Walter’s Wooden Wonder

Walter’s Wooden Wonder

Walter’s Wooden Wonder



By 1940, all-metal airframes had become state-of-the-art, but the Beechcraft Model 26 was the first all-wood Beechcraft – an advanced trainer built specifically to transition pilots to multi-engine airplanes.

World War II. It remains the bloodiest, most brutal and savage global conflict in human history. Although the war ended almost 72 years ago, its impact on the world is still being felt today. In the wake of the Pearl Harbor debacle in December 1941, by 1945 the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) had become a worldwide network of men, airplanes, supply lines, communication routes and airfields.1 It was a striking force of unequaled destructive power. According to official U.S. Army records, during the conflict the Army Air Forces flew more than 700,000 combat sorties, dropped more than 600,000 tons of bombs and fired more than 75 million rounds of ammunition at the enemy. Equally impressive was the growth of personnel from only 21,000 in 1938 to more than 2.3 million at the end of 1943.

In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for the production of 50,000 aircraft, and by 1941 production facilities capable of manufacturing the armaments of war in the United States had grown 400 percent from pre-1940 levels. A majority of that increase stemmed from providing the British with tanks, aircraft and artillery through Lend-Lease agreements, but those programs also expedited production capacity that paved the way for explosive expansion after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Wichita, Kansas, and more specifically the Beech Aircraft Corporation, was a major source providing the U.S. Army Air Corps (and the U.S. Navy) with the airplanes it needed to train pilots, navigators, bombardiers and aerial gunners. Most of the airplanes built were military versions of the venerable Beechcraft Model C18S, which the company began supplying to the military as early as 1939.

The Model 26 prototype was photographed in May 1941 before its first flight. Most the airframe was of wood construction. Aluminum alloy was used to build the cockpit and forward fuselage, engine nacelles and cowlings, and some of the main landing gear components. During its first flight the airplane crashed and the U.S. Army Air Corps pilot was killed. A second prototype was already under construction and made its first flight in July. (Wichita State University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives)
The Model 26 prototype was photographed in May 1941 before its first flight. Most the airframe was of wood construction. Aluminum alloy was used to build the cockpit and forward fuselage, engine nacelles and cowlings, and some of the main landing gear components. During its first flight the airplane crashed and the U.S. Army Air Corps pilot was killed. A second prototype was already under construction and made its first flight in July. (Wichita State University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives)

In 1941, however, the Army Air Corps needed an advanced trainer to teach single-engine pilots how to fly and manage systems of multi-engine bombers and transports (such as the Boeing B-17 and Douglas C-47). When the Army Air Corps contacted Walter Beech about building a twin-engine trainer suited to that important task, he turned the request over to chief engineer Theodore “Ted” Wells and his staff. After studying exactly what the Air Corps wanted, discussions centered on whether the Model 25 (as it was initially designated) should be fabricated from metal or aviation-grade woods. Although aluminum alloy was not exceptionally scarce at that time, Walter Beech and Ted Wells believed it was prudent to anticipate a shortage of the metal as America continued to move toward a war-based economy. It would prove to be a providential decision.

As a result, the Model 25 would be built using non-strategic materials that were in abundant supply and were relatively easy to obtain. Using wood instead of metal had a number of important advantages, including ease and speed of manufacture, fabrication on a large scale, and the ability to “farm out” responsibility for manufacturing airframe assemblies and components to subcontractors already skilled in woodworking techniques (much as the British de Havilland company did with the famous and versatile, all-wood Mosquito).

Nor was the Beech Aircraft Corporation alone in its quest to build a multi-engine trainer for the Army Air Corps. Across town the Cessna Aircraft Company, which by 1941 was thriving under the able leadership of Dwane L. Wallace and his board of directors, already were building the AT-8 – a military version of the commercial T-50 – and the Curtiss Airplane Division of the Curtiss-Wright Corporation designed the twin-engine Model CW-25, designated AT-9 by the Army Air Corps.

As with the Beechcraft Model 25, the AT-8 and AT-9 also served to familiarize pilots with the handling characteristics of new medium bombers that were beginning to roll off the production lines. These included the Martin B-26 Marauder and the North American B-25 Mitchell. Unlike the Model 25, the AT-8 was of composite construction using a steel tube fuselage, wood wing and fabric covering, while production versions of the AT-9 were of all-metal construction.

In 1940, the Nazi’s rapid advance across Western Europe stunned France, Belgium and England as the British and their hard-fighting French allies fell back toward Paris and, finally, the beaches of Dunkerque. A heroic stand by the French forces held the Germans at bay just long enough for the evacuation of more than 300,000 Allied soldiers who would survive to fight another day.

Meanwhile, back in Wichita, Ted Wells and his crew were busy finalizing the design details of the Model 25. There was nothing revolutionary or evolutionary about the new Beechcraft’s airframe. The wings were built of wood in three sections, covered in plywood and bonded together using synthetic resin adhesives. Flaps were mounted along the wing trailing edge between the ailerons and the fuselage. One innovative feature of the airplane was its fuel tanks that were made of wood, with a special synthetic rubber lining installed that was not affected by aviation fuels.

