The Beeches that got away
By DARYL MURPHY © 2003
Not every bright new idea from Wichita or Lock Haven has made it to the market. The hangars, sheds and back lots of what has in the past been referred to as General Aviation’s “Big Three”–Beech, Cessna and Piper–are filled with airplanes, bits and pieces, and memories of prototypes that were either ahead of or behind the times, or for one reason or another deemed unsuitable for public consumption.
Some of these machines tested new waters in markets or technology. Some were progenitors of later successful models. And more than one had such shortcomings that only the cutting torch and bulldozer could effectively erase it from corporate memories.
In the boom years following World War II, the Big Three designed, manufactured and marketed hundreds of airframe designations. At least an equal number have been created and flown-safe from the critical and prying eye of the public-and then either discarded or underwent metamorphosis until it came to a more marketable form.
Even though Walter Beech was more of an entrepreneur than a designer, the company he founded gained a reputation early on for innovation and solid quality in its engineering and production. While generally remaining conservative in its approach, Beech Aircraft has always been perceived as a technology-driven company, and the builder of strong, quality products.
That was already obvious in 1940 when Gen. H.H. :Hap” Arnold, head of the Army aviation branch, made a visit to the Air Capital with the idea of acquiring aircraft to build a stronger Air Corps. He was impressed by Beech’s Model 18 and reportedly said, “I’ll take 150-they’re small.” That was the first of many orders for military variants over the next five years.
XA-38 Grizzly-A major variation on the Twin Beech theme was a project begun in 1943 to supply the Air Corps with a fast medium bomber and tank-buster. Basically a flying cannon powered by two Wright R-3350s, the Grizzly also was armed with six .50 caliber machine guns. First flown in May 1944, the 30,000-lb. airplane impressed the Army, proving to be as fast as most frontline fighters. However, the project was cancelled at the beginning of 1945 because all the Wright powerplants were being allocated for the new Boeing B-29s that were being turned out a couple of miles down the road in Wichita. Only two Grizzlies were built, and the lone surviving example is in the museum at Wright-Patterson AFB.
V-tailed AT-10-Although not officially qualified as a distinct prototype, in order to test the concept of its “butterfly” tail, Beech replaced the familiar double tail fins on the AT-10/Model 18 with an experimental V-tail. Thankfully, it was never adopted on the Twin Beech.
Model 34 “Twin-Quad”-The emerging feeder airlines in postwar America could have been using the Model 34, but instead, operators bought up surplus C-47s, Lockheeds, the company’s own Model 18s and other high-density equipment at a fraction of the cost of a new aircraft.
It was probably just as well. Beech’s solution–the Model 34 “Twin-Quad”–was an exercise in complexity: its two propellers (“Twin”) were driven through individual clutches by four engines (“Quad”) buried in its wings. The geared, supercharged Lycoming eight-cylinder powerplants each developed 400 hp at 3,300 rpm. With each pair of engines interconnected, engine-out problems would be less severe, and flight testing showed that the airplane could climb to 19,000 ft. with one engine shut down.
The high-wing V-tailed Model 34. a logical familial follow-on to the already successful Model 33 Bonanza, began development in 1943 and first flew in October 1947. Projected to have a maximum speed of 300 mph, the “Twin-Quad” was only able to achieve 230 mph on early flights. It had a design gross weight of 20,000 lbs and could carry 20 passengers. The only prototype spent nearly 200 hours in flight test until a January 1948 crash resulted in the death of the co-pilot and injury to the pilot and two observers. The prospect of the time and expense spent building another prototype, coupled with a disappearing market convinced the company to drop the project after spending a total of $6 million in development.
T36A-Beech won a 1951 Air Force competition that called for a twin-engine combination trainer-transport with a new look that seemed unrelated to any previous Beech design.
As a transport, the aircraft could carry 12 passengers and a crew. As a trainer, room was provided for three students and an instructor. Powered by twin 2,100 hp P&W R-2800s, it could exceed 300 mph.
