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Walter Beech

aircraft company founder

Walter Herschel Beech

Walter Herschel Beech was born in Pulaski, Tennessee, on January 30, 1891. Although he attended elementary school in the area around Pulaski, he did not progress beyond the fifth or sixth grade level. He did, however, possess an incredible love for reading, and spent untold hours pouring over books -- especially dictionaries -- to improve his vocabulary and his ability to communicate effectively with his peers.

What he lacked in formal education, Walter made up for with his technical abilities. Mechanical things fascinated him, and as a young boy he learned how to repair and/or improve broken farm equipment. His talents landed him a journeyman's job as a worker in the local municipality, helping keep electrical, water and sewer services operational. In 1911, Beech took a job as an apprentice automobile mechanic in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which also included training as a chauffeur. His growing technical prowess with engines were quickly realized by his employer, and Beech was often in demand as a chauffeur and mechanic for automobiles owned by financial executives around the city.

It was in Minneapolis that Beech's aviation career began. In 1914, he and a friend bought a damaged Curtiss biplane and repaired it. One step at a time, he learned to pilot the craft, and by 1916 he had spent many hours aloft honing his newfound skills as an aviator.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Beech joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, and spent three years as a mechanic, test pilot, instructor, and engineer. After the war he spent another three years barnstorming over the Central States before settling in Wichita, Kansas, and accepting a job with the Swallow Airplane Company.

Beech's duties over the two-and-a-half years he was with Swallow included being a test pilot, salesman, designer, and general manager of the corporation. In 1924, he resigned from Swallow and joined with Clyde Cessna to found the Travel Air Manufacturing Company, also based in Wichita. As president and general manager, Beech was instrumental in making Travel Air into the world's largest producer of both monoplane and commercial aircraft.

In 1931, the Curtiss-Wright Airplane Company absorbed Travel Air and Beech became vice-president of the reorganized company. By the end of 1931 he was president of Curtiss-Wright and was spending most of his time in New York, away from the production plant in St. Louis. Because he desired more input into the design of his aircraft, Beech resigned from Curtiss-Wright and returned to Wichita to found his own company.

In April 1932, at the height of the Depression, Walter and his wife, Olive Ann, founded the Beech Aircraft Company -- he was president, she was secretary-treasurer. The company's first objective was to build a five-place biplane having the interior luxury of a fine sedan -- with a top speed of 200 miles per hour, a landing speed no higher than 60 miles per hour, a non-stop range of 1,000 miles, easy controllability and sound aerodynamic characteristics. Although all of the "experts" said such a plane couldn't be built, the Beech Model 17R made its initial test flight on November 14, 1932. The Model 17R evolved into production model B17L. The major innovations of the B17L included a negative staggered wing design, which improved controllability at all air speeds, and retractable landing gear, which reduced wind resistance and made emergency belly landings an added safety feature. The fact that many well-kept B17L biplanes are still flying is a testimony to the high standards by which they were designed and built.

During World War II, Beech turned the entire production of his company to defense, producing more than 7,400 military aircraft. In addition, the Beech AT-71C-45 trained more than 90 percent of the U.S. Army Air Force's navigator/bombardiers and 50 percent of the multi-engine pilots.

After the war, Beech again applied his design talents to producing a new line of light aircraft, the most famous of which was the "V-Tailed" Bonanza, which was unveiled in 1947.

Walter H. Beech died on November 29, 1950. He was inducted into the International Aerospace Hall of Fame in 1982, and into the Kansas Aviation Hall of Fame in 1987. Beech Aircraft became a subsidiary of Raytheon in 1980, and is now operated as Hawker Beechcraft Inc. The company's corporate headquarters are still in Wichita, and the original Beech Aircraft facility in Wichita is still producing new aircraft today.


Aeronautics Learning Laboratory for Science, Technology, and Research

See Also

World War I
Travel Air Manufacturing Company
World War II

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This page was last updated on 01/30/2019.