Impressed by the success of Piper’s PA-23 Apache and Cessna’s Model 310, in 1956 Beech Aircraft Corporation entered the emerging light twin-engine market with its Model 95 Travel Air.
In postwar America, general aviation’s “Golden Age” was born in the late 1940s and by the early 1950s was maturing rapidly, attracting thousands of would-be aviators yearning to fly. In the nation’s “Air Capital of the World,” Wichita, Kansas, airframe manufacturers such as Beech Aircraft Corporation and the Cessna Aircraft Company were thriving, reaping the benefits of a commercial market that had not been so vibrant since the end of the “Roarin’ Twenties.”
A look at records from Beech Aircraft Corporation for the year 1953 reflects the public’s growing interest in aviation. That year the company introduced the D35 Bonanza – the latest edition of its highly successful, single-engine Model 35, and the much larger Model B50 Twin Bonanza. The latter filled a gap in the product line between the Bonanza and the venerable Model 18 (nearly 1,000 of the stalwart “Twin Beech” had been built for feeder airlines and executive transport since 1945), and President Olive Ann Beech anticipated that worldwide commercial and military sales for 1954 would exceed $80 million.1
Beech Aircraft, however, was not the only airframe manufacturer reaping the benefits of America’s resurgent love affair with flying. Across town, the Cessna Aircraft Company had built more than 1,800 new monoplanes in 1953, and overall sales had increased 55 percent by comparison with 1952. The nation’s third major light airplane builder, Piper Aircraft Corporation, based in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, reported a 48 percent increase in sales, thanks in part to expanding use of aircraft expressly for business flying. Company officials reported that the increasing popularity of Piper airplanes acquired exclusively for executive flights grew by more than 67 percent in 1953 compared to only 40 percent two years earlier.2
The majority of airplanes being sold were single-engine models, chiefly because they were smaller, more affordable than twin-engine models that were larger and far more expensive to own and operate. By the early 1950s, however, some industry officials, particularly Howard “Pug” Piper and his brother Thomas, both senior executives at Piper Aircraft, realized that their company’s product line needed a low-price, small, all-metal, four- or five-place twin-engine design that would be Piper’s flagship. As of 1952, nobody in Wichita had plans to build such an aircraft because little or no demand existed.
Until the early 1950s, Piper Aircraft was known almost universally as the company that built the legendary J-3 Cub and marketed a host of similar single-engine, conventional-gear airplanes burdened with 1930s-era welded steel tube airframes with fabric covering. One man, Pug Piper, knew the time had come to leave the obsolete Cub and its siblings behind and develop a new, modern aircraft featuring aluminum alloy construction and two dependable engines. When discussions began Pug eagerly championed developing concepts for a twin-engine airplane.3
Pug realized that thousands of pilots and businessmen were using small aircraft to help sell their products, but as the rate of utilizing those airplanes increased, there was a growing cry for multi-engine redundancy. By 1952, the absence of, and increasing demand for, a low-priced, economical, light twin-engine airplane was the major impetus for development of the Apache. Piper, however, was not alone in its quest for a small twin-engine monoplane. West of the Mississippi River in Kansas, Cessna Aircraft President Dwane L. Wallace already had his engineers working on a new design that would become the Model 310, and Beech Aircraft had flown its new Model 50 Twin Bonanza late in 1949.
Unlike Beech Aircraft and Cessna Aircraft that had manufactured thousands of twin-engine monoplanes during World War II, Piper Aircraft’s engineers had little or no experience designing or producing that type of airplane. Undaunted, chief engineer Walter C. Jamouneau and his staff tackled the project with enthusiasm. By early 1952 his team had designed and built an engineering prototype designated the PA-23. It first flew on March 4, 1952, 14 months after development had begun. In its original configuration, the PA-23 was a mixture of old and new technologies that reflected the company’s inexperience with modern airplanes.
As with all Piper models at that time, the Apache’s fuselage was constructed of welded steel tubing with fabric covering, and the empennage featured twin vertical stabilizers that resembled those used on the Beechcraft Model 18 (later replaced by a single vertical stabilizer borrowed from the aborted Piper PA-6 Sky Sedan). The wings were aluminum alloy except for the outer panels, and a tricycle, retractable landing gear system was installed.
