Alfred W. Lawson came to Milwaukee in the spring of 1919 to obtain financial backing to build a large passenger—carrying air craft, which he labeled an "air liner". Lawson had formerly headed a company located in Green Bay, Wisconsin, which was organized during World War I to manufacture training planes for the U.S. Army. The war had ended before production of military aircraft could be started, so Lawson turned to the commercial side of aviation.

picture from patent filing

The Lawson Airliner was the largest commercial aircraft in 1919

Obtaining limited support, Lawson began manufacture of parts for an air liner at the Cream City Sash and Door Company on West Pierce Street. The airliner was assembled in the auto pavilion at State Fair Park and towed, minus wings, to the old Zimmerman farm at Lisbon Road and Lovers Lane Road, now Currie Park, which was the site of Milwaukee’s first municipal airport. Lawson had pre- viously convinced Mayor Hoan of the need for setting aside the area for an airfield.

On August 28 a trial flight was made to Ashburn Field, which was located on Chicago’s south side. The airliner was the largest commercial aircraft constructed in the United States at the time. It had a wingspan of 95 feet and its loaded weight was almost seven tons. It could accommodate 16 passengers and 2 pilots.

Elated by the performance of the aircraft, Lawson continued on to Toledo, Cleveland, Buffalo, Syracuse, New York and Washington D.C. While landing in Syracuse, with a female reporter as one of the eight passengers, the first accident occurred when one of the landing wheels dropped into a small ditch, and caused the airliner to pitch nose-down into the field. The slow speed at which the accident occurred saved the passengers from injury, and the crushed nose section of the craft was repaired on-site.

On September 13,flying from Syracuse to Long Island, the piane covered 312 miles in 2 hours 47 minutes, averaging 111 miles per hour and setting a record for an airplane of its size. A forced landing at Collinsville, Pa., because of severe weather over the Pennsylvanis mountains, again damaged the airliner. The craft was dismantled and shipped by rail to Dayton for repairs. On October 24 the trip was resumed with a flight to Speedway race track in Indianapolis, and a return to Milwaukee on November 14.

After the 2,000-mile journey, Lawson purchased the vacated Fisk Cornpany building at 9th and Menomonee Avenues in South Milwaukee to begin the manufacture of larger, more powerful airliners. The new design had a wingspan of 120 feet, and used three Liberty engines. The craft, dubbed “Midnight Liner” was designed for 24 passengers and a load of mail. The night version was to include sleeping berths and a shower bath.

On July 10, 1920, Lawson was awarded the first airmail contract ever awarded by the government to a private individual; $685,000 for the annual movement of airmail over three different eastern routes.

airliner nose down in field

The "Air Liner" nosed over in Syracuse during a 2,000 mile demonstration tour.

Delays, and the financial recession that began in the fall of 1920, taxed Lawson’s enterprise to the utmost to provide funds to meet payroll and other expenses. The first “Midnight Liner” was finally completed on December 9, 1920. Because of inclement weather, however, its maiden flight had to wait. Lawson’s efforts were turned to trying to hold off his creditors.

As the financial situation heightened, Lawson decided that he would fly his airliner from a space near the factory, rather than make a costly move to Hamilton Field (now Gen. Mitchell Field). The prepared strip was only about 300 feet long. After days of waiting for favorable wind conditions, Lawson finally gave the order to attempt flight on May 8th. The airborne carft did not clear an elm tree, causing the airliner to crash land. The pilots were unhurt but the airliner was never repaired. The company folded In 1922, and the assets were auctioned off.

The Lawson Air Liner is a famous craft due to its size and ambition as well as because of its flamboyant promoter. It will be remembered for a very long time.

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