Weary of “flying a desk,” in 1932 Walter H. Beech dared to put wings on his name and build the finest business airplane money could buy.
“I’m just a country boy. Go get a picture of me when I first came to Wichita. I’ve made good and I’m not afraid to say so,” Walter Beech told newspaper reporters in August 1929. At that time, he was president of the Travel Air Company that was known as one of America’s leading manufacturers of private and business airplanes. The company’s success under Walter’s leadership had not gone unnoticed on Wall Street. In March of that year Travel Air had set a record for sales in a single month of $300,000, and by June the factory was producing as many as 25 biplanes and monoplanes per week but could not keep pace with demand.
In the wake of skyrocketing profits that were fueling merger mania within the aviation industry, by the summer of 1929 Travel Air had become a major subsidiary of the giant Curtiss-Wright Corporation based in St. Louis, Missouri. As part of the agreement Walter Beech was appointed president of the Curtiss-Wright Airplane Company and was responsible for all commercial sales. In addition, he was elected a vice president of the parent corporation. At the time of the merger one share of Travel Air stock that was worth $100 in 1925 was now worth $4,000. Almost overnight the merger had made Beech a member of the nation’s exclusive millionaire club.
Only a few months later the stock market crashed in flames and sales of new airplanes entered an unrecoverable tailspin. For example, in 1930 airframe manufacturers in the United States built 1,937 new commercial airplanes. In 1931 that number decreased to 1,582 and by 1932 plummeted to about 550. Despite that downward spiral, during 1930-1933 Curtiss-Wright developed a line of small, light airplanes and amphibians such as the CW-1 “Junior” and the CW-3 “Duckling” that was also known as the “Teal.” Selling for less than $1,500, these ships were a tough sell, even for a master salesman such as Walter Beech. When production halted in 1933 only about 270 had been built.
Although there was weak demand for slow, unsophisticated open-cockpit aircraft such as the CW-3, Beech believed there was potential for a fast, four-place airplane with a long cruising range. He reasoned that it would fill a gap between large transports such as the Curtiss T-32 “Condor” and small aircraft such as the CW-3. The concept seemed sound; what he needed was an airplane that met all the requirements. In early 1931 a young engineer at Curtiss-Wright, Theodore “Ted” Wells, had been working on the design of a cabin biplane featuring negative-stagger wings and powered by a static, air-cooled radial engine. Wells had worked at Travel Air and was one of only two engineers who were relocated to St. Louis when the Travel Air campus was closed in 1931. The negative-stagger wing configuration, although unconventional, afforded the pilot excellent visibility from the cockpit. The ship would use conventional landing gear housed in large fairings to reduce drag. The engine Ted chose to power his flying machine was the Wright Aeronautical R-1510 that produced 710 horsepower. Ted calculated that the biplane would be capable of speeds approaching 250 mph, fly 1,000 statute miles nonstop and land at only 60 mph. In 1931 no such airplane existed. Not even the United States Army Air Corps possessed an aircraft that could match the gusto of Ted’s machine.
Wells showed his preliminary drawings to Walter Beech, who in turn proposed that Curtiss-Wright build the ship. His idea was flatly rejected by company brass, but Walter realized that Ted’s airplane had great potential despite arriving smack in the middle of the worst economic debacle America had experienced. In 1932 Wall Street was still in shambles, tens of millions of people were unemployed, civil unrest was on the rise and mobsters like Chicago’s infamous Al Capone were making both headlines and millions of dollars selling bootleg liquor. Crude oil sold for 10 cents a barrel, a loaf of bread cost a nickel, and worst of all, the people had lost confidence in themselves, President Herbert Hoover, the federal government and their future.
Ted’s radical cabin biplane embodied every characteristic Beech wanted in a business aircraft – high speed, long range, good visibility for the pilot; comfortable seats that rivaled those of a Cadillac sedan, and a low landing speed.1
To Walter’s way of thinking, if Curtiss-Wright did not want to build Ted’s airplane, then Beech would tap into his financial assets and take the biggest gamble of his life – start his own airplane company. Facing an uncertain future in St. Louis, Beech preferred to risk failure than fade into oblivion behind a desk. Having the full support and financial savvy of his wife, Olive Ann, Walter asked Ted about creating their own company. Wells readily agreed, and the determined trio severed their ties with the old and set a new course for the future.
