In 1949, William Odom flew a Model 35 “Bonanza” nonstop from Hawaii to New Jersey, setting two world records for light aircraft, as well as demonstrating the reliability of Beechcraft’s single-engine flagship.
Charles Lindbergh, Wiley Post, Sir Frank Kingston-Smith, Amelia Earhart − names that have earned a special place in aviation history for their long-distance flights. Lindbergh was first to fly solo, nonstop from New York to Paris, France; Post flew around the world not once but twice, the second time solo; Kingston-Smith blazed the first sky trail from England to Australia, and the lanky, shy woman from Kansas captured the hearts of America and the world with her daring flights, the last beset by a mystery that is yet to be solved.
These and many other pilots, both male and female, made headlines in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s as the airplane revolutionized travel between distant places. Even such remote regions as the frigid and inhospitable Arctic and Antarctic had been conquered by air, and the vast Pacific Ocean between America and China had been traversed by Juan Trippe and his fleet of Sikorsky and Boeing “Clippers.” By 1940, there were few potential record-setting challenges remaining to long-distance fliers, and World War II had put an end to almost all civilian flying for five years. In the wake of the war, however, public interest in aviation remained high. Airline service in the United States expanded significantly, and air travel across the Atlantic Ocean between New York, London and Paris was increasingly becoming commonplace.
Onto this stage stepped a young pilot named William “Bill” Odom. Born in Oklahoma but raised in Missouri, Odom helped fight the war by ferrying bombers from America to England, and later flew transports above the infamous and deadly “hump” from India to China, delivering much-needed supplies to the fighting men on the ground. Bill’s record-setting achievements began after the war when he flew a Douglas A-26 Invader, named “The Reynolds Bombshell,” around the world in 78 hours, smashing the mark set in 1933 by Wiley Post flying the famous Lockheed monoplane, “Winnie Mae.” One year later, Odom followed up that feat by circling the globe flying the same A-26 solo in less than 73 hours.
Confident of his cumulative abilities as an airman as well as a navigator, by 1948 Odom was contemplating a nonstop flight from Hawaii to the United States,
but he needed an airplane that was up to the challenge. He found it in the Beechcraft Model 35. Developed during 1944 and 1945, the all-metal Bonanza was a major step forward in postwar light airplane design and replaced the aging but classic, steel tube and fabric-covered Model 17 cabin biplane.
The following is only a sampling of important speed and distance records captured by Beechcraft airplanes during a 30-year period.
1949: Captain William Odom, Beechcraft Bonanza A35; Honolulu-Oakland, 2,406.9 miles in 22 hours, six minutes.
1949: Captain William Odom, Beechcraft Bonanza A35; Honolulu-Teterboro, New Jersey, 4,957 miles in 36 hours, two minutes.
1952: Paul Burniat, Brussels, Belgium; world speed record of 225.7 kilometers per hour, Beechcraft Bonanza.
1953: Mrs. Marion Hart, nonstop Newfoundland-Ireland, Beechcraft Bonanza.
1958: Pat Boling, world record for nonstop flight in a light airplane; Manila, Philippines-Pendleton, Oregon; 7,090 miles in 45 hours, 43 minutes; Beechcraft Bonanza J35.
1960: James D. Webber; world altitude record of 34,862 feet, Beechcraft Model 65 Queen Air.
1966: Robert and Joan Wallick; round-the-world record for piston-powered aircraft; 23,629 miles in five days, six hours, 17 minutes, 10 seconds; Beechcraft C55 Baron.
1971: Travor K. Broughan and R.N. Dickeson; around-the-world record for piston-powered aircraft; 24,800 miles in five days, five hours, 57 minutes; Beechcraft B55 Baron.
1971: Louise Sacchi; speed record for Class C-1.d Group 1 aircraft; New York-London, 3,443.5 miles in 17 hours, 22 minutes, 54 seconds; average speed: 198.8 mph; Beechcraft Bonanza A36.
1975: Denys Dalton and Terry Gwynn-Jones; around-the-world record for piston-powered aircraft; 24,854 miles in five days, two hours, 15 minutes; Beechcraft Model 60 Duke.
1977: Jack Rodd and Harold Benham; shortest elapsed time around the world in a single-engine aircraft; 10 days, 23 hours, 33 minutes; Beechcraft Bonanza S35.
1977: Dieter Schmitt; 4,300 miles nonstop, New York City-Munich, Germany, in 25 hours, 48 minutes; Beechcraft Bonanza F33A.
