Walter H. Beech
Aviator, airplane manufacturer. Born: January 30, 1891, near Pulaski, Tennessee. Married: Olive Ann Mellor, 1930. Died: November 29, 1950, Wichita, Kansas.
Walter Beech, among others, is regarded as a founder of the aircraft industry in Wichita. Born January 30, 1891, on a farm near Pulaski, Tennessee, Beech built a glider at the age of 14. He gained flight experience in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War I, and later spent three years barnstorming over the Midwest.
In 1921 Beech settled in Wichita to accept a job with Swallow Airplane Corporation. During his two-and-a-half years there he was a test pilot, salesman, designer, and general manager of the corporation.
Four years later he founded his own company, Travel Air Company. Beech married Olive Ann Mellor in 1930, who also would become his business partner. In 1931 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, he resigned from Curtiss-Wright. In 1932 he opened Beech Aircraft Company, and began to set standards considered unattainable by others.
Beech was familiar with every aspect of the aircraft industry from the drawing board—to the test field—to the boardroom. Walter was president of the company; Olive Ann was secretary-treasurer. The company's first objective was to build a five-seat biplane having the interior luxury of a fine sedan, top speed of 200 m.p.h., landing speed no higher than 60 m.p.h., non-stop range of 1, 000 miles, easy control, and sound aerodynamic characteristics. The competition considered these specifications unattainable. On November 14, 1932, Model 17R made its initial test flight and the impossible standards set by Beech had been met.
Model 17R evolved into production model B17L. Almost every part for this model had been redesigned before it was put on the production line in 1934. The major innovation of the B17L was a negative staggered wing design, which improved control at all speeds, provided high visibility for pilots, and quick ground servicing. The other innovation of the B17L was its retractable landing gear, which reduced wind resistance and made emergency belly landings an added safety feature. A testimony to the high standards of the aircraft that Beech created is that many well-kept B17L biplanes continued to fly for many years.
Beech left a legacy not measured in dollars, but in the commitment of his former employees to build an aircraft that would meet his high standards for reliability, durability, and marketability. He died November 29, 1950. After his death, Olive Ann served as president and Beech Aircraft Corporation continued to grow to more than one million square feet of production space, consisting of 17 subsidiaries and 10 production plants that produced aircraft for personal, business, and military use. During her nearly 20 years at the helm, sales tripled. Beech supplied products for NASA's Gemini, Apollo, and space shuttle programs.
Entry: Beech, Walter H.
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: December 2004
Date Modified: January 2016
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