During 1953, the Apache was gradually redesigned to make it a truly modern, marketable airplane. Although the welded steel tubing surrounding the cabin structure was retained, the entire fuselage was covered in sheet metal. On July 29 of that year, the PA-23 production prototype made its first flight and seven months later, on January 29, 1954, the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) certified the Apache. In keeping with Piper’s reputation as the general aviation industry’s price and value leader, the PA-23 sold for $32,500 – significantly lower than the projected price of Cessna’s Model 310 ($49,000), and far below the Beechcraft Model 50 that sold for a stout $70,000.
In the PA-23, Piper Aircraft Corporation had succeeded in designing a comfortable four-place, high-performance twin-engine airplane that provided a cruise speed of 170 mph and a maximum range of 700 statute miles. Pilots liked the Apache. It was easy to fly thanks in part to its low wing loading, and the two four-cylinder Lycoming engines were economical to operate and boasted an 800-hour time between overhaul (TBO).
Meanwhile, in Wichita on January 3, 1953, Cessna Aircraft engineering test pilot Hank Waring took the prototype Model 310 aloft for 30 minutes on its maiden flight. The sleek, all-metal twin-engine Cessna represented a new beginning for the company that had begun as early as 1950 when officials realized that a growing number of pilots wanted a fast, modern, twin-engine airplane capable of flying cross-country at night and under instrument flight rules. The Model 310 was Cessna Aircraft’s first lightweight twin since the prewar Model T-50 Bobcat, which was built in large numbers for the Royal Canadian Air Force and the United States Army Air Forces and Navy as the Crane I/Crane 1a and the AT-8/AT-17/JRC-1, respectively.4
After engineers and marketing personnel completed a design study during May-July 1951, an airframe mockup was built followed by the engineering prototype. When the airplane flew that day in January 1953, there was nothing else like it in the skies. Flight testing progressed rapidly, and a second prototype soon joined the first in an accelerated flight test program that led to CAA certification in March 1954 – three months after CAA approval of Piper’s Apache. The first production run of Cessna’s Model 310 began rolling down the assembly line in April followed by initial deliveries in May.
The 310 was powered by six-cylinder Continental O-470-B opposed piston engines, each rated at 240 horsepower and equipped with constant-speed, full-feathering propellers. Two wing tip fuel tanks held 100 gallons of avgas, and the electrically-operated tricycle landing gear featured a steerable nosewheel. Maximum speed was more than 220 mph with a service ceiling of 20,000 feet. As with the Apache, the Model 310 was the right airplane at the right time and the marketplace embraced it with gusto. Production ceased with the 1981 Model 310R after Cessna had built more than 5,400 commercial and military versions of its popular light twin.
Finally, in 1956, management at Beech Aircraft Corporation decided the company needed a light twin of its own. Sales of the Apache and Model 310 were strong and Bonanza owners wanting to step up to higher performance had no choice but to consider a Cessna or Piper product. In addition, Beech Aircraft’s product line lacked an airplane to fill the gap between the Model G35 Bonanza and the Model 50 Twin Bonanza.
Using their usual “cookbook” process, Beech engineers borrowed heavily from the Bonanza’s fuselage, cabin and wing structure to create to Model 95 Travel Air.5 The name was a throwback to the halcyon days of the 1920s when the Travel Air Company was among the nation’s most prolific manufacturers of open-cockpit biplanes and enclosed-cabin monoplanes. Both Walter H. Beech and Olive Ann Mellor (Beech) had “learned the aviation business” at Travel Air. They never forgot the lessons it taught them when they bravely co-founded the Beech Aircraft Company in 1932, smack in the middle of the worst economic debacle America had ever faced. During the years 1925-1932 the company built more than 1,500 aircraft, including the famous Type “R” racer that won the 1929 Thompson Cup at an average speed of more than 194 mph.
Progress on design and development of the Model 95 progressed smoothly during 1955 and into 1956. The latest Beechcraft would seat four in a comfortable cabin that shared its large windows with the G35 Bonanza. Two, four-cylinder Lycoming O-360-A1A opposed, carbureted piston engines were selected to power the Model 95. Each engine was rated at 180 horsepower and turned two-blade, constant-speed, full-feathering propellers.
