- The disappearing Brazil Lion
The Brazil of 1931 was still feeling the effects of the Depression as the Chamber of Commerce struggled to create more business for the town and jobs for its citizens.
The city, its officials and the community was looking for opportunities for the new year.
They found one in a Chicago inventor, bursting with ambition, who arrived with a briefcase full of plans, patents and ideas in late December.
H. Knowlton showed the Chamber of Commerce and many prominent businessmen the plans for a monoplane. Designed for flight training purposes, it would have more features on it than planes twice its price.
Extremely innovative for its time, the plane would have shock absorbers, a wheel on the tail fin instead of a skid, front wheel brakes, dual flight controls and landing lights which were only found on commercial aircraft at the time.
The plans and patents were good, but what sold everyone was the prototype Knowlton brought to town on the back of a truck. The Brazil Times hailed the demonstration as an "unqualified success" in a Jan. 11, 1932 article.
With open arms the Brazil Aircraft Corporation was welcomed to the area. Frantic production began in the plant located east of town to complete one functioning aircraft before the Detroit Aircraft Show.
The plane, painted by local artist Roy Muncie, was put on display March 11 of that year for area citizens. It was a great way to get the community motivated to buy stocks in the new corporation. In other attempts to attract attention, a siren was attached to the plane and blared out from the sky as it flew overhead. The public scrambled to buy 60 shares for $100 a share.
Knowlton, his assistant and the Secretary of the Brazil Chamber of Commerce H.B. Wiltse and his wife traveled to Detroit on April 2 with the plane.
The "Brazil Lion" was greeted with enthusiasm by the aviation industry. Engineers took detailed drawings of the small apple green plane while asking questions of Knowlton. Industry leaders scratched their heads at why they hadn't come up with some of the ideas themselves.
While the aviation industry looked over the Brazil Lion in Detroit, a strange thing happened back home.
In the evening hours of April 5, two men from Chicago were caught "borrowing" from the shop at the Brazil Aircraft Corporation plant. When questioned by authorities, Andrew Leher and Wilbur Laher insisted their former employer had told them they could take whatever they wanted. The two men had previously worked for Knowlton in Illinois.
At the time, the incident was overlooked in the excitement surrounding the interest in the locally built plane.
More than a dozen orders had to be turned down during the Detroit event because the plane did not have a federal license at the time.
Major aviation magazines expressed interest in highlighting the small plane in upcoming issues as soon as the license was acquired.
Famous test pilots of the day like B.P. Vlast volunteered to test the plane free of charge just for the opportunity to fly the Brazil Lion.
All the hoopla made the decision by the Brazil Chamber of Commerce to further financial backing of the project an easy one.
Testing to acquire the federal license was sped up as a second plane neared completion. The first test flight was held successfully at the Hulman Airport. Excitement was growing as another inventor, Mr. Poyer from Kansas City, showed interest in building his innovative engine, which had won both altitude and speed records in its classification, in Brazil.
Spring and early summer of 1932 created hopes in many people's minds that Brazil could become a new industrial center of the profitable aviation business world.
In mid-July the inventor and an automobile with a trailer containing the airplane disappeared.
Two weeks later, Knowlton was found in Bedford, Ind., trying to interest businessmen in financing the manufacture of the plane in their city. He had hidden the plane in an abandoned house before turning up in Bedford.
It was learned that H. Knowlton was only one of several aliases the inventor was known to use and he had been charged with automobile banditry and petty larceny. He was acquitted, but it was enough to raise a few eyebrows.
Officers of the Brazil Aircraft Corporation insisted that these problems were not going to have an effect on the future of the plant, but they were wrong.
The Brazil Lion fell on hard times after that.
At one point the plane that held such great promise was traded for a used car at an auto dealership in Muncie. Les Chamness loved flying and was happy to take the plane in trade, although he had never heard of a Lion before.
Neither had the group of pilots at the Muncie Airport he was friends with.
The Delaware Flyers were happy to get their hands on the little green plane; especially Robert McDaniels who logged 90 minutes of flight time on the Lion during the time it was with the group.
"If only production of the Brazil Lion had taken place, it is unknown what its place in aviation history would have been," said Orvis Knarr, author of an upcoming book about Robert McDaniels and The Delaware Flyers. The book highlights a brief portion of the plane's history while in their possession. "That plane could have put Brazil on the map."