She and the Flea: Both Eyes on the Sky, Both Feet on the Ground

It is a chapter in Fort Worth history that began, literally, with a wing and a prayer.

Well, okay, three wings.

Fort Worth has long been a center of aircraft production. Beginning, of course, with Consolidated Aircraft Corporation at 1 Lockheed Boulevard.

And Bell Helicopter at 3255 Bell Flight Boulevard.

And Globe Aircraft Corporation at 180 South Blue Mound Road.

And Universal Aircraft Company at 2826 East Vickery Boulevard.

Wait. What?

That’s right. An aircraft plant was located in what today is a house on East Vickery Boulevard just north of William James Middle School.

As you might guess, Universal Aircraft Company, unlike Consolidated, Bell, and Globe, was not a big company. In fact, as we shall see, ’twas no bigger than a Flea.

In August 1927 Cassell D. Hibbs, Clarence C. Holden, and Nathaniel T. Mazza chartered Universal Aircraft Corporation. Hibbs was an entrepreneur: He owned a rubber company, sold real estate and Black Diamond soil conditioner, and manufactured gold-finished derringers. Holden was an auto mechanic. Mazza was president of Fort Worth Macaroni Company. This eclectic trio had big plans for Universal Aircraft: a flying field, flying school, airplane mechanics school, and a plant to produce airplanes. Holden was building an airplane that would be the prototype for production.

Hibbs, Holden, and Mazza intended to capitalize on a fever that was epidemic in America in 1927: flying fever. Flying had captured the imagination of the country, just as the automobile and radio had earlier. In 1927 Fort Worth’s Meacham Field was just two years old. United Airlines was one year old. Pan American Airways had been founded in March. Just weeks before Universal Aircraft was chartered, Charles Lindbergh had made the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight. Before the end of the year, at least three more transatlantic flights would be made.

Soon after chartering Universal Aircraft, Hibbs, Holden, and Mazza began advertising sightseeing flights and flying lessons at “our field” at Lake Worth. The company said its first monoplane (with a single wing) would be on the field.

Universal Aircraft also made propellers for people who built their own airplanes. The propeller plant was a wood-frame building of 1,300 square feet at 2826 East Vickery Boulevard. Tarrant Appraisal District says the building was built in 1930. The company’s Clarence Holden and wife Lillian lived next door at 2816 in a house built in 1910. Both buildings still stand.

In that small wood-frame building at 2826 East Vickery Boulevard workers hand-sawed the lumber and carved the wooden propellers, selling them through the mail from Florida to Michigan.

Lillian Holden’s job in the company was purely clerical: She kept the books.

But that was about to change.

At some point in the mid-1930s Clarence and Lillian Holden divorced.

Also at some point in the mid-1930s Cassell Hibbs got an idea: Instead of making and selling just propellers for people who wanted to build their own airplanes, why not make and sell the entire airplane? He told Lillian Holden that he thought the two of them could design, build, and sell an airplane—in kit form—for just $100 (about $2,000 today). That was far less than the cost of most airplanes at the time.

Lillian Holden was intrigued by Hibbs’s idea.

“There were so many young men who wanted to buy airplanes then,” Holden recalled in an interview with the Fort Worth Press in 1962. “But they just didn’t have the dollars to buy them.”

Holden and Hibbs began studying aeronautics through magazines, correspondence courses—whatever could advance their understanding.

“We drew plans and read and talked to each other and read, and we studied books on aircraft. . . . Nobody helped us,” Holden recalled.

Holden was an unlikely aeronautical designer. She had dropped out of school after the tenth grade. She had no aeronautical training. She had never piloted an airplane. In fact, she told the Press in 1962: “I have never in my life been off the ground.”

“But I always had an inventive mind,” she recalled in an interview with the Star-Telegram in 1983.

Holden felt the weight of her undertaking. She recalled in 1983: “One night, after everybody had gone [from the plant on Vickery Boulevard], I got down on my knees and said, ‘Lord, now listen. Lord, you know I’ve always been afraid of airplanes. Don’t let me build one, not one that somebody gets hurt in. Now you look after it, Lord. I mean it.’”

Slowly, by trial and error, Holden and Hibbs designed and built their “little cheap airplane.”

Their original concept was a triplane. Triplanes, which had been flown since before World War I (Baron von Richthofen flew a triplane), were maneuverable and had low landing and stall speeds. Holden and Hibbs tinkered for months. They experimented with the plane’s center of gravity. They designed the three wings to be interchangeable to reduce costs. They experimented with the degree of stagger of the three wings. Their design had no ailerons on the trailing edges of the wings. Instead the plane used variable-incidence wings for roll control.

