During the early 1960s, Beech Aircraft Corporation’s Model 23 “Musketeer” marked the company’s foray into the highly competitive, entry-level segment of the general aviation industry.
In the wake of World War II, America’s lightweight airplane market exploded as many pilots who had flown fighter and bomber aircraft came home and started flying schools across the United States. As a result, during 1946-1947 there was enormous demand for new aircraft. The war had proven the value of aviation, whether military or commercial, and the American public accepted flying with almost the same enthusiasm as it had embraced the automobile in the 1920s.
Late in 1944, airframe companies in Wichita, Kansas, which had provided thousands of training and liaison aircraft during the war, began development of new models and prepared for the massive downshift from war-time to peace-time production. Beech Aircraft Corporation, under the guidance of co-founders Walter H. and Olive Ann Beech, was developing the all-metal Model 35 “Bonanza” that would replace the classic, but aging, Model 17 biplane – an icon whose time had passed.
Across town at the Cessna Aircraft Company, Dwane Wallace was tooling up production to build the two-place Model 120 and Model 140, while far to the east in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, William “Bill” Piper Sr. was gearing up to build hundreds of the famous J-3 “Cub,” alongside the new PA-11 “Super Cub” and PA-12 “Super Cruiser.” Other, smaller companies such as Taylorcraft, Aeronca and Interstate, planned to resume building “warmed-over” versions of their pre-war ships to meet the onslaught of demand from flight schools and private pilots.
Unfortunately, early in 1947, demand for small aircraft suddenly and inexplicably collapsed. It happened so fast that some thought it rivaled the disastrous stock market crash of 1929. Aviation leaders scratched their heads trying to figure out the cause, but it soon became apparent that the quintessential villain was overproduction and complacency fueled by the quest for quick and easy profits. Piper, Taylorcraft, Aeronca and the other small manufacturers had lost touch with the post-war market’s changing concept of what a small airplane should be. A new generation of would-be aviators viewed their products as dull, uncomfortable and saddled with lackluster performance. Simply stated, airplanes that sold well in 1940 were soundly rejected by 1948.
During the 1950s, the Model 35 remained Beech Aircraft’s entry-level airplane, but as the general aviation market continued to expand and attract thousands of new student pilots, management at the company realized that they were missing a potential marketing opportunity. By 1960, Cessna Aircraft and Piper Aircraft were riding a new wave of prosperity. The two-place Cessna 150, four-place 172 and the speedy Model 210 were modern designs that were excellent values for the money. Piper, despite its product line of steel tube and fabric airplanes, was still experiencing strong demand for its aircraft. Unlike Cessna and Piper, who offered a product line designed to encourage pilots to step up to the next level of performance as their experience level increased, the high-performance and more expensive Model 35 was a pilot’s first introduction to the Beechcraft family.
All of that, however, was about to change. In 1961, Frank E. Hedrick, executive vice president, announced a major broadening of the company’s commercial product line that would “open new markets” to the worldwide retail sales organization. At the company’s annual Beechcraft International Distributor and Dealer Management Meeting, Hedrick unveiled an entirely new type of Beechcraft – the Model 23 “Musketeer.” It was hailed as the company’s entry-level airplane, priced well below the Model 35 at $13,300 with standard equipment. The low-wing Model 23 offered pilots a four-place cabin, 160-horsepower Lycoming O-320-D2B four-cylinder opposed piston engine, a cruising speed of 135 mph and a range of 899 statute miles.
According to Wyman L. Henry, vice president of marketing, Beech Aircraft was “launching a new way of life with the Beechcraft Musketeer.” The all-metal Model 23 would sell at a price competitive with one of the lowest-cost, four-place business aircraft available on the market – namely the 1962 Cessna Model 172C that sold for about $12,000. Henry pointed out (correctly) that the chief barrier to buying a Beechcraft had been its price, and the Model 23 would remove that barrier. In addition, “it would be possible for [Beechcraft] distributors and dealers to pioneer more widely in developing business aircraft from the ground up; to offer to the businessman who had never flown or owned any airplane, a Beechcraft in which he could start flying from the very first minute of his training in the art of flight.”1 According to the plan, as businessmen “discovered the benefits of business flying and moved upward to faster, farther-ranging aircraft, there would be a more advanced Beechcraft ready and waiting for his next stage of progress,” Henry said. Sales projections for the 1963 model year called for delivery of up to 1,000 units.
