During her years as secretary-treasurer, Olive Ann was particularly close to the financial side of the company and played a key role in major company decisions. She convinced her husband Walter that winning a 1936 Bendix coast-to-coast speed dash would be even more impressive if the aircraft, a Staggerwing C17R, had a woman as its pilot. Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes flashed across the Los Angeles finish line to win the Bendix trophy in a record 14 hours and 44 minutes after departing from New York.
- Formed the Beech Aircraft Company with her husband Walter.
- In 1934 they introduced the Beechcraft Staggerwing biplane to serve corporate and airline needs.
- During World War II she temporarily headed the company while her husband was ill and delivered various military aircraft.
- As chairwoman of the board and president of the corporation following her husband’s death, the company became involved in the space program.
- Was known as the “First Lady of Aviation” because she earned more awards, honorary appointments, and special citations than any woman in aviation history.
Twenty year old Olive Ann Mellor began her aviation career in 1924 as an office secretary and bookkeeper for the newly-formed Travel Air Manufacturing company in Wichita, Kansas. The company’s head was Walter Beech, who was intent on building the world’s finest aircraft. Though at first Mellor knew little about airplanes, she familiarized herself with every part of them by the time the first travel air biplane was produced. Beech and his team had proven the worth of the planes by taking the first three places in the 1925 Ford reliability tour.
Meanwhile, Mellor learned the airplane business from the ground up, and soon became office manager and secretary to Walter Beech. She was extremely proud upon the unveiling of the first travel air cabin monoplane in 1926. She was also proud when these planes became world famous after the Woolaroc won the $25,000 Dole race from California to Hawaii. Such successes spurred sales, and Travel Air soon became the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial aircraft. Even air hero Charles Lindbergh, came to admire the Travel Air.
By 1929, Olive Ann had played a vital behind-the-scenes-role when the speedy Travel Air “Mystery Ship” won the first Thompson Trophy Race, thus becoming the first civilian plane to defeat the fastest military fighters in open competition. One of the most important events in Olive Ann’s life came when she married Walter Beech. Their union was more than a conventional marriage: they soon dug deep into their savings to form the Beech Aircraft Company in 1932. Walter was president and she was secretary-treasurer. With a handful of employees, they went to work in rented quarters to design and build the finest airplanes in the world.
Their first airplane was a luxurious cabin biplane featuring negatively staggered wings, which quickly earned it the name “Staggerwing.” After it made its maiden flight, it was sold to the Ethyl Corporation and proved itself by winning the Texaco Trophy Race. Even so, Olive Ann and Walter dug deeper into their savings to further perfect the plane. Finally, in early 1934, they introduced three models of their Beechcraft Staggerwing, which featured a deluxe cabin, a fully retractable landing gear, excellent pilot visibility, and speed greater than the fastest military plane of the day. This model gave rise to the saying “It takes a Beechcraft to beat a Beechcraft!”
Seeking ways to promote sales, Olive Ann suggested that the entry of a woman in the 1936 transcontinental Bendix Trophy Race would demonstrate the easy flying qualities of the Staggerwing. Her idea proved to be an excellent one, for Louise Thaden not only competed against the nation’s best male pilots, but won the coveted Bendix. All-in-all, twenty different model Staggerwings would be produced through 1948, and enthusiastic owners around the world still fly many of them. To meet growing needs, Olive Ann and Walter incorporated their company in 1936, and purchased the Travel Air plant in Wichita. Now at last, Beech Aircraft had a home of its own!
In 1937, Olive Ann and Walter rolled out a new kind of Beechcraft, the “Twin Beech.” It was an immediate success and soon was being used all over the world, as well as by the Air Corps. By 1940, the Beeches’ aircraft company had become highly successful, but suddenly Walter fell desperately ill. Olive Ann rallied the company at a time when it needed forceful leadership. With the eruption of World War II in Europe, demands for warplanes were skyrocketing. Already the Chinese were using Staggerwings as ambulances, and Twin Beeches as bombers in their struggle against the invading Japanese. Even the Army Air Corps converted the Staggerwing into a military transport.
To meet the tremendous military backlog, Olive Ann obtained $83 million in loans for plant expansion, and by the time Walter returns to the helm, the company was meeting and keeping pace with the flood of military orders. The Army Air Force first utilized the Twin Beech as a transport, but when it recognized its potential as a military trainer, the “Navigator,” the “Kansan,” and the “Wichita” were all rushed into production. As a result, almost all U.S. navigators and bombardiers learned their skills in these planes during World War II. By the end of the war, Beech had built more than 7,400 military aircraft and won five Army-Navy “E” awards for production efficiency.