With a contract in hand and a huge backlog of both military and commercial business, Beech expanded its work force at a rate of 500 new employees per month and spent millions of dollars building and acquiring new properties to get ready to meet the Air Force’ demanding delivery schedule.
Then, just three days before the scheduled first flight of the prototype, the Department of Defense notified Beech (and Canadair, which Beech had licensed to build the T36A in Canada) that the program had been cancelled. $300 million worth of annual business had disappeared overnight. The airplane never flew and was also never seen again.
Model 73 Jet Mentor–After Beech Aircraft began producing the successful Model 45 Mentor piston single trainer in the early Fifties, engineers designed and built a logical successor: a jet version which utilized many of the same parts and assemblies-and its look had a marked similarity to the earlier stillborn T36A. The tandem-seat Model 73 Jet Mentor hoped to compete in a lucrative Air Force competition to produce the country’s first dedicated jet trainer.
First flown December 18, 1955, the Jet Mentor featured complete cockpit air conditioning, dual ejection seats and speed brakes. With a miserly Continental J69-T-9 turbojet, the 4,521-lb. two-pace trainer was billed as the world’s most economical jet trainer. It had a maximum speed of 295 mph, would cruise at 245 mph and had a maximum range of 450 miles. When neighboring Cessna Aircraft’s T-37 design was declared the new-generation trainer, Beech kept the Model 73 for occasional flight test duty, then parked it ignominiously behind a hangar. In the Sixties it was donated to a local vo-tech school, where it remained for the next four decades. Today, the one-and-only Jet Mentor can be seen at Wichita’s Kansas Aviation Museum.
PD 290 Jet-Of all the light plane manufacturers, it would have seemed likely that Beech, with its business aircraft image and engineering acumen, would have been the first among the Big Three to design and build a marketable jet. It chose instead to market someone else’s, aircraft which had already undergone the pains and expense of research, development and certification. Starting with the Morane-Saulnier MS 760 Paris Jet in the Fifties, it was followed by the Hawker-Siddeley HS-125.
When Cessna unveiled its Citation in 1972, it was evident that at least some of Beech’s future markets would have to be in jets, so in 1975, Beech built a testbed for jet aerodynamics and systems. Using the first King Air 200 prototype, engineers replaced the two turboprops in the wing nacelles with two Pratt & Whitney JT-15D-4 turbojets. The rather striking PD (Preliminary Design) 290 accumulated 93 hours on 103 flights between March 1975 and September 1977, apparently gathering enough information to convince the company to resume the search for a ready-built design. In late 1985, Beech announced it had purchased the design, tooling and rights to manufacture and market the Mitsubishi 300 jet.
Model T36TC Bonanza-In the late Seventies, Beech engineers began exploring the feasibility of a pressurized Bonanza. As part of the preliminary study, a standard A36 was modified with a T-tail and a 325 hp TSIO-520 was installed–the size and weight of which required a 12-in cowl extension. First flown in February 1979, a total of 82 hours was accumulated during 89 flights over the next year. Unfortunately, by the end of 1982, the industry’s single-engine sales had fallen to just one-quarter of what it had been three years earlier. The design was never put into production, but Beech renewed its effort as it turned to what it felt was the wave of the future–pressurized turbine singles.
Model 38P Lightning-The much-publicized Lightning single-engine turboprop was built using a modified Model 58P Baron fuselage and wings, and first flew in June of 1982. Originally fitted with a Garrett AiResearch TPE-331-9 rated at 550 shp, it was also powered during 1984 flight testing by a Pratt & Whitney PT6A-40 flat-rated to 630 shp. Only one prototype was built, and a total of 55.7 hours was put on it in 68 flights, the last of which was in August 1984, by which time the company was scrambling to stay alive in the same deteriorating general aviation market which had killed the pressurized Bonanza
Interestingly, a Western Kansas aviation entrepreneur named Mike Smith developed a similar turbine-powered, pressurized aircraft in nearly the same time frame, using pre-owned (and thus already certificated) Baron wings and a composite fuselage. While the Smith Prop-Jet was considerably quicker than its Beech counterpart and set several speed records, it also fell victim to the sagging market.