The Musketeer was designed and developed at the factory in Wichita, Kansas, and the team was led by engineer John I. Elliott. The airframe made extensive use of the company’s subcontractor experience with truss-grid, honeycomb core construction that had been used to build flight controls surfaces for the Convair F-106 jet fighter. The Model 23’s wing featured a National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) 632A415 laminar-flow airfoil.
The cantilever wing’s dihedral was set at slightly more than six degrees, while the angle of incidence varied from three degrees at the root to one degree at the wingtip. Fuel capacity was 60 gallons. A single, extruded aluminum alloy main spar was located at 50 percent of the wing chord. The aluminum alloy skin and stringers were bonded to the ribs from the spar forward, but aft of the spar conventional rivets were used. No trim tabs were installed, but the one-piece, counter-balanced stabilator did feature a full-span, anti-servo tab. Manually operated, corrugated flaps were installed, along with corrugated, slotted ailerons. All primary flight controls were activated by steel cables under tension.
The cabin could accommodate up to four occupants (including the pilot), and a single door, located on the right side, was standard (a left-side door was optional). The large windshield afforded generous visibility, as did two windows on each side of the cabin. The fixed, trailing-beam tricycle landing gear used stacks of rubber discs to absorb taxi, takeoff and landing loads. The prototype airplane (registered N948B) incorporated a full-swiveling nosewheel located aft of the engine compartment.
First flight of the prototype occurred on October 23, 1961, with engineering test pilot S.C. Tuttle at the controls. The flight test program continued with few changes being made to the Model 23. Of these, the most significant modification was relocation of the nose landing gear farther forward, which improved ground handling characteristics, and the addition of nosewheel steering through the rudder pedals.
The FAA issued Beech Aircraft Approved Type Certificate A1CE for the Musketeer on February 20, 1962. As certificated, then Model 23 had a maximum gross weight of 2,300 pounds and a maximum speed of 144 mph. The price remained at $13,300 with standard equipment, which included a single VHF com/nav radio and complete instrumentation for IFR flight. The initial production batch of Musketeers were delivered to dealers and distributors beginning in October 1962 (for the 1963 model year), from the Wichita factory. Management’s optimistic figure of 1,000 units was not achieved, but Beechcrafters did manufacture 553 airplanes before production shifted to the Model A23.
Responding to comments from pilots, flight instructors, dealers and distributors, the engineering department made a series of upgrades that improved performance, comfort and appearance of the entry-level Beechcraft. The Model A23 “Musketeer II” was introduced in June 1964 and featured a third cabin window, 165-horsepower, fuel-injected Lycoming engine and a series of minor, but important, refinements to the cabin and exterior paint design. All of which increased the airplane’s customer appeal. Those improvements, however, came at a cost – a standard Model A23 was priced at $14,250, and 346 were built for the 1964 model year.
As a four-place private and business aircraft, the A23 served the mission well but it was not suited to the role imposed upon it to teach student pilots how to fly. To resolve that issue, in 1965 Beech Aircraft offered an economy version of the new Model A23-19 known as the “Sport III,” powered by a Lycoming 150-horsepower, carbureted O-320-E2C engine turning a fixed-pitch propeller. The two-place trainer was a “no-frills” airplane featuring only two cabin windows per side, but selling for only $11,500, its lower acquisition and operating costs made it popular with flight schools and flying clubs.
A second version was the four-place Model A23A “Custom III” that sold for $14,500 and was powered by a 165-horsepower, fuel-injected Lycoming IO-346A-A powerplant. First flight occurred on October 15, 1965. The third option was designated the Model A23-24 “Musketeer Super III” that first flew on November 19, 1965. Featuring seating for four occupants, the A23-24 had a maximum speed of 158 mph and gross weight (normal category) of 2,550 pounds. To further increase sales appeal, in 1966 the company offered yet another variation of the A23A – the six-seat A23A-24 “Musketeer Custom III” powered by a Lycoming O-360-A2G engine rated at 180 horsepower. The two far aft seats, however, were small and the cramped space made them suitable only for children, not adults.
