Bert Kinner: Mechanical Wizard

Bert Kinner had a vision: He believed that private flying would be popular with millions of Americans...

Cora kept the books, supervised help, and hosted visiting guests. She was a familiar sight at the airfield, witnessing her husband’s test flights and the occasional accident. She took it all in stride. When their family business expanded they moved. When it failed, they moved. The Kinner household and factory were uprooted 10 times between 1915 and 1939. Cora outlived her famous husband by 25 years. “She never remarried after Bert’s death,” says Underwood.

The ups and the downs
Between 1919 and 1923 Kinner concentrated on building aircraft, the first being a biplane, the Kinner Airster, powered by a 60-hp Lawrence L2 engine. His “factory” was a former horse stable. By 1921 he was surrounded by females at Kinner Airport. In addition to his wife and daughter, he had a business hand-shake relationship with Neta Snook (“Snookie”) a mechanic, and sometimes flying instructor. Her ad at the field for “joyrides” drew in customers. Her student pilot was Amelia Earhart. In her biography of Earhart, Doris Rich observes, “Kinner saw nothing odd in a woman like Neta using his field for her Curtiss Canuck. She knew planes. She pumped gas and fixed shocks. She earned her keep.”

When Earhart showed up for flying lessons Donna recalls her mother wasn’t impressed by the skinny young woman in saddle shoes who had not yet become famous. “When mom asked Amelia what she liked to eat, she said ‘pork chops’. Mom cooked them, but grumbled about it.” Bert Kinner had a higher appreciation for Earhart than Cora. Earhart bought her first plane from Bert, the modified Airster, which she painted yellow and called the Canary. Kinner made it easy for Earhart to barter for repairs and hangar space on her meager income. She flew Kinner’s aircraft and later suggested improvements to his engine designs. Flying the Canary, she first entered the record books in 1921 reaching the women’s world altitude of 14,000 feet.
So comfortable was Kinner with women in aviation that a 1922 ad for his Airster ran this testimonial by Earhart: “A Lady’s Plane as Well as a Man’s.”
Although the Airster flew well, the high cost of engines inherently raised the price out of reach and sale orders were flat. “The price of an engine was the bugaboo,” says Underwood. Kinner focused on making an engine with a lower price tag, which would thereby make airplanes cheaper to buy.

The Kinners hung on through this period which Underwood describes as “R&D, mostly expense with little income.” They rented their home and moved into part of the hangar, and they rented the rest to airplane owners. While struggling to keep afloat, Kinner’s creative mind and spirit were unhampered. Impressed with European air-cooled engines built for use in WWI, he adapted them to tooling and tried to manufacture them inexpensively enough to go into production. Instead, says Underwood, “Only a few of the three-cylinder, 60-hp Kinners were built between 1922-1924. It was an excellent engine, but the scheme to economize on manufacturing didn’t work.”

Still optimistic, Kinner moved his hangar operations to the new Glendale Municipal Airport property and produced a less expensive version of the Airster, which created the buzz in aviation he had hoped for.

Again, sales were not forthcoming, and things looked grim but fate intervened in the form of a wealthy client who commissioned Kinner to build the one-of-a-kind Argonaut. Basically an Airster with a 200-hp Renault V-8 engine, the Argonaut made headlines (in 1924) when it transported couples through their wedding vows, becoming known as the “Honeymoon Special.” Kinner’s name was becoming well known, his Airster monoplane was in production, and the airport could always depend upon weekend tourists eager for a $5 air tour, or a drop-in student for a $10 flying lesson. Despite this progress, the business was precariously functioning, and it did not take much to tip the scales.

During 1925 the Kinner family’s finances and spirits were challenged with two debilitating events.

The man Rich describes as “restless . . . intent on the job at hand” became so ill with intestinal difficulties that he couldn’t work. With no income, Cora laid off employees and closed the shop.

Were this not bad enough, while Kinner convalesced, all his tools and supplies were stolen. With no insurance coverage, about all that was left of the business was the Kinner Airport sign.

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