Beech Aircraft Corporation

The Beechcraft Model 18 first flew in January 1937 and continued in production for 32 years.


The Beech AT-11 was the standard WW II bombing trainer about 90 percent of the more than 45,000 Army Air Forces bombardiers trained in AT-11s.


The Beech King Air is the world’s most popular turboprop aircraft.


In 1964, Beech introduced the Model 90 Beech King Air, an eight-passenger, twin-engine turboprop.


Beechcraft received Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification for its Starship in 1988.


From the Centennial of Flight

Founded in 1932 by Walter H. and Olive Ann Beech, the Beech Aircraft Corporation has left an indelible mark on general aviation, producing many of the most popular and influential aircraft of the 20th century. From the Model 17 Staggerwing, widely regarded as the jewel of aviation’s ‘golden age’ of the 1930s, to the V-Tail Model 35 Bonanza, one of most recognizable personal aircraft of all time, culminating with the Model 2000 Starship, a vision of the future, the Beech Aircraft name is synonymous with well-designed and durable aircraft.

The Model 17 Staggerwing biplane (the name derives from the top wing being set or staggered behind the bottom wing), first flown in November 1932, was the aircraft that defined Beech as a manufacturer. Specifically designed for business travel (unusual in that era), the Staggerwing’s use of various powerful radial engines (some rated at more than 700 horsepower—522 kilowatts) made it faster than most military aircraft. The Model 17’s speed also made it a favorite of the air racers of the 1930s – famed aviatrix Jacqueline Cochran won the prestigious Bendix Trophy Race in 1937 flying a Staggerwing.

The Model 18 Twin Beech, introduced in 1937, was destined to become one of general aviation’s most versatile and enduring aircraft. Capable of carrying eight or nine passengers, the Model 18 was soon transformed to meet the requirements of World War II.

The Model 18 was built in a number of versions for the military—a light (or utility) transport, the C-45 “Expeditor”; a navigation trainer, the AT-7 “Navigator”; a trainer for bombardiers, the SNB; the F-2, modified for aerial reconnaissance and mapping; and a bombing-gunnery trainer made in two varieties, the AT-11 “Kansan” for the U.S. Army Air Force and the SNB-1 “Kansan” for the U.S. Navy.

Outfitted with a transparent nose, flexible guns, bomb racks and a bomb bay, the AT-11 “Kansan” was used to train more than 90 percent of army bombardiers during the war. The navy SNB-1 “Kansan,” equipped with a dorsal fin and a nose modified for bomb-aimers, was designed to instruct patrol bomber crews. In total, Beech built 4,526 military versions of the Twin Beech.

A war-version of the popular Model 17 Staggerwing was also manufactured by Beech, designated as the UC-43 “Traveler.” The U.S. Army Air Force ordered 270 “Travelers” for use as a light transport and liaison aircraft, in addition to the 118 civilian Staggerwings it procured from private owners to meet its needs and those of the U.S. Navy.

In order to conserve limited supplies of metal required for its combat aircraft production, Beech also designed and built a multi-engine trainer with an airframe fabricated from plywood, the AT-10 “Wichita.” Only the AT-10’s engine cowlings and cockpit enclosure were made from aluminum—even the “Wichita’s” fuel tanks were built out of plywood, covered with a layer of synthetic rubber. Beech manufactured 1,771 Wichitas from 1941 to 1943, and more than 50 percent of Army Air Force pilots were trained in AT-10s to transition from single- to multi-engine aircraft.

In total, Beech Aircraft produced more than 7,400 aircraft for Allied Air Forces during the war years. Its relationship with the Air Force continued right into the early 1950s when Beech was tasked to completely overhaul 900 of its war-era C-45 “Expeditors” for use as administrative and light cargo aircraft, redesignated as the C-45G and C-45H.

After the war, the Twin Beech returned to its peacetime mission. One of the first aircraft designed for the transportation of business executives, it quickly became a favorite with small airlines operating on a limited budget. The Twin Beech would be manufactured continuously for 32 years (until 1969), with more than 7,000 built, setting a longevity record that would be surpassed only by one other aircraft—another Beech, the Model 35 Bonanza.

