Making Airplanes in Miami

Interesting Local Characters, Miami Businesses

Edward DeChenne was born in Illinois in 1870. By 1905, he had relocated to southwest Missouri. His trades were blacksmith and machinist, and this made him valuable to the mining industry.

In 1910, he moved to Joplin. There, he became familiar with two Monett businessmen, Ulysses S. Barnsley and Judge Ludwell B. Durnil. Barnsley owned a successful cutlery factory, Durnil was likewise a blacksmith. All three men shared a passion for flying.

DeChenne’s first airplane, 1910. Photo courtesy of the Monett Times

Dechenne airplane engine. Water cooled, direct drive, made of aluminum. Courtesy of the Monett Times

DeChenne invented and produced an all-aluminum airplane engine. He also designed aluminum framing for a plane. Aluminum, only recently made affordable by advancement in refinement techniques, was lightweight, perfect for aviation.

In June, 1910, DeChenne and his partners built their first plane at the Joplin Machine Works. The machine used the aluminum engine with the propeller directly connected to the shaft. On July 3, it successfully flew, staying about five feet up for nearly six minutes. An August flight, with a man named E.H. Simpson at the controls, ended with a crash from which Simpson walked away.

By 1911, the men had moved their manufacturing facilities to Monett, and had a second generation plane built and ready to test. Since very few men had ever flown, nerves of steel were found acceptable in lieu of experience. They found such a brave man in Edward Wilson, formerly a trapeze artist and hot air balloonist. Wilson would shoot himself out of a cannon from a balloon 5000 feet up and parachute to the ground. On March 8 of that year, Wilson successfully piloted the DeChenne airplane in Joplin. The flight took place at present-day Shifferdecker Park, and ended with a successful crash, i.e. Wilson walked away. A few weeks later, Wilson again took the plane up, handled a stall instinctively, and landed smoothly.

Logan McKee in the second generation DeChenne, 1911. Photo courtesy of the Monett Times

Another test flight was scheduled for July 4 that year in Monett. This time, DeChenne went with Logan McKee as the pilot. McKee was a Monett pharmacist who had been commissioned to take photos of the plane. When he expressed a desire to pilot it, DeChenne and his partners took him up on the offer.

Logan McKee about to take off on July 4, 1911, Monett, Missouri. Photo courtesy of the Monett Times

The flight was successful. That was followed by more demonstrations across the four state area as well as Texas. These flights too frequently resulted in crashes, but no deaths were ever attributed to the airplane.

DeChenne airplane in flight over Miami, 1911

Included in the barnstorming tour was Miami. A three-day festival celebrating the Farmer’s Institute in July of 1911 resulted in several successful flights, often meaning walk-away crashes.

1959 article about the 1911 flying exhibition. Click to enlarge.

McKee was known for making flights of perhaps 50 feet in the air, landing, and manually turning the plane around for returns. The article above explains the unusual flight technique. But while these bunny hops were being performed, Wright and Curtiss planes were achieving altitudes of 2000 feet, maneuvering with ease.

1929 News-Record article giving history of the Robinson-DeChanne plant

Later that year, DeChenne moved his factory to Miami. He teamed up with S.D. “Doc” Robinson to create the Robinson-DeChenne Aero-Plane & Motor Co., located on NW 3rd, not far from the river. The next year, in 1912, a DeChenne plane was manufactured in Miami. It flew successfully at a July 4th exhibition in town.

But the planes DeChenne made weren’t competitive with those offered by Curtiss and the Wrights. Tired of losing money, DeChenne opened up a machine shop in town, eventually settling in at 210 S Main, in a building that still stands. Robinson kept going as Robinson Aviation.

Edward DeChenne obituary, February 11, 1935

He died on February 10, 1935. Curiously, his obituary implies that he first entered the airplane building trade as a result of the 1912 aerial demonstration. Whether this was poor journalism or done to avoid lawsuits from former partners is not known.

The Robinson-DeChenne factory history, 1928

As the article above outlines, Doc Robinson went on to manufacture at least 25 more planes at a facility near Commerce. He died on March 8, 1930, and thus ended Miami’s airplane manufacturing. His field north of town continued to function for a time as the area’s only airstrip.

By the time the city airport opened in 1931, airplanes had been manufactured here for nearly 20 years. Add to that the Spartan Aviation School we had during and after WWII, and Miami can boast of a strong history of flying. But it all began in Joplin in 1910, with a man named Edward DeChenne.

3 thoughts on “Making Airplanes in Miami

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *