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Walter Beech

Beech, Walter

Industrialist
Enshrined 1977 1891-1950

Following his World War I stint in the Air Corps he became a barnstorming exhibition pilot, touring nearly every state in the Union for the following three years. The tour was perilous financially and in every other respect. But it vastly enriched Beech’s aeronautical knowledge and experience. It gave him numerous ideas for aircraft design and construction improvements which he put to good use in the future.

    Formed the Travel Air Manufacturing Company in 1924 and used its biplane to win the 1925 and 1926 Ford Reliability Tour.
    He and navigator Brice Goldsborough won the 1926 Ford Reliability Tour, during which they demonstrated the practicability of “blind flight” in their instrumented Beech Travel Air “Special” biplane.
    In 1927 the Beech cabin planes made the first commercial flight from California to Hawaii and won the Dole Air Derby.
    Formed the Beech Aircraft Company with his wife Olive in 1932.
    During World War II the company built 7,400 planes for the war effort.
    Beech introduced the unique V-tail Bonanza which was an immediate success in 1946.

 

Biography

Walter Herschel Beech was already an outstanding pioneer of aviation when he helped to form Travel Air Manufacturing Company in Wichita, Kansas in 1924. As president and general manager, he sought to create aircraft with superior performance. To him, nothing less would be acceptable.

Beech’s Travel Air Special biplane was perfection in the air, and with it he became one of the co-winners of the 1925 Ford Reliability Tour. The following year, he and navigator Brice Goldsborough earned the 1926 Ford Reliability Tour, during which they demonstrated the practicability of “blind flight” in their instrumented Travel Air.

In 1927 Beech developed a Travel Air cabin plane to meet the specifications of National Air Transport, and it soon became the basis of its airmail fleet. His cabin plane also made history in 1927 when Smith and Bronte made the first commercial flight from California to Hawaii in their City of Oakland. A month later, Goebel and Davis won the $25,000 Dole Air Derby by flying their Woolaroc from Oakland to the island of Oahu.

Film star Wallace Beery was among the celebrities who owned a Travel Air. Even Charles Lindbergh arrived to admire Beech’s handiwork, as Travel Air grew to be the world’s largest builder of private aircraft. Also, aviatrix Louise Thaden flew her Travel Air to victory in the Women’s Derby of the 1929 National Air Races.

Beech’s big news for 1929 was the Travel Air Model R Racer, introducing the N.A.C.A. engine cowling and wheel pants to commercial aviation. Dubbed the Mystery Ship, Doug Davis flew it to victory in the first Thompson Trophy Race, the first time a civilian plane defeated a military pursuit in open speed competition.

1930 -famous Jimmy Doolittle acquired a Travel Air Mystery S for Shell Oil and his friend, Jimmy Haizlip, and achieved second place with it in the grueling Thompson Race. Also, speedster Frank Hawks used Texaco’s Mystery S to set over 200 records in the air.

1930 proved to be a memorable year for Walter Beech, as he married Olive Ann Mellor, the office manager of Travel Air. Soon after, Travel Air merged into the Curtiss-Wright Corporation and Beech became Vice President of the new company. However, the Great Depression soon caused the shutdown of the Travel Air plant and Beech resigned. With remarkable courage during the darkest days of the Depression, Walter and Olive Ann Beech reached into their savings and established the Beech Aircraft Company in Wichita in 1932. They set out to build the finest cabin plane in the world with a negative Staggerwing design. Upon flight testing, it exceeded all of Beech’s expectations, and later won the 1933 Texaco Trophy Race.

In 1934 Beech began production of three versions of the Model 17 Staggerwing, the most powerful of which was able to fly the fastest military plane of the day. Soon Staggerwings were breaking records all over the world. Farquhar and Beiler flew their Staggerwing around the world. Then Bill Ong took the Frank Phillips Trophy in his, while Louise Thaden set a women’s speed record in hers. Later, she and Blanche Noyes won the 1936 Bendix Trophy Race. Jackie Cochran used her Staggerwing to set a new women’s speed record, finishing third in the 1937 Bendix, and setting an altitude record of over 30,000 feet.

In January 1937 Beech rolled out the second new kind of Beechcraft, the Model 18 transport. The Twin Beech was an immediate success in the executive and feeder airline field, and to demonstrate its capabilities Walter Beech and H. C. Rankin utilized a Model 18S to capture the MacFadden Trophy. Soon pilots were using Twin Beeches in 23 countries, from the tropics to the Arctic, and Beech became a leader in the general aviation field.

War was brewing in Asia, and the Chinese government ordered Staggerwings for use as ambulance planes and Twin Beeches for use as trainers and light bombers to fight the invading Japanese. Later the Army Air Corps purchased Staggerwing C-43 Travelers for personnel and communication use. When World War II erupted in Europe, Beech expanded its operations to meet the tremendous increase in orders for military aircraft. The Army Air Forces ordered Twin Beech C-45 Expeditors as transports and F-2s for aerial photography work. General Henry “Hap” Arnold quickly recognized the potential of the Twin Beeches as a military trainer and ordered the AT-7 Navigator for training navigators and the AT-11 Kansan for training bombardiers and gunners. The Navy used similar versions.

On December 7th, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into war. To meet the needs of the national emergency, Beech developed the plywood AT-10 Wichita multi-engine trainer to save scarce aluminum, and introduced an Efficiency Incentive Plan that shared profits with employees. Beech also began building parts for troop-carrying gliders and A-26 Invaders, and undertook the development of the Grizzly attack bomber. By V-J Day, Beech had delivered more than 7,400 military aircraft and won five Army-Navy “E” awards for production efficiency.

At the war’s end, Beech focused on improving the Staggerwing and the Twin Beech. But the major news was the introduction of the Model 35 Beech Bonanza with a unique “V-Tail.” It proved to be an outstanding success as an executive and family aircraft. Beech’s creation attracted much attention in 1949 when William Odom flew his Waikiki Beech Bonanza from Hawaii to California. He subsequently made the longest nonstop solo flight on record by flying 4960 miles from Honolulu to Teterboro, New Jersey in 36 hours.

Meanwhile, Beech developed the Model 34 Twin Quad feeder airliner with a “V-tail,” and the T-34 Mentor trainer for the Air Force, which the Navy also adopted. In 1950, he introduced the Twin Bonanza, which later served the Air Force as the U-8 Seminole and turned into the backbone of the Army’s utility aircraft.

When war started in Korea, Beech immediately put his company to work building jettisonable wingtip fuel tanks and preparing to make a maximum contribution to the country’s rearmament program. But his success-crowned career came to an abrupt end in 1950 with a heart attack.

Without a doubt, Walter Herschel Beech left a valued legacy to aviation. Through personal determination and creativity, plus the will and spirit of a true pioneer, he set the path for his adventure in the skies. In so doing, he created new kinds of aircraft that opened frontiers and brought the benefits of his efforts to all mankind, earning him a cherished niche in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

For more information on Walter and Olive Beech, you may want to visit these websites:

Kansas State Historical Society
Beech Swaggerwing History
Hill Air Force Museum
Special Collections at Wichita State University Libraries