The Early Days of Commercial Aviation in Cleveland II: Thompson Aeronautical Corporation
Updated: Aug 11, 2021
Another early pioneer in Cleveland’s aviation history was the Thompson Aeronautical Corporation (TAC), a subsidiary of the Thompson Products Inc., founded by Charles Thompson, in 1900, as the Cleveland Cap Screw Company. It began by manufacturing automotive parts, but the company came to even greater prominence as an important supplier of aircraft engine parts, first for French military planes during the First World War, then for airplanes used in many other groundbreaking, historic flights by the likes of Charles Lindbergh (1927 Atlantic crossing), Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith (1928 Pacific crossing), and Commander Richard E. Byrd (various transpolar flights in 1926, 1929, and 1933). The Thompson Trophy race at the National Air Races was also sponsored by the company.
Thompson's fortunes would grow even more during WW II and afterwards by winning many defense contracts and becoming involved with jet engine technology and aerospace projects. Thompson merged with the Ramo-Wooldridge Corp. of California in 1958, officially becoming TRW, Inc., a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Cleveland. TRW was purchased by military contractor Northrop Grumman in 2002.
Thompson Aeronautical's role in the growing commercial aviation business in the 1920s was also quite significant. It would later become one of the constituent carriers of American Airlines in 1933. However, before then, the Cleveland-based company would make its mark on the aviation history of Northeast Ohio and the Great Lakes region.
Thompson Aeronautical Corporation was organized in July 1926, and offered Cleveland (and perhaps the nation) its first air taxi service in August 1927, “anywhere in the United States, day or night.” About 6,000 Clevelanders waited to try out the new aerial taxis on August 21, at Cleveland Municipal Airport. Thompson’s new hangar to house its fleet of six aircraft was still under construction at the time and did not open until September 24, 1927. The hangar had a single span and measured seventy by one hundred feet and contained the ticket counter and administrative offices of TAC.
The company also provided a number of other aviation services including flight instruction, aircraft repair and storage, distribution of Stinson planes, and government airmail with terminals in Detroit and Chicago, as well as providing hangar services for other early airlines, including Colonial Western Airways (which also would become part of American Airlines) which operated from Cleveland to Buffalo.
Thompson obtained one of the early Contract Air Mail routes (CAM 27) from the U.S. Post Office Department, offering service on a Chicago-Muskegon-Bay City-Pontiac, MI, route, starting service on July 17, 1928, with 6 Stinson Detroiter aircraft.
On April 1, 1929, a second route from Bay City to Cleveland, via Detroit, was opened for overnight airmail, and on May 14, 1929, a passenger service was introduced across Lake Erie, connecting the waterfronts of Detroit and Cleveland with frequent flights on Keystone-Loening C-2H Air Yacht amphibians, which could land on either land or water (for added safety).
The notable pilot of this first flight was none other than Amelia Earhart, accompanied by pilot Ralph R. DeVore. The flight took off from Cleveland and was forced down by fog to the choppy waters of Lake Erie near Pelee Island, Ontario, Canada. The plane rode the waves near the Canadian shore until the fog lifted three hours later. The aircraft then took off for the final leg to Detroit (see map below). The six passengers on board, including the son of Thompson’s Chairman, Edwin De Groot Thompson, “bewailed their lack of cigarettes and food.” However, the company said after the rocky flight it proved the safety of their service.
The 90-mile flights typically took 55 minutes and proved extremely popular, particularly with businesspeople. This service was in competition with Stout Air Services, which used Ford Tri-Motor land planes on the route, and later became part of United Airlines (see https://www.aviationcle.com/post/the-not-so-friendly-skies-united-airlines-and-cle-part-1-the-early-years). From July 17, passenger services were added to the Michigan routes as well.
According to a Thompson advertisement from the time, the Keystone-Loening C-2H Air Yachts, called “ducks” by their pilots, offered “America’s Most Convenient Air Line,” with 4 to 6 flights daily, except Sunday, when a reduced schedule of two flights as well as sightseeing excursions, were offered for $2.50 ($40.67 today). The regular tariff was $15.00 each way ($244.04 today). Its Cleveland terminal was at the foot of East 9th Street, while its Detroit dock was on the Detroit River, just east of the Belle Isle Bridge. Apparently, passengers boarded and cargo and fuel were loaded while the aircraft was parked on land. The plane then entered the water for takeoff.
