Breaking Point

Breaking Point

Breaking Point

By 1933 the Beech Aircraft Company was starved for cash and the future looked dim until a Texas oilman plunked down $12,000 for a custom-built Beechcraft.

After more than one year in business, Walter H. Beech had yet to sell an airplane bearing his name. He had flown many demonstration flights in the first Beechcraft, but despite widespread enthusiasm for the biplane, excellent press exposure and success at air races, sales remained elusive.

In February, however, the company’s financial situation improved significantly when Walter received orders for not one, but two new airplanes. Thomas Loffland of the Loffland Brothers Company based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, agreed to buy the first Model 17R-1, and the famous clothier, Goodall-Worsted company of Sanford, Maine, sent a check for $8,000 as a deposit on the more powerful Model A17F.

Loffland was no stranger to business aviation. In the late 1920s the brothers’ oil company had operated at least five Travel Air biplanes, and Thomas was a strong advocate of flying as a rapid mode of transportation between drilling sites. To his way of thinking, however, airplanes were a business tool, not a luxury. He knew about Walter’s return to the airframe manufacturing business, and his demonstration flights in the Model 17R-1 had only whetted his appetite for speed and utility.

The first Beechcraft sold was Model 17R-2, registered NC58Y to the Loffland Brothers oil company based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Four circles aft of the baggage door are aerial flares that could be deployed to illuminate the ground in case of an emergency landing at night. In 1935 Tom Loffland traded the ship for a new
Beechcraft Model B17E. NC58Y was dismantled at the factory and disappeared from company records. (Textron Aviation)

Instead of buying the Model 17R-1, which would have deprived Walter Beech of a demonstrator airplane, Loffland ordered a new Beechcraft built to his specifications – the Model 17R-2. It was almost identical to the first Beechcraft but featured a few notable changes. Chief among these was relocating the engine mount 3 inches farther forward to reduce cabin noise and improving longitudinal stability; the main landing gear structure was reinforced and a shock strut was installed on the tailwheel, which remained rigid as on the 17R-1. Other modifications included installation of a larger aft landing wire and an additional brace wire beneath the horizontal stabilizer, a new aileron spar and hinge were designed and a new drag truss member was installed at the interplane struts. The alterations increased empty weight of the 17R-2 to 2,767 pounds – 90 more than its sister ship.

Beech Aircraft’s chief engineer, Ted Wells, also made one other improvement that proved to be troublesome. Wells decided that the installation of a manually-operated “trimming flap” (trim tab) would replace the existing electric trim system that pivoted the entire empennage. Although the flap had its merits, it was but one of several problems that would plague government approval of the airplane and ultimately delay delivery to Loffland.

By the end of May 1933, construction of the Beechcraft Model 17R-2 was nearing completion. Both Walter and Ted were determined to meet the delivery date of June 16, and they knew Tom Loffland expected the ship to be ready for a cross-country flight he had planned in advance. Back in Washington, D.C., however, inspectors at the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce informed Ted about a number of problems with the stress analysis and technical drawings that he had dutifully submitted for approval.

In addition to concerns about the trimming flap installation, questions arose about the tailwheel tire and shock strut. A review of the stress analysis revealed that the tailwheel fitting supporting the shock strut were critical in the three-point landing condition, not the side load condition that Wells had calculated. To ensure that the shock strut installation met the latest requirements postulated by the Aeronautics Branch, a test had to be performed to ensure that the shock strut could absorb landing loads in the three-point condition. To make matters worse, inspectors rejected Wells’ description of the tail brace wire, found fault with the engineering information provided for the trimming flap, and demanded load tests of the flap.

After sending a number of telegrams back and forth between Wichita and Washington, Ted and his assistant, Jack Wassall, quickly revised the technical drawings, recalculated loads on the tailwheel shock strut, conducted load tests on the empennage and trimming flap and resubmitted the paperwork as required. By early June, Walter Beech’s temper was heating up. He wanted to know why flight testing of the Model 17R-2 was being delayed and insisted that the ship be ready for delivery on the promised date of June 16.

Ted was under tremendous pressure. Desperate to meet the deadline, he fired off a telegram to officials at the Aeronautics Branch:

“We are in a jam regarding delivery of this ship, as the owner wants to go on an important trip Friday morning, June 16, and he is liable to do things if we cannot deliver the ship then. The customer is standing around fuming, so I would appreciate your authorizing flight tests by wire. I realize this is putting quite a bit of pressure on you, but it would certainly help out a starving airplane company if you can do it.”