Olive Ann and Walter now began to face the transition to peacetime. They planned new development soundly, and soon after V-J day the first postwar aircraft to be certified for production is a “Twin Beech.” However, the big news of 1946 was Olive Ann and Walter’s third basic type of Beechcraft, the V-tailed “Bonanza.” It proved to be an instant success and captured the headlines when Bill Odom flew his Waikiki Beech nonstop from Hawaii to New Jersey. Meanwhile, Beech entered the postwar military field with the “Mentor” primary trainer for the Air Force and Navy. Later, it introduced the executive type Twin Bonanza, which later served the U.S. Army as a utility aircraft.
When war broke out in Korea, the Beeches put their company to work meeting the nation’s military needs. But unfortunately Walter Beech’s life unexpectedly ended in 1950. Years later, he would be enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame as one of the immortals of aviation. Even after Walter’s death, Olive Ann managed the company throughout the Korean War. She was elected Chair of the Board and president of Beech Aircraft, becoming the first woman to head a major aircraft company. She established a company climate of accomplishment and achievment, and additional manufacturing facilities were established. Beech Aircraft’s new diversified products soon included missile targets for the Army and Navy.
In the mid-1950s, Olive Ann led Beechcraft’s pioneering steps into the Space Age by establishing a research and development facility to produce cryogenic systems for NASA’s planned space missions. Another milestone came in 1956 when the company introduced “Travel Air.” This model possessed an unmatched ease of flying. Also, the Beech Acceptance Corporation came into existence, making Beechcrafts far easier to own.
In 1960, Beech introduced the majestic new twin-engine “Queen Air” series, as well as the competitively priced single-engine “Debonair,” and the sleek, fast swept-tail “Baron” soon to become one of the most popular planes in its class. Olive Ann took great pride in the unveiling of the low cost “Musketeer” in 1962, and even more so the following year when her daughter, Suzanne, soloed in a Musketeer. 1964 proved to be a red-letter year, for the turboprop “King Air” was introduced. It was a pressurized business aircraft with over-the-weather capabilities. Then all Beech employees were thrilled when Gemini-4 successfully orbits the earth 62 times in 1965, for astronauts White and McDivitt had used a Beech-built spacecraft cabin pressurizing system.
After the introduction of the Beechcraft “Duke,” Olive Ann said that the company set an all-time sales high in 1967, and it could build a most rewarding future. By early 1968, she prepared for that future when she announced the election of Frank Hedrick to replace her as president, while she remained as Chair of the Board. “I know that his able and dedicated leadership over the years will afford him the inspiration and strength to guide Beech Aircraft to even greater achievements,” she said. As an executive team, Olive Ann and Frank Hedrick continued to utilize the policies which had guided the company for 36 years, while also investing heavily in product research and development.
A new era opened in 1969 when Olive Ann announced a joint venture with Hawker Siddeley Aviation of England to produce the Beechcraft Hawker corporate jet. Another stellar addition to the regular Beechcraft line was the “99 Airliner,” a favorite among commuter lines. Olive Ann was greatly pleased in 1970 at the introduction of the “Beech Baron 58,” the largest of the “Baron” series, followed by the powerful “King Air 100.” In 1973, the t-tailed “Super King Air,” the flagship of the Beechcraft fleet, and the “Sierra,” the “Sundowner,” and the “Sport” were all unveiled. In the area of military aircraft, a modified “Super King Air” won multimillion dollar contracts from the U.S. Army and Air Force for use as a military transport. The Navy ordered a turbine-powered version of the “Mentor” trainer into production.
Meanwhile, Beech continued its advances in missile targets by developing a high altitude supersonic target for the Department of Defense, a variable speed training target for the Army, a tactical expendable drone for the Air Force, and the low altitude Sea Skimmer for the Navy. The company also continued its role in exploration of space by producing storage systems for the six Apollo spacecraft landings on the moon, and later for the space shuttle Orbiter. New products ordered into production in 1976 included the pressurized Baron, the turbosupercharged Baron, the advanced King Air, and the model 76 T-tailed light twin.
1980 brought Beech Aircraft’s merger with the Raytheon Company, in which Olive Ann was elected a director of Raytheon, while remaining chair of Beech. Olive Ann Beech was universally recognized as the First Lady of Aviation. As Chair of the Board of Beech Aircraft Corporation, she directed a diversified manufacturing complex whose products range from a 150 mile-an-hour training airplane to supersonic missile targets and serve in civilian and military roles worldwide.
Though introduced to the aviation fraternity in 1924, she, for 43 years, devoted her career to the company that she and her late husband, Walter H. Beech, co-founded in 1932. Olive Ann Beech served Beech Aircraft as Secretary-Treasurer and Director from 1932 until after Mr. Beech’s death in 1950. She served as chair and President until January 1968, and continued as Chair. During these years, the company grew from fewer than 10 employees to over 7,800, and from a dream to annual sales of approximately $265 million.
Olive Ann Beech died on July 6th, 1993.
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