Beech had been contemplating resigning for more than two months. The value of the stock he had obtained in 1929 had fallen to a mere $0.75 cents per share by January 1932. In addition, Curtiss-Wright lost $450,000 in 1931, and Walter knew there was little prospect for advancement under the existing economic conditions. The die was cast, and early in March 1932 Walter submitted his resignation to the Curtiss-Wright Corporation and laid plans to return to Wichita, Kansas – the birthplace of his aviation career. One month earlier he had visited the city, affectionately known as the “Peerless Princess of the Prairie,” to quietly present his bold idea to important officials of the defunct Cessna Aircraft Company. They were pleased to learn that their old friend was returning home but baffled by his plans to re-enter the airframe manufacturing business amid the ravages of the Great Depression.2
The local press swarmed around Mr. and Mrs. Beech when they arrived in Wichita. Walter told reporters that he had returned for the sole purpose of forming the Beech Aircraft Company and to conduct “ambitious experiments” that he predicted would “revolutionize commercial aviation.” By the end of March Ted Wells had arrived and soon after K.K. Shaul, who had served as comptroller for the Travel Air Company, joined the tiny workforce. As originally formed April 19, 1932, officers of the Beech Aircraft Company included:
- Walter H. Beech, president
- Ted Wells, vice president of engineering
- K.K. Shaul, treasurer
- Olive Ann Beech, secretary
As April progressed, Beech was busy hiring ex-Travel Air, Cessna, Swallow and Stearman employees that had proven skills in woodworking, welding and sheet metal. Their talents were deemed essential and would be put to the test building Ted’s new biplane. William “Pete” Hill was hired as company test pilot, and Jack Wassall had resigned from Curtiss-Wright to join Wells in the engineering department.3
As preparations for building the first airplane continued unabated, early in May the Wichita Chamber of Commerce hosted a lavish dinner to honor Walter and Olive Ann Beech. It was held in the Spanish Ballroom at the Hotel Lassen in downtown Wichita. As part of the festivities, telegrams congratulating Beech on his daring adventure were read during the dinner from Walter’s longtime friends including Jimmy Doolittle and Arthur Goebel as well as important aviation officials. Walter and Olive Ann were humbled by the affair and deeply appreciated the way Wichita had welcomed them home. As Olive Ann told one reporter, “It’s great to be back in Wichita. It seems more natural to live and work here. I hope that our stay will be a long one this time” (it certainly was!).
The banquet was enjoyed by all, but Walter was anxious to get back to work building the first Beechcraft. Throughout the month of May and into June construction of numerous jigs, fixtures and tooling progressed smoothly. Raw materials were on order and suppliers lined up to supply the many ancillary components such as pumps, wheels, brakes, spruce, instruments, steel tubing and many other parts. Meanwhile, Wells and Wassall were busy creating hundreds of technical drawings and blueprints that would bring the biplane to life.
In July Wells applied to the Aeronautics Branch of the United States Department of Commerce (DOC) for issuance of two Approved Type Certificates (ATC) – one for the Beechcraft Model 17J and the other for the Beechcraft Model 17R. The airframes of the two aircraft were almost identical, but the 17J would be powered by the Wright R-1510, 14-cylinder radial engine rated at 650 horsepower, while the Model 17R would use the proven Wright R-975E-2, nine-cylinder powerplant that produced 420 horsepower. Eventually, a decision was made to forego building the Model 17J because the R-1510 had not been certified. Back in the halcyon days of Travel Air, both Beech and Wells had experience with the DOC in obtaining an ATC, but neither man could have foreseen the coming struggle to certify the new Beechcraft. That struggle would not only strain their personal and professional relationships, it would also degrade relations with DOC officials and push the infant Beech Aircraft Company toward insolvency.
