Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Albin "Birdman" Longren - Aviation Pioneer in Aircraft Design

 By Mary Dodge Allen

Albin K. Longren (Kansas Historical Society)

In 1912, he was designing and building better airplanes than the Wright brothers and Curtiss.

And yet... Albin K. Longren - a self-taught mechanical engineer, who obtained several U.S. patents for aircraft design innovations - never achieved the widespread recognition he deserved.

Albin Kasper Longren was born in 1882 in Leonardville, Kansas. He was one of eight children of Swedish immigrant farmers. As a young man, Albin worked as a hardware dealer and became known as a handyman with a natural mechanical aptitude.

Albin Longren's motorcycle (Air & Space Magazine)

In 1904, at age 22, Albin built an impressive motorcycle, using only spare parts he'd salvaged. (It was the same year William Harley and Arthur Davidson tested their first motorcycle.)

One year later, Albin constructed an entire automobile from spare parts. It ran so well, it impressed the editor of the Leonardville Monitor, who wrote: 

"He made the car from practically nothing and it worked like a charm... Mr. Longren is quite a genius."

In 1910, a Curtiss pusher plane crashed at a Topeka air show. The pilot walked away, but his plane needed repairs. He'd heard about Albin's mechanical ability and asked for his help. While repairing the plane, Albin studied its construction and decided he could build a better one.

In less than a year, Albin designed and built a better airplane, with the help of his brother E.J. and his friend, William Janicke. Albin named the finished plane, "Topeka I."

"Topeka I" with Albin Longren as pilot (Kansas Historical Society)

On September 2, 1911, they rolled the plan into a field. With Albin at the controls, the plane took off and flew several hundred feet. After more test flights, he increased the distance to a few miles.

Even Albin was surprised at how well his plane performed. He said: 

"I had never sat in any other airplane, or received any instructions from anyone experienced in flying... The plane was also an unknown quantity because its balance and airworthiness was a big question."

Days later, Albin flew the "Topeka I" over a crowd at Topeka's state fairgrounds and then circled over the state capitol dome before landing. Word spread, and soon Albin was conducting barnstorming flights at state fairs and other events across the Midwest, earning up to $350 at each event. 

Barnstorming Poster (Kansas Historical Society)

He became known by the nickname, "Birdman" Longren. 

While at a barnstorming event in Minneapolis, Albin met Dolly Trent. It was love at first sight, and they married soon after.

Using money earned barnstorming and money from investors, Albin started an aircraft company in Topeka. Dolly played an active role in the company. She was described as a bubbly, outgoing counterpart to her stern, reserved husband. She thought up clever marketing slogans, like: 

"Watch it climb, see it fly, you'll own a Longren, by and by."

Albin and Dolly Longren, circa 1914 (Kansas Historical Society)

Albin designed and built ten different aircraft models, all acknowledged for their high quality. But the company went bankrupt in 1917, due to his slow, meticulous manufacturing procedures.

During WWI, Albin was hired by the U.S. Army, as Chief Inspector of aircraft for the Aviation Research and Development Center, at McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio.

After the war, he returned to Topeka and formed another aircraft company.

A.K. Longren Aircraft Works, (Kansas Historical Society)

Albin designed a more advanced plane, dubbed the "Longren AK." This two-seater biplane had folding wings and a strong fuselage constructed with an innovative, vulcanized fiber. The "AK" flew extremely well, setting a record of 38 consecutive loops, winning a 100-mile airplane race, and achieving an altitude of 18,800 feet.

"Longren AK" (Kansas Historical Society)

The "Longren AK" attracted the U.S. Navy's attention because its strong fuselage was bullet-proof. The Navy purchased three of them for testing at McCook Field. Test pilot J.B. Kneip wrote: 

"They are as sweet a small craft as I ever piloted... I think the Navy Dept. has finally found its airplane."

But Naval officials doubted the company could produce the number of planes they needed, because Albin's perfectionism often disrupted production. Without the Navy contract, the company went bankrupt in 1926.

The Longren marriage had remained childless. During this second bankruptcy, Dolly filed for divorce. Their parting wasn't bitter, but they never saw each other again. Dolly moved to New York City and became a successful antiques dealer.

For several years, Albin worked as a design consultant for various aircraft manufacturers. In 1932, he formed yet another company and built a sleek aluminum biplane, dubbed the "New Longren." 

Albin Longren with his "New Longren" (Kansas Historical Society)

Its 120-mph Martin engine was featured in the February 1933 issue of Aviation Engineering. But after building only three planes, his third company folded.

In 1935, Cessna Aircraft Company hired Alvin Longren as its vice president. It is said he helped design the Cessna T-50, a twin-engine transport plane.

Albin left Cessna in 1938 and established his fourth and last company, Longren Aircraft. It became remarkably successful, manufacturing innovative fuselages, bulkheads and other parts for WWII-era aircraft companies, such as: Douglas Aircraft; Lockheed; Boeing and Northrup.

In 1945, Albin sold his company and retired at the age of 63. He purchased a 3,000 acre ranch in northern California and lived there until his death in 1950.

Albin K. Longren's accomplishments were impressive, especially when you consider he was a self-taught engineer and aircraft designer. What amazes me the most, is that he built his first airplane and then flew it at barnstorming events, with no previous aviation training at all!

Have you ever heard of him? What amazes you the most?


Mary Dodge Allen is the winner of a 2022 Christian Indie Award, a 2022 Angel Book Award, and two Royal Palm Literary Awards (Florida Writer's Association). She and her husband live in Central Florida, where she has served as a volunteer with the local police department. Her childhood in Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, sparked her lifelong love of the outdoors. She has worked as a Teacher, Counselor and Social Worker. Her quirky sense of humor is energized by a passion for coffee and chocolate. She is a member of the Florida Writer's Association, American Christian Fiction Writers and Faith Hope and Love Christian Writers. 

Mary's novel: Hunt for a Hometown Killer won the 2022 Christian Indie Award, First Place - Mystery/Suspense; and the 2022 Angel Book Award - Mystery/Suspense.

Click the link below to buy Hunt for a Hometown Killer at

Link to Mary's Spotlight Interview:   Mary Dodge Allen Author Spotlight EA Books


  1. Thank you for posting today. I haven't heard of this man. I think what surprises me the most is that no one who loved his planes offered to come along side him and help him with the business aspect. I think he could have done well with a partner. But I'm no business person...

  2. Hi Connie, I agree with you. He had so much engineering talent, but he didn't have the skill to run the business aspect of his companies.