The fuselage was fabricated in two main sections with the cockpit, built of aluminum alloy for structural considerations, and the aft section that was an all-wood monocoque design covered with plywood and bonded with synthetic resin adhesives. The horizontal and vertical stabilizers were wood covered with plywood, but the wood control surfaces were covered in doped fabric.

The AT-10 was a handsome twin-engine monoplane with excellent performance for its primary role of teaching pilots how to fly multi-engine airplanes and manage their systems. The two Lycoming R-680 static, air-cooled radial engines were rated at 290 horsepower and were highly reliable powerplants. The AT-10’s use of non-strategic materials saved aluminum alloy that was used to build much-needed fighters and bombers after America’s entry into World War II. (Wichita State University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives)
The AT-10 was a handsome twin-engine monoplane with excellent performance for its primary role of teaching pilots how to fly multi-engine airplanes and manage their systems. The two Lycoming R-680 static, air-cooled radial engines were rated at 290 horsepower and were highly reliable powerplants. The AT-10’s use of non-strategic materials saved aluminum alloy that was used to build much-needed fighters and bombers after America’s entry into World War II. (Wichita State University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives)

As for ease of fabrication, the wood airframe used no compound curves, and no sophisticated hot-molding processes were required to form many of the component parts. It is estimated that about 85 percent of the Model 25’s major sub-assemblies were built by subcontractors. The two-place cockpit accommodated a cadet pilot and instructor in a side-by-side arrangement, and was equipped with a rail-mounted canopy that slid aft for access. Good visibility from the cockpit was provided by the generous use of window area. Dual controls, an autopilot and full flight instrumentation for “blind flying” were installed.

The Model 25 was powered by two, nine-cylinder, static air-cooled Lycoming R-680-9 radial engines each producing 295 horsepower (sea level) at 2,300 RPM for takeoff, 275 horsepower at 2,200 RPM, and 210 horsepower at 2,000 RPM. The engines were fitted with two-blade, Hamilton-Standard constant-speed propellers with full-feathering capability. The R-680-9 was a more powerful version of the standard engine that equipped thousands of Boeing-Stearman PT-13 primary trainers for the Army Air Corps and N2S-series for the U.S. Navy during the war years.

The conventional landing gear retracted aft and was enclosed by two doors, although a small portion of each tire was exposed to the airstream. The tailwheel was fixed and non-steerable, and the main landing gear used hydraulic brakes. The use of aluminum alloy was also applied to the engine nacelles and cowlings. Welded steel tubing was used for the engine mounts.

General specifications include:

Length: 27 feet 11 inches
Wingspan: 37 feet
Wing area: 298 square feet
Height: 10 feet 4 inches
Empty weight: 4,750 pounds
Maximum takeoff weight: 6,130 pounds
Range: 750 statute miles
Service ceiling: 15,000 feet

According to Beech Aircraft records, development costs for the Model 25 amounted to about $255,000, and in May 1941 a prototype had been completed and prepared for its maiden voyage into the blue skies over Kansas. The pilot assigned to make that flight was Major George Putnam Moody. He joined the Air Corps in 1930, and in 1934 was among the brave but ill-prepared group of Army pilots that briefly replaced commercial airlines flying the air mail. On May 5 Moody took off in the prototype Model 25, but what happened next has been obscured by time and the absence of an official accident report.

At some point during the flight, Moody lost control of the airplane, possibly while evaluating performance with one engine inoperative. It is possible that the airplane stalled and entered a spin from which Moody was unable to recover. He was killed and the Model 25 completely destroyed. A second airplane, designated the Model 26, was completed and made its first flight on July 19, 1941, with Beech Aircraft test pilot H.C. “Ding” Rankin in the left seat and company vice president of sales and marketing, John P. Gaty, acting as co-pilot.

After completion of flight testing by the Army Air Force, the Model 26 was accepted and given the military designation AT-10 and the unofficial nickname, Wichita.2 After the United States entered the war on December 8, 1941, the need for multi-engine trainers greatly increased, and by February 1942 Beechcraft factory workers were busy building and assembling the AT-10. As airplanes rolled off the production lines, Air Corps pilots ferried the ships to bases across the nation. Among the Army bases that received the AT-10 was Valdosta Field, Georgia. The facility opened in September 1941, and on December 6 was renamed Moody Field in honor of Major Moody, who was killed testing the Model 25.

The AT-10 was operated under the Army Air Force Training Command (AAFTC), led by Lt. General Barton K. Yount. The chief focus of the AAFTC was to “get men to the front” as soon as possible – a formidable task given that in early 1942 America was, as it had been in 1917, woefully unprepared for war. That situation quickly changed, however, and during the first two years of the conflict about one million men were engaged in training activities as pilots, bombardiers, navigators, radio operators, gunners and technicians. Within the AAFTC was the Flying Training Command, and one of Yount’s first challenges was to build airfields to train aircrews. In the South, where the weather was generally good for flying year-round, training bases sprang up quickly and arriving cadets soon found themselves flying the AT-10 and other training aircraft from half-finished runways, often dodging bulldozers and workmen as they struggled day and night to make the airfields fully operational.

