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 favourite of the air
racers of the 1930s – famed aviatrix Jacqueline Cochran
won the prestigious Bendix Trophy Race in 1937 flying a
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
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 aluminium—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 favourite 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
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
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 non-stop around the
world without refuelling 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
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, aluminium 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.