By: Edward H. Phillips
Travel Air and Beechcraft Model 17 historian/researcher
Commercial aviation has witnessed the careers of many legendary personalities, but few have exemplified the drive to succeed as did Walter Herschel Beech. Born in January 1891, Walter’s ancestry was deeply rooted in the agricultural South, where hard work was commonplace. Farming, however, did not suit Walter’s fancy.
Although he attended elementary school in the area around Pulaski, Tennessee, Beech received only a rudimentary education and apparently did not progress beyond the fifth or sixth grade. Despite repeated attempts to determine and document his scholastic achievements, records no longer exist to tell that side of his story. Nevertheless, Walter eventually became a voracious reader, spending untold hours pouring over books–especially dictionaries–to improve his vocabulary and his ability to communicate effectively with his peers.
What Walter lacked in formal education, he made up for with his technical abilities. Mechanical things fascinated him, and as a young boy he learned quickly how to repair or improve broken farm equipment. His talents landed him a journeyman’s job as a worker in the local municipality, laboring to keep electrical, water and sewer services operational. Although he was doing well for a teenager, Beech became increasingly interested in automobiles, engines, and the aeroplane.
By 1911 he left Tennessee and to take 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 Walter 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 friend bought a damaged Curtiss biplane and repaired it. One step at a time, Walter learned to pilot the whimsical craft and by 1916 he had spent many hours aloft honing his newfound skills as an aviator. His flying experience during these years was sorely limited, but it would soon prove highly beneficial.
When the United States entered World War One in 1917, Beech joined the U.S. Army and was given the rank of sergeant in November. He was initially assigned to Kelly Field in Texas, but was reassigned to Rich Field near Waco, Texas early in 1918. Contrary to myth, Beech did not learn to fly nor was he a flight instructor during the war. He overhauled and supervised repair of airplane engines installed in the Curtiss and de Havilland biplanes used to train neophyte pilots.
When the Armistice was signed in November, 1918 Walter decided to remain in the Army Signal Corps. His persistence paid off. He was chosen as a pilot candidate and became an enlisted airman in October, 1919. With funding for an air service slashed by a peace-conscious Congress, Beech left the Army and began flying for the Williams-Hill Airplane Company in Arkansas City, Kansas. In 1921 he traveled to nearby Wichita and was hired to fly for the Wichita Laird Airplane Company, led by the famous E.M. “Matty” Laird. Although a pilot of limited experience, Walter slowly became more proficient and by 1922 had earned a reputation in the mid-western U.S. as a daredevil aviator.
Following Laird’s departure from the company in 1922, the business was renamed the Swallow Airplane Manufacturing Company and came under the leadership of J.M. Moellendick. Beech was given increased responsibilities, and in concert with fellow employee Lloyd C. Stearman, the two men challenged Moellendick to change the Swallow’s wood fuselage to steel tubing.
A disagreement ensued. In its wake, Beech, Stearman and a few other rebels left Swallow to join forces with aviation pioneer Clyde Cessna to form the Travel Air Manufacturing Company. In the next five years, Travel Air became one of the premier airplane producers in the world, not only in the United States. More importantly, the years 1925-1930 taught Beech the rigors of the infant airplane business and honed his growing business acumen.
When the stock market crashed in October 1929, the airplane industry crashed along with it. A massive economic depression followed that nearly wiped out airplane builders. Undaunted, in 1932 Walter, his wife Olive Ann, and engineer Ted Wells braved the odds and founded the Beech Aircraft Company in Wichita. The company’s first product was a negative-stagger biplane designated the Model 17R. It was sleek, comfortable, and above all, it was fast. Capable of more than 200 mph., the “Staggerwing,” as it was unofficially known, soon became the paragon of business airplane in the early 1930s.
Smaller, more fuel efficient radial engines were installed in later models, and sales took off as the American economy began the long, troublesome process of recovery in the mid-1930s. Thanks to market acceptance of the new twin-engine Model 18, as well as continued popularity of the Model 17, by 1939 sales were beginning to boom.
Hitler’s invasion of Poland and France further accelerated British demand for training and liaison airplanes. But after Japan’s devastating attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Walter Beech soon found himself awash with orders for thousands of trainers. By the end of the war in 1945, Beech Aircraft Corporation had produced more than 7,000 airplanes for the Allied war effort.
With a return to peace, Beech again turned his attention to the commercial market. He unleashed the modern, all-metal Model 35 Bonanza in 1947 that took the industry by storm, and upgraded versions of the venerable Model 18 were rapidly becoming the workhorses of business aviation.
After nearly 31 years as a driving force in American aeronautics, Walter H. Beech succumbed to a heart attack on November 19, 1950. During his lifetime Walter had distinguished himself as a pilot, salesman, and perhaps most important of all, a savvy entrepreneur who was not afraid to take risks.
The farm boy from Tennessee had become a legend in his own time. Beech was enshrined in the Aviation Hall of Fame in 1977, and the Kansas Aviation Hall of Fame in 1987. He held a Transport Pilot Certificate and logged more than 10,000 hours in the air.