An engineering prototype was ready for flight in the summer of 1956, and first flew on August 6. Certification testing continued through 1956 and into early 1957, with the CAA issuing Type Certificate 3A16 on June 6 of that year. In terms of performance, the new Beechcraft was competitive with its two adversaries from Lock Haven and across town in Wichita, with a maximum speed of 208 mph compared with the Model 310 at more than 220 mph and the Apache’s 183 mph. As for price, the Beechcraft cost $49,500 – about equal with the Model 310 but more than the Piper Apache at less than $35,000.
Maximum gross weight of early production Model 95 airplanes, which began rolling off the assembly line for the 1958 model year, was 4,000 pounds. The wings held 112 gallons of useable fuel that gave the Travel Air a range of more than 1,400 statute miles. The two-engine service ceiling was 19,300 feet and rate of climb was 1,350 feet per minute. In addition, the Model 95 could maintain an altitude of 8,000 feet, at gross weight, with one engine inoperative.
Beechcrafters built 173 airplanes in 1958 and another 129 in 1959 before production changed to the improved Model B95 and B95A for the 1960 model year (by comparison, Cessna built 228 Model 310B and 262 Model 310C during 1957-1959, and when production of the Apache ceased in 1962, Piper had built more than 2,000 examples of the PA-23).
The light twin market was always highly competitive, and to keep the Model 95 a stronger contender, in 1960 the company introduced an upgraded version designated Model B95. The most salient change was a 19-inch extension of the cabin section to provide more leg room for rear seat passengers, while total area of the horizontal stabilizer and elevators was increased to improve pitch control. Beech engineers also added a swept dorsal fin forward of the vertical stabilizer that enhanced the airplane’s visual appeal.
Maximum gross weight was increased by 100 pounds to 4,100 and useful load climbed to 1,465 pounds. Priced at $51, 500 for a standard-equipped airplane, the factory produced 150 B95 twins before it was replaced by the Model B95A for the 1961 model year. The chief upgrade was installation of fuel-injected Lycoming IO-360-B1A powerplants each rated at 180 horsepower, and a higher maximum speed of 210 mph. Price remained at $49,500 but only 81 of the B95A were built.
The next version to enter production was the Model D95A that debuted in 1963. It featured the larger, curved third cabin window used on its single-engine cousin, the Model N35/P35 Bonanza. The forward baggage compartment was enlarged to 19 cubic feet of volume, and the nose section of the fuselage was more tapered than those of earlier production airplanes. As with all the Travel Air twins, a combustion heater in the nose section provided warmth in the cabin, and the tricycle landing gear was electrically operated. Despite these upgrades, price remained at $49,500 for a D95A with standard equipment.
As the lightweight twin-engine market continued to evolve in the early 1960s, pilots, and in particular businessmen who flew their own airplanes, wanted more speed, cabin comfort, range and utility. In response, in 1960 Beech Aircraft took the basic Model 95 platform, enlarged the airframe and installed more powerful engines to create the Model 95-55 Baron.
Soon, the Baron was outselling the smaller Travel Air and by 1968 the decision was made to terminate production of the Model 95. The final version was the E95, of which only 14 were built that year. The E95 received only minor improvements that included refined cabin interior appointments, a one-piece windshield that was first used on the S35 Bonanza in 1966, and more tapered propeller spinners. The final Travel Air built was serial number TD-721.
Although not built in large numbers as were the Model 310 and PA-23, for 10 years the Model 95 series lightweight twin held its own against the competition and successfully filled a niche in the company’s production line until bigger and better Beechcrafts arrived on the scene.
- The Aircraft Year Book – 1953; Aircraft Industries Association of American, Inc., Lincoln Press, Inc., Washington, D.C.
- Of William Piper’s three sons, Pug was chiefly responsible for introducing new aircraft designs into the company’s product line. As one engineer who knew him well said, “He was always willing to give a concept a try, no matter where it came from. He would pursue promising ideas but if they failed, he immediately stopped working on them and looked at other alternatives.”
- During 1941-1944 the company manufactured more than 5,300 of these airplanes, many of which were sold as war surplus and helped to form America’s postwar air transport industry. The airplanes served with small feeder airlines and air taxi/charter operators that sprang up across the nation, and for basic corporate transportation.
- Beech Aircraft initially designated the Model 95 as the Badger but soon dropped that moniker to avoid confusion with the American code name for the Soviet Tupolev TU-16 bomber.