The unusual, single-engine amphibious plane seated six passengers in its enclosed, “well ventilated” cabin, with a pilot and a copilot, was radio equipped, carried 500 pounds of baggage, mail and express, had a maximum speed of 130 MPH, and a range of 500 miles. Only four of these aircraft were ever build, however.
This was the second time that flying boats operated the Cleveland to Detroit route, after Aeromarine attempted such service during the summers of 1922 and 1923 (for a more detailed discussion of this pioneering experiment in early passenger service, see https://www.aviationcle.com/post/the-early-days-of-commercial-aviation-in-cleveland-before-cle-aeromarine-airways). The official “navigation season” on Lake Erie ended in October and resumed in April. During that period, only Stout flew the Cleveland to Detroit overland route.
By spring 1930, the Cleveland-Detroit route was the most frequent air route in the United States with nine daily flights (5 on TAC and 4 on Stout), a huge increase from the one daily flight begun in late 1927. The next busiest routes were Los Angeles to San Francisco with 8 daily flights, and Miami to Havana, Cuba, with 7 flights.
From June 26, 1930, TAC experimented with Packard diesel-powered Stinson mail planes, and during that year added several other stops in northern Indiana to its route system. On November 11, 1929, an important 225-mile extension of the passenger service was made as far as Buffalo (per REG Davies, but this is not indicated in any timetable I have found).
At the beginning of 1931, the airline-operating side of Thompson Aeronautical became a subsidiary of the parent company and operated under the name of Transamerican Airlines Corporation (TAC). The airline’s headquarters moved to Detroit on March 1, 1932, after the City of Detroit approved a lease for 3,000 square feet at the Detroit City Airport administration building. The airline cited the city’s central location on the airline’s route system as the reason for the move.
Strangely enough, Transamerican obtained a 75-year concession from the Icelandic government for landing rights on the island in March 1932. Whether or not it ever intended to fly to Europe with its Air Yachts is unclear. However, Pan American Airways, on April 15, 1932, paid Transamerican $5,000 to develop the route, and in July of that year, paid a further $55,000 (for a total of about $1.2 million today) for the complete landing rights in Iceland.
By mid-1932, Transamerican was also operating an “overland” route between Cleveland (Municipal Airport) and Detroit (City Airport) via Toledo twice daily. This service took one hour twenty minutes and was operated by 12-passenger, radar and toilet equipped Ford Tri-Motor aircraft. TAC still offered four daily amphibian flights in season from downtown Cleveland to Detroit on the “De Luxe Trans-Lake Erie Route,” which were quicker and commanded a higher fare ($10.75 [$213 today] vs. $8.95 [$177 today]).
American Airways bought Thompson, including its airmail contract, in January 1933. To conform with the law, this CAM route was subleased to American by Thompson Aeronautical Corporation, which remained a paper company with an authorized capital at one cent per share to save taxes.
This gave American a through route from Buffalo to Chicago. It also acquired Martz Airlines at the end of 1932 finally giving American a route from Buffalo to New York City. This set up a battle between the big three airline companies, American, TWA (via Columbus) and United Air Lines (through its inheritance of NAT, via Cleveland), on the New York-Chicago route, the most important air route in the nation.
Main sources for information and photos.
Airlines of the United States Since 1914, R.E.G. Davies, 1998.
Brief History of Aviation in Cleveland. The Story of Cleveland Hopkins and Burke Lakefront Airports. Department of Port Control, City of Cleveland, Unpublished draft from January 1997.
Cleveland: The Making of a City, William Ganson Rose, Second Edition, 1990.
Timetable Images website: http://www.timetableimages.com.
For Part I of this series on the early days of commercial aviation in Cleveland, click here: https://www.aviationcle.com/post/the-early-days-of-commercial-aviation-in-cleveland-before-cle-aeromarine-airways