Although the initial Model 23 series was built at the Wichita factory, in July 1964 the company shifted all activities production to a recently-converted facility located near Liberal, Kansas – 200 miles southwest of Wichita. The 121,000-square foot campus was specifically intended to manufacture and support the Musketeer. The Model A23, A23A and A23-24 began rolling off the Liberal assembly lines in late summer 1964.
One of the first challenges facing the workforce at Liberal was conducting a major upgrade program to the original Model 23 Musketeer aircraft that had been built at Wichita. William H. McDaniel, historian for the Beech Aircraft Corporation, stated the situation this way: “Those first Musketeers, in the opinion of Beech, fell a little short in some details of being fully worthy of their name. In striving to produce a low-cost plane that would still be worthy of the Beech nameplate, some small items had slipped through that seemed not quite Beech-like. All Musketeer owners were notified that they could bring their planes in to the Beech factory, at their convenience, for modifications to be made entirely at factory expense.” In addition, the factory offered to ship modification kits to owners who could not (such as those in Europe, Asia and the Pacific regions), or chose not, to bring their airplanes to Liberal. All of the upgrades were minor and were not driven by the Model 23’s airworthiness. Hundreds of Musketeers built for the 1963 model year received the modifications.
To provide flight schools with an airplane capable of teaching pilots basic aerobatic maneuvers such as loops and spins, in 1968 Beech Aircraft launched a version of the Musketeer designated the Model 19A “Musketeer Sport III” that featured shoulder harnesses, a g-meter and quick-release door on the right side of the cabin. The engine remained a 150-horsepower Lycoming O-320 turning a fixed-pitch propeller. The following year, however, the O-320 engine was replaced with a 180-horsepower Lycoming powerplant to improve performance. The two final versions of the A23-19 series were the Model B19 that was introduced in 1970, followed in 1972 by the B19 Sport 150. Both versions were powered by the 150-horsepower Lycoming O-320 engine. Production of the A23-19 series was terminated in 1978 after 1,525 units had been built.
In 1970, the Model C23 Musketeer entered production. The front cabin section was widened by four-and-a-half inches (at the two front seats) and the cabin featured larger, reshaped windows to improve outside visibility. The final version of the Model 23 was the C23 that entered production in the 1970 model year. The four-place C23 was powered by a Lycoming O-360-A4G engine rated at 180 horsepower.
In 1972, a left-side cabin door became standard equipment, and the Beechcraft was renamed “Sundowner 180.” Cruising speed was 143 mph and gross weight had increased to 2,450 pounds. The next model year Beech engineers decreased the height of the Sport and Sundowner instrument panels by one-and-a-half inches to improve forward visibility, and the throttle, mixture and carburetor heat controls were housed in a new, center-mounted quadrant. The final change to the Model C23 occurred in the 1974 model year when the height of the cabin windows was increased one inch. Late-model C23 airplanes produced from 1975 until 1983 when production was terminated, were powered by Avco Lycoming O-360-A2G, -A4G, -A4J or -A4K engines rated at 180 horsepower at 2,700 RPM. The first production Sundowner 180 was serial number M-1362 and the last C23 built was M-2392, completed in 1983 when manufacture of the Sundowner was terminated, ending a production run that spanned 20 years.
A grand total of 4,366 airplanes were manufactured, all under Approved Type Certificate A1CE, including 48 CT-134 ordered by the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1971 as a replacement for the de Havilland DHC-1 “Chipmunk.” These airplanes were fitted with strakes on the cowling, stabilator and ventral fin to improve recovery from intentional spins. In 1981, the original CT-134 fleet was augmented by the acquisition of another 24 Beechcrafts designated CT-134A. These were modified versions of the Model C23. In addition, in 1970 the factory built 86 Model A23-24 and A24 aircraft that were equipped with Avco Lycoming engines rated at 200 horsepower and fitted with two-blade, constant-speed propellers.
By 1970, the success of Beech Aircraft Corporation’s Musketeer program prompted introduction of a retractable-gear airplane based on the proven airframe of the Model A24. In keeping with Beech Aircraft’s marketing strategy, the new airplane would fill a gap between the Model C23 and the iconic Model 35 Bonanza. Engineering and flight testing was progressing well by late 1969 in preparation for the aircraft’s introduction for the 1970 model year. FAA certification was achieved on December 23, 1969, under the original Approved Type Certificate A1CE of the Model 23 series.