1978: F.T. Elliott, Jr., Thomas Clements; three speed records over a recognized course; 233.2 and 206.2; distance in a straight line, 2,033.9 miles, San Francisco-Poughkeepsie, New York; Beechcraft King Air C90.
1979: Marie McMillan; world speed record for National Aeronautics Association Class C1c aircraft; Fresno, California-Las Vegas, Nevada; Beechcraft Bonanza F33A.
1979: Jeanette Fowler; world speed record; Sacramento, California-Los Angeles; 220 mph, Beechcraft Bonanza A36.
The Model 35 first flew on December 22, 1945, with Beechcraft engineering test pilot Vern Carstens at the controls. The airplane quickly earned an Approved Type Certificate from the federal government and initial deliveries to customers began in 1947. By the time Odom was preparing for his flight, more than 1,900 Bonanzas were flying not only in America, but in Europe, India and many other countries. The Model 35 selected for Odom’s flight bore serial number D-4 and was among the very first Bonanzas built by the Beech Aircraft Corporation. During the three previous years, it had served the company well as an experimental engineering platform and had been flown (unmanned and under radio-control) through a series of high-speed dives that approached 300 mph, followed by high-G pullouts.
The Beech Aircraft Corporation sponsored both the first and second flights made by Odom. Walter and Olive Ann Beech not only supported Bill’s plans, they also threw the weight of Beech Aircraft’s technical expertise behind the project. The only major change made to the airframe was installation of a Continental six-cylinder, E-185 engine that was standard equipment in the current production Model A35. In addition, special fuel and oil tanks were installed that held 288 gallons and 7.5 gallons, respectively. The aft cabin seats were removed and replaced with fuel cells that held 126 gallons, and wing tip tanks each contained 62 gallons.1
In 1949, the record for light airplanes in the Model 35’s weight category (aircraft weighing 2,204.7 to 3,858 pounds) had been held by Russian pilots Goussarov and Glebov since 1937. In September of that year, they flew a Moskalev monoplane powered by a 100-hp M-11 engine an official distance of 2,061.7 miles, from Moscow to Krasnoyarsk. Odom, however, was aiming to break not only that record but also exceed the mark for nonstop miles flown by a light airplane established in 1938 by German aviators Horat Pulkowski and Lieutenant Jenett flying an Arado AR 79. They covered a distance of more than 3,917 miles from Bengasi, Libya, to Gaya, India.
In January 1949, Odom was ready to make his assault on both records. The Model 35 was disassembled and shipped from Oakland, Calif., to Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, via a Douglas DC-4 freighter operated by Pan American Airways. After the airplane had been assembled and given a series of test flights, Bill and his trusty Bonanza were ready for takeoff. Their destination was Teterboro, N.J. – more than 6,000 statute miles to the east. Ahead of them lay nearly 3,000 miles of the vast Pacific followed by another 3,000 miles of American soil. On January 12, Odom taxied into position on Runway 8 at Hickam Field. The takeoff was uneventful, and good weather made the long, eastward traverse of the Pacific relatively easy.
Unfortunately, after crossing the West Coast and penetrating well inland, he encountered severe weather near Reno, Nev. Unable to circumnavigate the storms, and after carefully considering fuel consumption, Bill made a 180-degree turn and landed at Oakland 22 hours and six minutes after leaving Hickam Field. He had failed to reach New Jersey, but he had achieved one of his goals – he took the record away from the Russians. In addition, the flight marked the first crossing from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland by a light airplane. The Bonanza had flown a great circle distance of 2,406 miles although total distance in the air was 2,900 miles.
Undaunted, Odom began preparations for a second attempt to reach Teterboro from Hawaii. Two months later at 12:04 a.m. (Honolulu time) on March 6, the
Model 35, dubbed “Waikiki Beech,” took off again from Runway 8 at Hickam Field after a takeoff run of only 2,400 feet. The airplane weighed 3,858 pounds (compared to 2,650 pounds for a stock A35) with full fuel and oil tanks. Despite a nearly 50 percent increase in maximum gross weight, the Waikiki Beech managed to climb at 400 feet per minute and was soon cruising comfortably above the Pacific. Accompanying the Beechcraft for the first 900 miles was a Boeing B-17 air/sea rescue aircraft operated by the Hawaiian Sea Frontier, conducting a part of its normal patrol route.