All cadets entered a 10-week advanced flying training course that included 70 hours of flying, 60 hours of ground school and 19 hours of training in military protocol and procedures. Cadets chosen to fly multi-engine bombers and transports flew the AT-9, AT-10, AT-17 and AT-24. Based on their performance, pilots were assigned to type-specific training in medium or heavy bombers, transports, troop carriers or multi-engine fighters that they would fly in combat. Upon completion of their training, graduates received their silver pilot wings and were commissioned as second lieutenants.

Taking Moody Field as an example, beginning in February 1942 and continuing until April 1945, the Beechcraft AT-10 and other advanced training aircraft were kept busy teaching pilots the art of multi-engine flight, flying by sole reference to flight instruments, and the critical skill of flying in formation. Transitioning from single- to multi-engine airplanes, however, was not a simple task and possessed its own dangers. During the war, there were 191,654 cadets that successfully completed the program, but another 132,993 did not and were “washed out” or killed during training.

The U.S. Army Air Corps operated the AT-10 at airfields scattered throughout the Southern and Southwestern United States, where good weather conditions permitted almost non-stop flight training activity. The sliding upper canopy allowed direct access to the cockpit, which featured side-by-side seating for the instructor pilot and the student. Most Army Air Forces pilots received their multi-engine training in the AT-10. (Wichita State University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives)
The U.S. Army Air Corps operated the AT-10 at airfields scattered throughout the Southern and Southwestern United States, where good weather conditions permitted almost non-stop flight training activity. The sliding upper canopy allowed direct access to the cockpit, which featured side-by-side seating for the instructor pilot and the student. Most Army Air Forces pilots received their multi-engine training in the AT-10. (Wichita State University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives)

Tony Bovinich was among those pilots who trained in the AT-10. “I went to Randolph Field (located in Texas) and flew the AT-10. They were great to fly and I made some real short-field landings over a fence. It did not bother me that the airframe was made of wood. I figured it was put together pretty good or else we would not be flying them.” After his training at Randolph Feld, Bovinich was assigned to Douglas Army Air Base and taught pilots in the Curtiss AT-9, then he was transferred to Roswell, New Mexico, for transition training to the Boeing B-17. By the end of the war he was training to fly the Boeing B-29 Superfortress.3

Another pilot, Homer L. Keisler, graduated from multi-engine transition training at Blythville, Arkansas, where he flew the AT-10, but these airplanes were built by subcontractor Globe Aircraft Corporation, not Beech Aircraft Corporation. Keisler recalled that he and his co-pilot flew an AT-10 on their first cross-country flight at night that included flying through a thunderstorm, which tumbled all the gyroscopic flight instruments. They landed safely at Memphis, Tennessee, but other crews “were not so lucky,” he said. His flight time in the AT-10 led to his being chosen to fly Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bombers, and later the mighty B-29.4    

Although the majority of AT-10 trainers served with Operational Training Units in the United States, a small number were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, reassembled and assigned to Replacement Training Units at U.S. Army Eighth Air Force bases in England. These Beechcrafts were used to train replacement pilots for aircrew declared dead or missing in action, as well as maintaining multi-engine proficiency. It is estimated that during the war, about 50 percent of pilots flying multi-engine airplanes received transition training on the AT-10. Walter’s “wooden wonder” also gained a solid reputation as an excellent transition trainer that more than met the Army Air Corp’s high expectations. Beech Aircraft Corporation built 1,771 AT-10-BHs before production was terminated in 1943. Globe Aircraft Corporation manufactured 600 AT-10-GFs until production was terminated in 1944.

After the war, an AT-10 was modified with a V-tail empennage to evaluate the unique configuration that was destined to be used on the Model 35 Bonanza. Only a few of the more than 3,500 AT-10 trainers have survived, with one excellent example on display at the Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. (Wichita State University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives)
After the war, an AT-10 was modified with a V-tail empennage to evaluate the unique configuration that was destined to be used on the Model 35 Bonanza. Only a few of the more than 3,500 AT-10 trainers have survived, with one excellent example on display at the Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. (Wichita State University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives)

As of 2016, FAA records indicate no Model 26 aircraft are currently registered. AT-10BH is on static display at the Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio. In addition, as of 2009 an AT-10 was reported to be under restoration in Tarkio, Missouri, but the status of that project is unknown.

Notes:

  1. Late in World War I the infant aviation section of the Army Signal Corps was separated and designated the “Air Service” (it was distinct from the Signal Corps). In 1926 the Air Service was renamed the “Air Corps,” and in 1935 the “General Headquarters Air Force” was established to complement the Air Corps. Later, General Headquarters Air Force became the “Air Force Combat Command.” The Air Corps, however, focused solely on supply and training functions. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the entire U.S. Army was reorganized. The Air Corps and Air Force Combat Command were merged to create the “United States Army Air Forces.”
  2. The Model 26 held the dual distinction of being the first Beechcraft airframe built almost entirely of wood, and the first all-wood advanced trainer accepted by the Army Air Corps.
  3. “Aviation Enthusiast Corner, Museum/Aircraft Reference.”
  4. Ibid

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