Salient changes included installation of an electro-hydraulic retraction/extension systems that was similar to that used on the Piper PA-24 and the Cessna 177RG. The main gear retracted outward into large recesses in the wing, but the nose gear retracted aft, turned 90 degrees and laid flat in a recess under the engine. The engine chosen for the new Beechcraft, designated the Model A24R “Super R,” was Avco Lycoming’s four-cylinder opposed, fuel-injected IO-360-A1B that developed 200 horsepower at 2,700 RPM and was fitted with a two-blade, constant-speed propeller. In general, performance was on par with Piper and Cessna competitors with a cruising speed of 162 mph at an altitude of 7,500 feet, and a range of 711 statute miles at a 75 percent power setting.
Priced at $24,950, the A24R sold well with 59 being delivered in 1970, followed by 35 in 1971 and 55 in 1972. The improved B24R “Sierra 200” debuted for the 1973 model year equipped with a left-side cabin door as standard equipment. Minor upgrades included the same 1.5-inch decrease in instrument panel height incorporated in the Model C23 Sundowner, refined cabin features and an Avco Lycoming IO-360-A2B engine featuring a new crankshaft with counterweights, and the oil cooler was relocated to improve airflow through the core.
Factory workers in Liberal, Kansas, built 39 airplanes that year and another 113 in the 1974 model year – the highest production number achieved for the series. When the C23R entered production for the 1977 model year, it featured fairings surrounding the main landing gear wheel wells to reduce drag, aileron gap seals and a more efficient propeller that increased maximum speed by six knots. The C24R Sierra 200 was manufactured for seven years from 1977-1983 before an economic recession forced termination of the Model C23 and C24R. For example, only 13 A24R were built in 1983.
1. Beginning in the late 1940s, this principle had been employed with great success by Cessna Aircraft, thanks to the marketing savvy of general aviation visionary, Dwane L. Wallace.
Landing the C23 Sundowner
During my eight years working for Beech Aircraft Corporation, this author served as a flight instructor in the company’s Beech Flying Club located at Beech Field in Wichita, Kansas. The primary training airplane flown by club members at that time was the Model C23 Sundowner.
Although the C23 possessed Beechcraft quality and decent performance, in my opinion it was not well suited to the task of training student pilots to land the airplane with full flaps. For flight training, the airplane was almost always flown with only the CFI and the student on board, and usually with fuel tanks only half filled. Under these conditions the Sundowner’s center of gravity was well forward but still within limitations. Full fuel tanks would have aggravated that condition.
To offset the forward CG and make landing easier, bags of lead shot or sand were secured in the baggage compartment behind the rear seats (observing structural limits of the baggage floor), and acted as ballast, shifting the CG farther aft. Regardless of whether the Sundowner was flown with or without the ballast, it was essential that the student learned to fly the airplane “by the book.”
On short final, if indicated airspeed (IAS) was too high, flaps were fully extended and the aircraft out of trim longitudinally, it was difficult to transition the airplane into a normal flare. Toss in a strong crosswind and the situation only worsened. If the pilot tried to force the aircraft onto the runway, the potential existed for a propeller strike and damage to the nose gear. Worst case scenario was that the nose gear would touchdown first, possibly leading to the airplane “wheelbarrowing” down the runway. If the final approach was not stabilized, I taught students to immediately initiate a go-around and make another approach.
By contrast, if the student flew the airplane “by the numbers” at the proper IAS (flaps extended) and trimmed accordingly, the C23 would transition to the flare and land on the main gear first.1 It was an easy aircraft to land if configured correctly in accordance with the Pilot Operating Handbook (POH). It just took good airmanship, training and practice.
On the positive side, the C23 had a generous cabin, excellent outside visibility, was not too noisy and the two cabin doors made entry/egress easy. It was not a fast airplane, but was speedy enough for most private pilots on cross-country flights. There are hundreds of Model 19-, 23- and 24-series Beechcrafts for sale on the used airplane market, representing an affordable alternative to much more numerous Cessna and Piper aircraft in their class.