More than nine hours later, Odom reported by radio that he was overflying the weather ship “Red Head Fox,” but he soon learned from radio contact with San Francisco that rough weather lie ahead on his route. As a result, Bill detoured 100 miles south, but as he skirted around the southern edge of the storms had to revert to instrument flying for about one hour. Eventually, he cleared the worst weather and continued eastward toward the West Coast, 450 miles away. Soon after he was joined by a U.S. Coast Guard Martin PBM that rode “shotgun” on the Beechcraft until it flew over San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate Bridge at 4:51 p.m., Eastern Standard Time.
The hardest and most dangerous phase of the flight was history. The 2,474 miles across open ocean had been navigated in slightly more than 16 hours. During that time, the E-185 engine had consumed 128 of the 288 gallons on board, leaving 160 gallons of avgas available to reach New Jersey. As the flight progressed eastward over the Sierra Mountains, Odom was forced to change course well to the north to avoid more storms. The detour took him over northern California into Oregon, then into Idaho, but the storms were one step ahead of the Waikiki Beech. Odom strapped on his oxygen mask, went on instruments and climbed the Beechcraft to 16,000 feet. Finally, after a busy night dealing with bad weather, Odom and the monoplane emerged over Nebraska in the early morning hours.
As the sun rose in the eastern sky, the long trek was drawing ever closer to its destination. Fortunately, the weather cooperated and the remaining hours went by without incident as Bill looked down on Omaha, Des Moines, Iowa; Moline, Ill.; Chicago, Toledo, Ohio, and Cleveland. Then, at 12:06 p.m. on March 7, the Bonanza and its pilot landed safely at Teterboro. Total flight time had been 36 hours, two minutes, and Odom’s careful fuel management resulted in about 16 gallons of fuel remaining – an amount sufficient to fly another 370 miles. Total cost for fuel and oil: $75. The second flight of Bill Odom and the Waikiki Beech succeeded not only in establishing two world records, but came within a mere 191 miles of equaling a record for the longest single flight between refueling of 5,464 miles set by a U.S. Air Force B-50 bomber during a nonstop, around-the-world flight completed earlier in 1949.
During the long journey from Hawaii to New Jersey, both man and machine had performed flawlessly. After the flight, Beech chief engineer Theodore “Ted” Wells calculated that if a Model A35 was stripped of all unnecessary weight and stuffed with fuel and oil tanks, the airplane would be capable of flying more than 8,000 statute miles nonstop. When asked what the flight had achieved, Odom responded, “We set out to prove the efficiency and economy of Beechcrafts by breaking the nonstop distance record.” 2
The prestigious New York Times reinforced Odom’s comments: “Qualities of dependability have been so well developed in the airplane Odom flew that it is now in daily use by scores of large businesses, to speed and simplify the coming and goings of their respective staffs. The world record is abundant proof that the light plane and its power plant have reached full stature.” Although the record was impressive by standards of the day, the era of long-distance, record-setting flights and the ensuing public enthusiasm for them was drawing to a close. The advent of the jet engine and its application to advanced aircraft designs during the 1950s and 1960s gradually brought the world much closer together, overshadowing the role of the light airplane. In 2015, a nonstop flight from Hawaii to New Jersey by a pilot flying a Bonanza would be ignored by all except the aviation press that would at least acknowledge it.
As for Bill Odom and the Waikiki Beech, in the wake of their epic accomplishment, the pilot and his trusty Beechcraft toured the nation and received the honor and acclaim they so well deserved. Later, the airplane was placed on display in the Smithsonian Institution until 1951 when it was removed and prepared for use by Congressman Peter F. Mack, Jr. Renamed the “Friendship Flame,” the airplane was flown by Mack on an around-the-world, goodwill tour that covered 33,000 miles in 113 days and visiting 45 cities in 35 countries.3
Only six months after his record-setting flight, Bill Odom was killed in the crash of a North American P-51C Mustang named “Beguine” that had been custom-built for air racing events. Although a respected and highly competent pilot, Odom had relatively little experience in air racing. On the second lap of the 1949 Thompson Trophy race, he had flown Beguine into third place and was gradually catching up with the second- and first-place airplanes, both Goodyear F2G Corsair IVs. According to an eye-witness observation by none other than famed pilot Bob Hoover, Odom realized that he was about to fly inside the second pylon and rolled the airplane rapidly to the right in an attempt to avoid cutting the marker. The Mustang continued to roll and struck the ground at a 45-degree angle, killing Odom instantly.4
Perhaps the best testimony to William Odom and the Waikiki Beech was spoken by aviation pioneer Glenn L. Martin: “Testifying in the most effective manner possible to the ability of the American aviation industry to produce an aircraft and ideas of dramatic character, I invite your attention to the recent feat of Captain Bill Odom in accomplishing the greatest nonstop flight while using a Beechcraft Bonanza.”