“Starving” was the correct word. The Beech Aircraft Company’s coffers were fast approaching empty, and Walter desperately needed to deliver the airplane and receive the balance due. Fortunately, Ted got his wish and flight tests were authorized for June 15. Four days later inspector George Gay conducted the flights. In his report to Washington, Gay noted that there was little or no perceptible difference between the first Beechcraft and the second (in 1933 he had conducted tests of NC499N). He praised the new tailwheel arrangement with its shock absorber that made taxiing over unimproved sod and grass runways much smoother.

Finally, on June 19 George Gay completed flight evaluations of Loffland’s new Beechcraft, now registered NC58Y. Walter Beech had the money he needed to keep his company alive, and Tom Loffland had his shiny, new biplane. It was immediately placed into service flying between oil fields and drilling rigs in Oklahoma and Texas as well as transporting company officials on business trips.

The pilot hired to fly the bullish Beechcraft was 27-year-old Edwin “Eddie” Ross. He had learned to fly in 1926 and served briefly as a test pilot for the Redbird Airplane Company. By 1929 he was working for the Loffland Brothers flying their open-cockpit Travel Airs. When he arrived at the factory to take delivery of NC58Y, Ross suspected that the red Beechcraft would test his piloting abilities as no other airplane could. Although the airplane represented a massive step up in performance, Ross was confident that he could master the biplane.

Eddie quickly discovered that the ship’s narrow landing gear track made taxiing difficult. The rigid tailwheel aggravated maneuvering on the ground, and he thought that a swiveling tailwheel, like those on the old Travel Airs, would be a welcome modification. He also disliked the restricted visibility over the big cowling surrounding the Wright R-975 radial engine, and from the first takeoff he increased power slowly and held full right rudder to avoid losing directional control.

Once the Model 17R-2 was airborne, it flew like no other airplane could. As Eddie gained experience his confidence increased, as did his admiration for the powerful flying machine Ted Wells had created. Tom Loffland liked it, too, and kept Ross busy during the first three months flying the ship throughout the Midwestern region of the nation.

On Sept. 19, 1933, however, the biplane was severely damaged during takeoff from an oil drilling site in Oklahoma. Ross gave the engine full power, pushed full right rudder to the floorboards and hoped for the best. With the R-975 bellowing, the Beechcraft left a thick cloud of dust in its wake as the wings struggled to produce lift in the hot, thin air. Barely off the ground and climbing lethargically, NC58Y struck an oil rig but kept flying. Eddie felt the ship lurch hard to the right. Instinctively, he cut the throttle to idle and managed to land without incident in a field.

A quick inspection of the wounded Beechcraft revealed that the lower-right wing panel was “washed out” but the lower-left panel was only slightly damaged. The crippled biplane was disassembled and transported by truck to the factory for major repairs. The right wing panel required 14 ribs, two steel main spars, two drag wires, three compression members and one aileron. The left panel needed nothing more than a new wingtip bow, but upon inspection workmen discovered more damage to the structure adjacent to the left interplane strut. They also found damage to the left horizontal stabilizer leading edge. When repairs were completed, engineering inspector George Gay approved the work and the ship was returned to service October 12, 1933.

NC499N was photographed after a second brace wire was installed on the empennage. The biplane was flownextensively on demonstration flights across the United States, often piloted by Walter Beech. The airplane impressed everyone who flew in it, but no sales were forthcoming. (Wichita State University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives)

Ross continued to fly the Beechcraft and by June 1934 he had accumulated more than 400 hours flying NC58Y. During an annual inspection that month, the Smith controllable-pitch propeller was removed and returned to the Beech factory in exchange for a Hamilton Standard ground-adjustable unit. After nearly two years of thundering through the skies in the bullish biplane, in April 1935, Tom Loffland traded in NC58Y for a new Beechcraft Model B17E.

The final disposition of Model 17R-2 remains a mystery. It is known to have been dismantled at the factory (almost certainly at the order of Walter Beech) and permanently retired from service. Company records state that the ship was disassembled soon after being accepted in trade for the B17E. Given the Model 17R-2’s brute power and high level of performance, Walter may have ensured that the airplane never flew again.

More than 80 years later no conclusive evidence has been found that NC58Y was preserved, in part or in whole. Walter Beech realized that the next generation of the Model 17, beginning with the B17L of 1934, was far more affordable, easier to fly, more economical and practical than the first generation Beechcrafts. The airplane’s demise, however, seems undignified for a flying machine of such grandeur and technical elegance. Despite having long since disappeared from history, NC58Y still holds the distinction of being the first airplane sold by Walter Beech and his airplane company.

