Winfield Bertrum “Bert” Kinner imagined that if he could produce aircraft cheaply enough they would be as common as the family car. In 1926 the new Air Commerce Act required licensing of both pilots and mechanics, restricting this futuristic plan. Nevertheless, the 1930s “Golden Age” of aviation was ready for Kinner’s improved and less costly aircraft and engines. There were a lot of “ups and downs” along the way.
During several months of 1925 Bert Kinner was too ill to work, and a thief broke into his hangar stealing all of his tools and spare parts. Bert Kinner and Kinner Airport in East Los Angeles were out of business — but not for long.
Although he was physically ill, Bert Kinner had an unsuppressed healthy imagination. During recuperation, he focused on designing an air-cooled, five-cylinder radial engine. He called it the K2. John Underwood, an aviation historian and friend of the Kinner family, describes the tense moments the following year (1926) when the K2 was first tested with only family present “in case it was a flop.”
“Despite financial adversity, Bert made steady progress with his five-cylinder K2 radial, and the prototype was finally ready for testing. Anxious to avoid unfavorable publicity . . . he rigged a test stand inside the hangar and closed the doors . . . Methodically, Bert checked the battery ignition and primed the cylinders. He then unbuttoned his vest and rolled up his sleeves. Grasping one blade with both hands he swung the propeller with a practiced wind-up and stepped back. There were a couple of feeble chugs as the prop arced through two or three jerky revolutions. Then one cylinder fired a healthy charge and the wooden Hamilton propeller became a whirling disc. The beat quickened as each cylinder cleared itself and began firing in sequence. Lee Brusse [Bert’s brother-in-law] advanced the throttle and the little tin hangar resounded to the cacaphonic clatter of five pistons working in unison. For a family of dedicated experimenters it was a time for jubilation.”
The K2 evolved with help from Leslie Harold (“Les”) Bowman into the 100-hp K5; the first in a long line of five-cylinder Kinner radials. Les and his wife, Martie, were both pilots, and Bert Kinner’s daughter, Donna Kinner Hunter, remembers them being her parent’s closest friends. When the K5 was ready for testing at the Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C., Kinner sent the engine by train in Bowman’s care. Running for 500 consecutive hours on the test stand hand-built by Bowman, the K5 was approved for production. With open arms, the aircraft industry welcomed the new affordable and reliable “Kinner Five.”
As the WWI OX5 engines began to wear out, the K5 took its place on the nose of war surplus aircraft. Three dozen aircraft manufacturers ordered Kinner engines including (Consolidated) Fleet, Fairchild, and Travel Air. The Kinner family business hired dozens of employees and went into full production.
The downs and ups
While engine sales grew, Kinner continued marketing the Airster and designed an open cockpit monoplane, the Kinner Coupe. A dealership for Kinner’s Airster was picked up by a firm in Massachusetts where Amelia Earhart held a part-time job at the Dennison airport. As they had previously done in California, Kinner and Earhart struck a mutually beneficial bargain. For the use of his aircraft, she became Kinner’s sales representative.
During this time Earhart corresponded with Kinner suggesting improvements to his airframes and engines. Their smooth working relationship would probably have continued for years had she not been selected to become the first woman to fly as a passenger across the Atlantic. Thereafter Earhart and Kinner remained friends with occasional chance encounters for hangar flying. In 1928 Earhart made an overnight visit to the Kinner home in Glendale.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, Kinner reorganized the Kinner Company with outside funding, and moved to 2 ½ acres near the Glendale Airport. Once again Cora did the bookkeeping and the children pitched in to help.
Past Contact: Mary Solbrig Gia Koontz writes regularly for AMT magazine usually about aviation mechanics from the early years. This is a beautiful article about a female mechanic from long...