Beech Aircraft Corporation’s final involvement in long-distance flights occurred in 1958 when Pat Boling flew a Beechcraft Model J-35 named the “Philippine Bonanza” nonstop from the Philippine capital of Manila, to Pendleton, Ore., on July 31-August 1. The J-35 was equipped with the wingtip tanks removed from the Waikiki Beech as well as two 31-gallon auxiliary fuel tanks and three additional tanks installed in the fuselage that were interconnected. To accommodate the auxiliary tanks, the wing structure was modified to accept wing sections from a Model 95 Travel Air light twin-engine Beechcraft. Total fuel capacity was 402 gallons. In addition, an auxiliary five-gallon oil tank was installed.
A number of novel devices were included in the J-35’s special equipment list: an autopilot, warning horns that would sound every hour or anytime the airplane deviated from a preset altitude or airspeed; HF radio set, an electric shaver that was powered from the cigarette lighter, a coffee percolator, and a vibrating pillow for the pilot seat. Boling flew the Beechcraft a distance of 7,090 statute miles, and the great circle route was 6,856 miles. Of that distance, 6,555 miles were flown over water compared with only 535 over land. Total flight time was 45.4 hours. Boling landed with only 11 gallons of fuel remaining – the 250-hp Continental IO-470C powerplant burned 391 gallons during the flight at an average rate of 8.55 gallons per hour.
In 1960, an attempt was made to break Boling’s record. Peter Gluckmann, who had significant experience flying an older Model 35 on long-distance flights, offered to buy the Philippine Bonanza for his proposed trek across the Pacific. Beech Aircraft officials declined to sponsor Gluckmann but sold him the airplane, including all the fuel and oil tanks but less the IO-470C engine. He installed a 260-hp Continental that was modified to operate at 2,800 rpm and 275 horsepower for takeoff. When fueled and fully prepared for the flight (including Gluckmann’s weight), the airplane tipped the scales at a staggering 6,020 pounds – far above the J-35’s standard maximum takeoff weight of 2,900 pounds. One Beech engineer calculated that the Bonanza’s initial rate of climb (landing gear retracted) would be zero! 5
To give the heavily-laden Beechcraft a boost on takeoff, two Aero-Jet General, Jet-Assisted Take off (JATO) bottles would be used but only one was eventually installed. The J-35 was airborne after rolling 6,000 feet down the 8,350-foot long runway before Gluckmann ignited the JATO bottle. Sixteen hours into flight he was forced to land at Tokyo because of severe weather along the intended route. On April 27, Gluckmann and the Philippine Bonanza departed Tokyo (without JATO) and headed eastward toward Midway Island. The J-35 carried sufficient fuel for about 60 hours of flying. According to Bonanza historian Larry Ball, Gluckmann intended to reach the United States and fly inland as far as possible before landing. About eight hours after departing Tokyo, he made radio contact with a U.S. Coast Guard ship patrolling between Japan and Midway. It was the last report received from the pilot. Peter Gluckmann and his Bonanza never made it to America. What happened remains a mystery, but during the next few days it became clear that both man and machine had disappeared somewhere over the vast Pacific Ocean. 6
1. Ball, Larry; “Those Incomparable Bonanzas;” McCormick-Armstrong Co., Inc., Wichita, Kansas; 1971.
3. McDaniel, William H.; “The History of Beech;” McCormick-Armstrong Co., Inc., Wichita, Kansas, 1971.
4. Tegler, John: “Gentlemen, You have A Race;” Wings Publishing Company, Severna Park, Maryland, 1984. In addition to Odom, a mother in a house and her child playing in the yard were killed when the Mustang crashed on their property.
5. Ball, Larry; “Those Incomparable Bonanzas;” McCormick-Armstrong Co., Inc., Wichita, Kansas, 1971.
About the Author: Ed Phillips, now retired and living in the South, has researched and written eight books on the unique and rich aviation history that belongs to Wichita, Kan. His writings have focused on the evolution of the airplanes, companies and people that have made Wichita the “Air Capital of the World” for more than 80 years.