At one-third the cost of a post-war Staggerwing, the Model 35 Beechcraft Bonanza was a revolutionary, high-performance, single-engine aircraft with a V-tail configuration that trimmed weight without compromising control. First manufactured in 1947, the Bonanza holds the distinction as one of the most successful aircraft in general aviation history, with more than 17,000 built, and it remains in production to this day.

In 1964, Beech introduced the Model 90 Beech King Air, an eight-passenger, twin-engine turboprop. Designed for passenger comfort, the various King Air models became a staple for corporate flight departments, eventually capturing more than 90 percent of the market share among aircraft in its class. In 1975, a military version of the Beech Super King Air 200—designated the C-12—was delivered to the U.S. Army; eventually, all four branches of the armed forces would fly variations of the C-12.

In 1983, a futuristic-looking craft took to the air, looking unlike anything else in the sky. The Beech Model 2000 Starship was a bold innovation in aviation design, merging a state-of-the-art lightweight composite airframe with twin rear pusher-propellers, a forward-facing wing, and an innovative variable-sweep foreplane or canard (a horizontal stabilizer placed in front of the wings, named after the French word for duck) that changed configuration to compensate for the aerodynamic changes during flight.

The brainchild of noted experimental aircraft designer Burt Rutan (who went on to design the Voyager—the first aircraft to fly nonstop around the world without refueling in 1986), the Starship was a radical departure from the traditionally conservative design of the Beech Aircraft line. The most obvious divergence was the lack of a conventional tail—rudders on upturned fins or winglets at the end of each wing (dubbed “tipsails” by Beech) provided directional control and stability.

Beech’s $350-million development effort resulted in a high-performance, stall-free aircraft that accommodated eight passengers (plus two pilots), designed to be competitive in speed with small business jets. Since aircraft constructed of composite materials are highly susceptible to lightning strikes, aluminum mesh was embedded into the skin to shield the Starship’s electronics by permitting electric current to flow through the skin and out, with only minor cosmetic damage at the actual lightning strike point.

Following a rigorous flight test program to validate the most ambitious general aviation development project in history, and after numerous delays, the Beech Starship received formal FAA certification on June 14, 1988. Unfortunately, the conservative certification requirements forced a reduction of its seating capacity from eight to six passengers while its weight increased by more than a ton, diminishing the Starship’s performance and economic viability.

The first Beech Starship finally entered commercial service in 1992 but its $5-million selling price was prohibitive, by then costing more than a comparable jet aircraft. A vision of the future, the Starship ultimately turned out to be ahead of its time. Beech shut down the production line in December 1994 after building only 53 of these head-turning aircraft.

Beech Aircraft ceased to exist as an independent entity when it accepted a takeover bid from Raytheon Corporation on October 1, 1979. Raytheon Aircraft continues the Beech tradition by manufacturing a line of Beech aircraft including the King Air and Bonanza.

—Roger Guillemette

Sources:

Boyne, Walter J. The Leading Edge. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1986.

Jackson, Robert. Civil Aircraft. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2001.

Pattillo, Donald M. A History in the Making – 80 Turbulent Years in the American General Aviation Industry. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998.

Pelletier, A.J. Beech Aircraft & Their Predecessors. New York: Putnam, 1995.

Phillips, Edward H. Beechcraft: Pursuit of Perfection. A History of Beechcraft Airplanes. Flying Books, 1992.

Online Sources:

Bleck, Max E. Starship History, Aviation Services.com. http://www.aviatorservices.com/starship_history.htm

“Outstanding Aircraft Built by the Big 4: Raytheon Aircraft Company.” Wings Over Kansas. http://www.wingsoverkansas.com/extras/raytheon.html

Raytheon Aircraft Company, Historical Overview. http://www.raytheonaircraft.com/company/historical/

“Walter Herschel Beech.” National Aviation Hall of Fame Enshrinee Page. http://www.nationalaviation.org/enshrinee/beechwalter.html

U.S. Air Force Museum, Beech Aircraft. http://www.wpafb.af.mil/museum/ind/ind.htm

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