They also considered building a monoplane and a biplane but always returned to the triplane.

At last Holden and Hibbs had translated their blueprints into a prototype. The moment of truth had come. What Kitty Hawk was to the Wright brothers, Sycamore Park was to Holden and Hibbs: Their workers trucked the airplane’s fuselage and three wings to the nearby park to test the airplane’s maneuverability on the ground. They had no intention of trying to get the prototype into the air. They attached the wings. One of the men climbed into the tiny cockpit. Another spun the propeller. The motor coughed and caught. The man in the cockpit released the brakes, revved the engine. The plane moved.

It moved a lot.

“You just couldn’t keep it on the ground,” Holden recalled. “It would roll forward and then just seem to jump up into the air and sail along, come back to earth and then jump off again. I’ll never forget it. I stood there and watched it, and the tears just rolled down my face.”

Encouraged, Holden and Hibbs built a second airplane. This one they hoped to get into the air.

They did.

“Mr. Hibbs wanted to name it the Flea after he saw the first one hopping off the ground at Sycamore Park. There had been a Flea plane in Europe—it killed six people, so I insisted we call it the American Flea Ship.”

The European airplane to which Holden referred was Frenchman Henri Mignet’s Flying Flea, a biplane with staggered wings. Some aviation historians say the American Flea was adapted from Mignet’s 1933 design. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

Holden, encouraged by her success so far and despite keeping both feet on the ground, now dreamed of becoming the Henry Ford of aviation, of bringing affordable, simple, safe private airplanes to Americans. She was convinced that her Flea would suit amateur aviators to a (Model) T.

Universal Aircraft began to sell the Flea. Although Universal Aircraft built and sold a few ready-to-fly Fleas, the company mostly sold Fleas as kits. The company also sold plans for the Flea. Universal Aircraft began to advertise in aviation magazines: a free airplane with the purchase of a $135 ($2,400 today) motor.

Later deluxe models (with safety belt, windshield, upholstery, better fabric cover of any color) of the Flea sold for $375.

Holden’s Flea was built of metal, wood, and cloth. The frame was tubular steel. The Flea had a forty-horsepower Ford or a sixty-five-horsepower Continental motor, a wing span of twenty-one feet, a length of sixteen feet, an empty weight of 460 pounds. The airplane had one seat but could be adapted to seat two or three. The instrument panel contained only three or four instruments. The Flea could climb at six hundred feet a minute to a ceiling of twelve thousand feet and had a range of 225 miles. It could take off in one hundred feet or less of runway and land at thirty miles per hour. Maximum speed was one hundred miles per hour.

Universal Aircraft also sold airplane parts and supplies piecemeal. Need an air-cooled cylinder head to convert a Ford Model A motor to aviation use? $22.50. Need a gallon of nitrate dope to cover your airplane’s cloth surfaces? $1.85.

Lillian Holden and the assembly line of Universal Aircraft.

In addition to making and selling the Flea, in 1937 the company continued to make propellers. Note that the company made propellers for Harley and Indian motorcycle motors and Ford automobile motors. A motor could be sixty percent of the cost of building an airplane, and amateur builders often turned to motors intended for ground vehicles. (Wiley Post Aircraft Corporation was among companies building airplanes powered by converted Ford Model A motors.)

In April 1938 a new company with a familiar name—Universal Aircraft Company—was chartered with two familiar names: Hibbs and Holden. But this time the Holden was Lillian. She was credited as the designer and co-inventor of the Flea.

Lillian retained her ex-husband as an employee.

Also in 1938 Universal Aircraft Company patented the American Flea.

Lillian Holden believed in her invention. She claimed that the Flea would never nosedive. Also, because it was a triplane, she said, if the motor failed, the airplane would glide safely to ground.

“No one,” she told the Press in 1962, “has ever been killed while flying an American Flea Ship.”

The Flea also was simple to assemble, she said, “almost like a baby buggy.”

And the Flea was versatile: With the wings off and runners on instead of wheels, it became a motorized sled for ice or snow.

In fact, because freight rates for crated aircraft were much higher than for crated ice sleds, Holden and Hibbs shipped many Fleas marked as “ice sled.” Hibbs recalled that once on a New Orleans dock he was questioned about an ice sled marked for shipment to tropical Nicaragua. Only after Hibbs assured the questioner that Nicaragua is in Switzerland was the shipment approved.

