A Photo History.
by Bruce Bissonette.  Aviation Heritage,1996.

Mystery Ship: A History of the Travel Air Type R Monoplanes.
by Edward H. Phillips.  Flying Books International, 1999.

Thompson Trophy Racers: The Pilots and Planes of America's Air Racing Glory Days 1929-49.
by Roger Huntington.  Motorbooks International 1989.

The Golden Age of Air Racing.
by S.H. Schmid and Truman C. Weaver.  Times Printing Company, 1991.
note: this is source of the brief article linked above.

September Champions: The Story of America's Air Racing Pioneers.
by Robert Hull.   Stackpole Books, 1979. 

"Golden Anniversary of the Cleveland National Air Races." by Don Berliner.  Model Aviation
(September 1979)

"Fast Times Remembered" by Gene Smith.  Air Progress (November 1991).

These resources yield a wealth of photographs as can be seen from the samples below:


Continuing in our quest for photographs, but this time preferably in color, the following results are found on the internet.  These are all of the replica by Younkin:

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Is this the Real Ship?...or a Model?

The next step is to gather any technical drawings or plans you can find.   There are a number of published works (including aircraft specific titles such as are included in the list above) which provide plans and 3-view drawings of aircraft.   For a list of some which focus primarily on aircraft of the golden age visit my Bookshelf page.  There are also commercial vendors who offer a wide-range of plans and scale drawings.  Most of these are intended for scale modelers (especially builders of flying models).  And, of course, you can search the internet for free stuff.  For a list of plans and drawings resources, visit my page on the subject HERE.

Be aware though that 3-views, plans, and scale drawings for a given aircraft can vary widely in the amount of details and perspectives they provide.   The following examples illustrate this point:

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In addition to published materials, plans and photographs, you should also expand your search for other useful resources.  I'd like to suggest the following additional things which will help to "flesh out" the project:


Scale Modeling Sites on the Internet
Try searching the internet for scale modeling web sites.   Many of these sites offer reviews of aircraft kits, detailed studies of model designs, color schemes, and photographs of models in detail.  Some modeling sites showcase completed models by club members and spotlight recent modeling shows -- all of which provide a wealth of color photos of models taken from many angles.  Such details can be lacking or lost in old black & white photographs, and modern color photos of real aircraft do not always convey these details.  It is these details which truly help to complete a more accurate and attractive model. 

In addition to the details and photographs of the models, the modeling sites also provide useful information regarding paintings and color schemes.   If you are modeling a complicated model (and especially military aircraft) determining which colors are appropriate becomes a major concern.  Most painting instructions for models recommend that one use a particular manufacturer's paints, which are usually selected from that manufacturer's paint charts.  These model paints are usually created to match the FS.595 Paint Chart created years ago by the U.S. Federal government.  This chart, which predominantly is associated with military projects is also referenced for civilian colors.  Thus the same numbers referenced for the scale modeler's use, can prove just as useful for the virtual modeler; especially since several web sites now offer computer graphics equivalents to these colors.  I have written a brief discussion on aircraft colors and painting and paint charts HERE.

So, browsing the internet for modeling sites which discuss the Travel Air Mystery Ship provided the following results:

First, I found that the plastic model company TESTORS has a 1/48 scale series of models in the golden age era.  Included in the set is the Travel Air Mystery Ship.

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The usefulness of this find is as follows...one can visualize the shapes and organization of an aircraft more completely by examining the model.  One can determine appropriate colors with which to paint the model (I realize that the Mystery Ship requires basic color combinations, but the idea 

Airframe Colors (using spray paints):
    Red (#1203)
    Gloss Black (#1247))

Detail Colors (jar paints):
    Gray (#1138)
    Flat Black (#1149)
    Flat White (#1168)
    Flat Light Tan (#1170)
    Aluminum (#1181)
    Red (#1103)
    Black (#1147)


On another site I found a sample decal sheet:

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I found that a number of companies offer replica models of the Mystery Ship.  Such models are pre-assembled and are usually designed as desktop displays.  They are fairly accurate, and provide useful ideas for colors, and placement of details such as rigging...

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Mahogany Desktop Model by Sky Warriors (note the rigging details)


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A Wonderful Die cast Replica of the Texaco Travel Air from Ertl's series:
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Flying Scale Modeling web sites, of which there are many, can be useful for locating pictures and ideas for modeling...

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There are a number of well-known and dependably accurate aviation artists who have painted many aircraft from the golden age era.  Such paintings can help with appreciating the lines and appearance of the aircraft you are modeling.  In most cases it will reinforce what you have already learned from the resources cited above, but the painting may also help to

A search for paintings with the Travel Air planes as the subject revealed these three fine examples:

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by Koike Shigero

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by Charles Hubbell

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by Wayne Cutrell

So, there you have it.  I hope this article offered you a good idea as to how to research your project.  I do have one last bit of advice.  When searching the internet for your subject be creative.  Searching the internet is an art not a science.  There are many paths to finding your subject; not the least of which is serendipity!  Use as many variants on the spelling of the subject as possible.  Jumble the word order.  Use the singular and plural forms of the term.  Make use of the Boolean modifiers allowed by search engines (such as placing terms together within "  ", such as "Mystery Ship").  And, definitely make use of the "images" search feature of most search tools.  Well, you get the idea.  For this article I used numerous terms including:

Travel Air
Mystery Ship
Model R
Travel Air Mystery Ship
Doug Davis
National Air Races 1929
Air Racers


There now that you have all the materials you need all you have to do is start creating...simple...yeah right!  Well, that part I leave up to other experts who can offer advice regarding the best software to undertake this.  Good luck.  I hope to be flying your future virtual model some day soon.


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