During the time that the Loffland Brothers’ Model 17R-2 was in their service, the Model 17R-1 had soldiered on as the only company demonstrator. Prospects who flew in the airplane liked most of its features and were duly impressed by its sheer gusto and unequaled performance, pilots disliked the rigid tailwheel that acted more like an old-fashioned tailskid than a modern tailwheel. The installation did have the benefit of being simple and reliable, but it was damaging NC499N’s sales potential.

As a result, Walter Beech and Ted Wells decided to remove the rigid unit and replace it with a full-swiveling tailwheel. It seemed like an easy modification, but Ted soon found himself in a dilemma regarding what size wheel and tire to use. Wells wanted to use a Warner
10 x 3-inch wheel because it would not affect the landing angle of the wings. A wheel of larger diameter would raise the empennage too high and result in a longer rollout after landing. Ted eventually decided to proceed with the Warner installation.

Because the modification would result in a technical change to the airplane that would take it out of compliance with the original Approved Type Certificate, Wells contacted Richard Gazley at the Aeronautics Branch. He agreed that the Warner setup could be approved but advised Ted that the Tire & Rim Association listed the wheel weight rating at not more than 400 pounds with the tire inflated to 55 psi. Despite Gazley’s comments that a larger wheel/tire combination would be better, Wells replied that, “…we do not want to hang anything outside of the airplane that is unnecessarily large, as everything counts a great deal in the speed of our plane.”

Late in July 1933, NC499N was rolled into the factory where the 16 x 7 rigid tailwheel and its mudguard were removed, and the aft fuselage rebuilt to comply with the configuration used on NC58Y. Gazley, however, approved the installation only for NC499N and did not require Ted to perform any drop tests of the new installation. Engineering inspector Fred Grieve perused the tailwheel, including the locking mechanism that held the tire straight when engaged. After flight testing, he approved the airplane for return to service.

A photograph taken in 1933 reveals a number of changes to NC499N, including final configuration of the empennage brace wires, installation of a full-swiveling tailwheel, and sets of louvers cut into the boot cowling to ventilate the engine compartment. (Wichita State University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives)

After 18 months of operation, in September 1933 the Beech Aircraft Company had sold and delivered only one airplane – the 17R-2, NC58Y. The Model 17R-1, NC499N, had yet to find a buyer. It had become obvious to Beech and Wells that the Model 17R design was not viable in the existing business aircraft market. It was a great flying machine, but the harsh economic realities of the Great Depression were simply too ruthless to sustain sales. Walter and local pilots George Harte and L.G. Larson continued to fly NC499N on trips to prospective customers, and the ship had become a common sight at many airports across the nation.

Finally, in April 1934, the first Beechcraft built was sold to the Ethyl Corporation. At the time of the sale, the ship had accumulated 500 hours in the air since its first flight in November 1932. The corporation’s pilot, Dewey L. Noyes, handed Walter a check for $11,827.35 and took delivery May 24 before flying the ship back east to New York City.

During the next 18 months Noyes was kept busy flying company executives around the country, logging 460 hours in the left seat. On Dec. 11, 1935, Noyes and a company official were killed when NC499N struck a hill near Munda, New York, in bad weather, including fog and low clouds. Noyes may have been descending slowly hoping to make visual contact with the ground. Suddenly the Beechcraft ripped through a stand of trees. The thick trunks quickly amputated all four wings before the fuselage slammed into the ground and toppled to a stop in an open field. The Wright radial engine was torn from its mount and rolled across the ground before coming to rest a short distance from the twisted and mangled fuselage.

Walter Beech finally found a buyer for NC499N in April 1934, two years after the Beech Aircraft Company had begun operations. The Ethyl Corporation ordered modifications to the ship, including a wider landing gear and a new Wright R-975 static, air-cooled radial engine rated at 420 horsepower. The airplane crashed in December 1935, killing the pilot and a
passenger. (Textron Aviation)

It was a sad end1 for a historic airplane and a tragic loss of two lives. During its brief career, however, NC499N had succeeded in thrusting Walter Beech and the Beech Aircraft Company’s name to the forefront of aviation.


 n 1983 pilot and mechanic Steve Pfister excavated remains of the airplane that had been buried by the landowner 48 years earlier after the accident. He began constructing a new NC499N using some salvaged parts but died before completing the airframe. Noted aircraft restorer James Younkin took over the project, and the reborn NC499N is on display at the Staggerwing Museum in Tullahoma, Tennessee.

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