Holden and Hibbs were able to process (assemble, disassemble, crate, and ship) about one Flea a week. They soon were receiving more orders than they could fill. Fleas were shipped to Canada, Mexico, South Africa, Asia, Europe. A Czechoslovakian pilot was so pleased with his Flea that he ordered fifty more, which he wanted to sell, and asked for the Flea franchise for his country.

“But we just couldn’t do it,” Holden said. “We didn’t have the money to mass produce the plane. We had orders from everywhere, but we couldn’t expand, and we couldn’t get a loan because we had no real collateral.

“They didn’t pay us enough, and all I’d get out of one plane was enough to build the next one,” Holden said.

Holden and Hibbs built and sold about four hundred Fleas.

“We were tired, Mr. Hibbs and I. We knew it was ready for somebody to take it over.”

So, Holden and Hibbs began looking for a manufacturer who could mass produce the Flea.

During more than forty years a few manufacturers were interested in or actually did buy the rights to the Flea, Holden said. For example, she said, Holden and Hibbs sold the rights to their design to Ace Aircraft Manufacturing Company.

To Holden’s consternation, Ace Aircraft never produced her design. After a long legal battle, Holden recovered the rights to her design. She bought out Cassell Hibbs’s share of the company, became the sole patent owner, and continued to seek financing elsewhere.

In 1952 Holden moved to 2809 Meadowbrook Drive.

In her new home Holden did business as American Tri-Plane Enterprise. Predictably, as a woman working in a “man’s field,” she encountered some strong headwinds. But she persevered. She sold “a good many” of her plans at $99.95. She estimated it would cost $2,000 to $3,000 to build her plane to Federal Aviation Administration specifications.

“I know it flies. I know it’s safe,” she said. “No other little plane can come anywhere near it. I’d be a fool to sit down and let it rot. And I’m not going to do it.”

She was proud when her airplane was featured on the cover of Trade-A-Plane magazine.

And in 1970 the American Aircraft Association presented her with a plaque recognizing her as the “aircraft designer and co-inventor of the American Flea.”

“I’m a co-inventor of this plane. Some people say, ‘Oh, what a nice souvenir.’ ‘Souvenir’ my eye. I want to get it going. I haven’t given it up by any means. I’m just slow because I’m alone. I just feel that it’s something that I can’t let go.”

But in 1970 the 1,300-square-foot plant of Universal Aircraft at 2826 East Vickery Boulevard was for sale, lock, stock, and propeller. The wood shop was later used to make dollhouses.

Holden continued to advertise the Flea, to sell plans, and to seek mass production.

By the time Lillian Holden was interviewed by the Star-Telegram in 1983, this aviation pioneer had flown all of two times in her ninety-two years.

But even at age ninety-two she retained an evangelistic zeal for her invention, convinced that with financing she and the Flea could bring flying to the general public.

“This plane has a history of forty years. Now, some people probably think, ‘Oh, that old woman don’t know what she’s doing’—those that don’t understand aircraft. I’m not after money. I want to give somebody something from my life. I want to give it to somebody, and they can get the FAA approval, and then they can build it on an assembly line. What I want to do before I pass out, the Lord willing, is to put this thing on the market like Ford did with his car. If it catches on, it’ll spread, just like cars did.

“It’s a fortune for somebody. People don’t want to buy those big, expensive planes. The country today—they’re begging for a cheap, light plane, and I’ve got it. And here I sit.”

Lillian Holden in 1983 at age ninety-two.

Lillian Holden died soon after her 1983 interview, her dream of becoming the Henry Ford of aviation unfulfilled. She is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery.

Her Flea was never mass produced.

But a few of Lillian Holden’s airplanes are still flying. Others are on display in museums. In fact, this one hangs from the ceiling of Vintage Flying Museum at Meacham Field.

FIFI and the Flea: At Vintage Flying Museum, above that yellow forklift the tiny Flea hangs next to the behemoth B-29 FIFI. The B-29’s ninety-nine-foot fuselage is long enough for the Flea to take off from. The length of the Flea’s fuselage and the diameter of the B-29’s four-blade propeller are the same: sixteen feet.

Farther afield, this Flea is in the Wings of a Dream Museum in Brazil. (Photos from Wikipedia.)

Such survivors are snapshots of a time when a Flea and even a woman who had both feet on the ground could reach the sky.

(Thanks to Earl Belcher for the tip and to the staff of Vintage Flying Museum for the assistance.)

Posts About Fort Worth’s Aviation History

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