Beechcraft Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A Wichita, Kansas-based producer of small aircraft, including both propeller- and jet-driven models.

Beginnings

Walter Beech, founder of Beechcraft, trained to be a pilot during World War I. Beech did not let the fact that he was not an engineer deter him from pursuing aviation as a career after the war. After a stint as a barnstormer, he joined the E. M. Laird Airplane Company of Wichita in 1921 as a pilot and salesman. Beech and Laird engineer Lloyd Stearman left the company in 1925 to form a new company, TravelAir, taking on another partner, Clyde Cessna. TravelAir produced several well-respected aircraft, most notably the Model 5000, but Beech’s partners both decided to leave the company. In 1929, TravelAir became part of the Curtiss-Wright Company, and Beech moved to new executive offices in St. Louis. The United States’ enthusiasm for aviation ended with the onset of the Great Depression, and TravelAir went out of business in 1932.

Birth of Beechcraft

After TravelAir folded, Beech and his wife Olive Ann moved back to Wichita determined to reenter the aircraft manufacturing market. Beech wasted little time, establishing the Beech Aircraft Company the same year TravelAir ceased to exist. Beech’s chief engineer Ted Wells developed a masterful new design, the Model 17 Staggerwing. The plane carried five people at the remarkable speed of nearly 200 miles per hour. The Model 17, advertised as the “Beechcraft,” and the successor, the Model 18, sold well given the economic conditions of the 1930’s, and Beech enjoyed its first $1 million sales year in 1938.

War Years

Beech’s successful Models 17 and 18 ensured the company a prominent place in the United States’ defense expansion leading up to World War II. The company sold Model 18’s to the Philippines and China, and General Henry Harley “Hap” Arnold ordered 150 modified Model 18’s for the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1941. During the war, Beech produced some 7,400 twin-engine aircraft for the military, and only 22 for the civilian market. The company was among the 3 percent of manufacturers to earn the prestigious Army-Navy “B” production award five consecutive times. Beech also produced wings for the A-26 Invader during the war.

Postwar Aircraft

Beech, like its Wichita competitor, Cessna, looked to take advantage of an expected boom in private plane ownership following World War II. Some experts believed that airplanes would become nearly as ubiquitous as automobiles for family transportation. Both Wichita companies held excellent positions for competing in this new market. Following traditions established before the war, each focused its efforts in a different direction. Cessna emphasized a low-priced, efficient model, while Beech looked to attract a more affluent customer by offering greater luxury. In 1947, Beech introduced the Model 35, better known as the Bonanza. The Bonanza utilized a distinctive V-shaped tail configuration, and carried its passengers in quiet comfort at an impressive 175 miles per hour. To demonstrate the plane’s reliability, a Bonanza flew nonstop from Honolulu to Teterboro, New Jersey, a distance of 5,273 miles, with no maintenance problems and a cost of only $75 in fuel. This performance made the Bonanza famous, and despite being relatively expensive, the plane was an enormous success for Beech, which sold ten thousand Bonanzas by 1970.

The company followed up with variations of the Bonanza, as well as several different models, before developing the twin-engine turboprop King Air 90 in 1964. This plane fit into the niche between the truly private planes and the luxurious corporate jets that began appearing in the early 1960’s. The King Air created such enthusiasm that the company had a $28 million backlog of orders when the first plane came off the assembly line. Purchasers of the King Air included such notables as Volkswagen, Walt Disney Productions, and Art Linkletter. By 1984, half of the twin-engine turboprop planes delivered were King Air models. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, Beech looked for ways to enter the growing business jet market. The company’s Wichita competitors, Cessna and Learjet, dominated the field, but Beech had trouble developing its own model. Ultimately, Beech abandoned its own design and purchased the established but struggling Mitsubishi Diamond 2 business jet program. Beech moved production of the Diamond 2 from Texas to Wichita and redesignated the plane the Beechjet 400. The 400 series did not match Beech’s competitors in terms of performance, but an Air Force order for 211 400’s helped attract attention to the model. Beech also worked to convince owners of the King Air to purchase the 400 models, rather than competitors’ offerings. Despite performance shortcomings, the 400 series became a formidable presence in the business jet market by the early 1990’s, thanks to Beech’s aggressive marketing efforts.

Corporate Changes

Walter Beech guided Beech Aircraft until his death in 1950. Fortunately for the company, Beech’s wife, Olive Ann, proved to be an outstanding leader. Mrs. Beech guided the company for eighteen years before handing it over to her nephew Frank Hedrick. In 1979, with Hedrick ready to retire, the company merged with Raytheon, a manufacturer of missiles, electronics, and appliances. In 1982, Raytheon removed Mrs. Beech and Hedrick as managers of the company, prompting Beech to resign from the board of directors and marking the end of an era.

Bibliography
  • McDaniel, William Herbert. The History of Beech. Wichita, Kans.: McCormick-Armstrong, 1982. This is a long account of the first fifty years of Beechcraft’s existence. At more than 500 pages, this book covers nearly every aspect of the company’s history.
  • Philips, Edward H. Beechcraft: Staggerwing to Starship. Eagan, Minn.: Flying Books, 1987. This is a short pictorial history of Beech. It is less than 100 pages long, but does provide useful information and good pictures of Beechcraft models.
  • Rowe, Frank Joseph, and Craig Miner. Borne on the South Wind: A Century of Aviation in Kansas. Wichita, Kans.: Wichita Eagle and Beacon, 1994. This book covers the development of aviation in the state of Kansas. It does not go into great depth, but it does explain the role of Beech and its impact on aviation and the economies of both Wichita and Kansas. It is also well illustrated.

Aerospace industry, U.S.

Airline industry, U.S.

Airplanes

Corporate and private jets

Manufacturers

Categories: History Content