Basic specifications for the Model 17R include:
- Wingspan of 34 feet 4 inches and use the U.S. Navy’s N-9 airfoil section to reduce drag
- Total wing area: 323 square feet
- Length: 24 feet 3 inches
- Height: 8 feet 8 inches
- Empty weight: 2,677 pounds
- Gross weight: 4,500 pounds
- Estimated maximum speed: 201 mph
- Estimated cruise speed: 180 mph
- Fuel capacity: 145 gallons
- Range: 800-1,050 statute miles
- Landing speed: 60 mph
- Standard-equipped price: $18,000
Late in July the fuselage, empennage, wing panels and flight controls were completed and ready for static testing. Errors discovered by DOC inspectors, however, delayed authorization for the tests until corrections were made, and late in August the static tests were authorized. It took another two months before the Model 17R was ready for final assembly in the Cessna factory. For seven months Walter Beech had watched over its construction like an expectant father and he anxiously awaited its first flight, as did company pilot “Pete” Hill who was looking forward to flying the biplane on its maiden voyage into the skies above Kansas.
As time for the first flight approached, reporters flocked to the Cessna factory armed with a barrage of questions. One of those questions was: “Mr. Beech, how many have you sold so far?” The answer was, zero. Another reporter asked about the price. Walter replied, “About $15,000-$18,000.” Beech readily admitted that the Model 17R was an expensive machine and a costly gamble, but his faith in the bullish biplane remained unshaken.
During a business trip late in October, Walter had tried in vain to secure a buyer for the Beechcraft, but he did have plenty of prospects. Businessmen from across the nation, many of whom Beech had known from his days at Travel Air, expressed interest in the Model 17R but not one red cent was forthcoming in the form of a deposit.
Finally, late in October the powerful Beechcraft was prepared for its first flight. Resplendent in its paint scheme of Insignia Red and Maroon, the Model 17R was a flying machine like no other. If its performance matched Ted’s predictions, Walter Beech would add another impressive accomplishment to his long list of achievements in aviation.
Wearing its assigned DOC registration of 499N on the lower left and upper right-wing panels, November 5, 1932, the first Beechcraft took off from the sod runways adjacent to the Cessna factory. At the controls for that historic event was “Pete” Hill, and the flight proved to be routine. On Nov. 7, with the R-975 roaring at full throttle, the airplane attained an indicated airspeed of 199.5 mph, and two days later, with Walter Beech at the helm, the biplane hit the magic 200 mph mark.
Beech was quick to inform the local press about the flights, and by Nov. 11 the Model 17R was front page news. Beech told the Wichita Eagle newspaper that the airplane possessed the speed of the famous Travel Air Type “R” racer of 1929 and could haul a good payload over a long distance at high speed. Yet, he said, the Beechcraft could be flown by average pilots thanks to its demonstrated landing speed of only 60 mph. Always keen to gain good publicity, Walter invited the public to the municipal airport for their first look at Ted Wells’ creation. More than 1,500 people attended and watched as Hill made a series of flights with passengers, diving at full throttle with the Wright radial screaming at the top of its lungs as he flashed past the crowds. They loved it … and so did Walter Beech.
He knew his airplane company had a machine that was in a class by itself. No other fixed-gear, 4-5-place cabin biplane could approach, let alone match, its performance and comfort. The bullish Beechcraft was an excellent design. All it needed was a sale to prove its commercial viability. An old friend from Oklahoma would soon place his trust and his money in the Model 17R. Why would anyone risk their hard-earned cash in the Great Depression on an unproven airplane built by a struggling startup company? Because of one man and his reputation – Walter H. Beech.
-It is easy for today’s pilots to forget that in 1932 any commercial airplane that landed at 60 mph was considered “a hot ship.” Biplanes of the era, as well as many monoplanes, landed at a gentle speed of about 35-40 mph (without the aid of wing flaps). Landing at low speed was an asset because many pilots operated from unimproved, short, sod fields.
In 1932 the Cessna Aircraft Company board of directors had locked Clyde Cessna out of his own factory. Undaunted, he and his son Eldon started the C.V. Cessna Aircraft Company specializing in custom-built air racing monoplanes. They built those ships in Walter Beech’s closed Travel Air facility. Beech may have sought space in the Travel Air factory to build the first Beechcraft, but Curtiss-Wright apparently refused to cooperate, so he turned to the Cessna company for help.
Wassall was a graduate engineer who had been a shop foreman at Curtiss-Wright in St. Louis. He lacked experience in designing aircraft, but Wells was glad to have his assistance.