In the wake of America’s sudden entry into World War II, the Beech Aircraft Corporation produced more than 7,000 single- and multi-engine airplanes specifically to train aircrews in the deadly art of air combat against Germany and Japan.
The shock and horror of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s ruthless surprise attack on the U.S. Navy’s fleet at Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, in December 1941, quickly unified the American people into the greatest manufacturing juggernaut the world had ever seen. From coast to coast in factories large and small, men and women toiled day and night, often seven days a week, to give the American soldier, Marine, sailor and airman the tools they needed to achieve victory.
Sadly, America’s lingering desire for isolationism, coupled with apathy toward the war in Europe, had left the nation ill prepared and ill equipped to meet the formidable challenge of a global conflict. In the dark time following what President Roosevelt described as a “day that will live in infamy,” it was woefully apparent that Uncle Sam had too few ships, too few tanks, too few airplanes, and more importantly, too few sailors, soldiers and airmen to take the fight to a powerful and determined enemy advancing on two fronts.
Among the most pressing needs facing the War Department, and specifically the U.S. Army Air Forces, were aircraft to train pilots, bombardiers, navigators and gunners who would fly Boeing B-17s, Consolidated B-24s, North American B-25s and other bombers and transports into harm’s way. Building airplanes for the U.S. military forces, however, was nothing new to Walter H. Beech, who by late 1941 presided over a profitable, albeit small and conservative, airframe manufacturing enterprise that had earned a worldwide reputation for building dependable airplanes.
Before war broke out, the Beech Aircraft Corporation product line consisted of only two designs—the single-engine biplane Model 17 and the twin-engine, all-metal Model 18. The Model 17 had been the first Beechcraft to don a uniform when the U.S. Navy bought one Beechcraft C17R in 1936, designating it JB-1. That acquisition was followed by an order from the U.S. Army for three D17S biplanes in 1939. Designated YC-43, these airplanes were assigned to military personnel at American embassies in London, Paris and Rome. In addition, the all-metal Model 18R was chosen in 1939 by the Swedish Royal Air Force, which specified modifications that transformed the airplane into an aerial ambulance. In 1940 another six similar airplanes (designated AT18R) were delivered to the Republic of China, which at that time was locked in a protracted battle with invading Japanese forces.
The year 1940 also marked an important milestone for the company when it posted its first million-dollar sales period, thanks in large part to increasing export sales of the Model 18. According to company records, by 1940 Beechcraft airplanes were being operated in 23 countries and demand for the Model 18, which could operate profitably on wheels, skis or floats, continued to increase well into 1941.
As Hitler’s subjugation of France and ongoing Japanese aggression in China escalated during 1940, Walter and Olive Ann Beech realized, as did many other Americans, that if the United States was drawn into the conflict their company would be called upon to produce airplanes for the cause of freedom. Anticipating a major spike in demand, Walter and Olive Ann Beech stretched the company’s slim finances to the limit and secured the first in a series of loans from the federal government’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation
The loans were used to rapidly expand manufacturing floor space by building new facilities, tooling and hiring workers. In addition, the engineering department was given the task of designing versions of the versatile Model 18 that would prove suitable for training thousands of pilots, bombardiers and navigators for the duration of the war.
A massive workforce would be required to build those airplanes and build them as rapidly as possible, particularly in 1942-1943. In the months after the Pearl Harbor attack the number of workers building Beechcrafts for the war effort surged upward to 2,354 and rose steadily to 6,084 during 1942. By early 1943 that number had risen 10,930 before peaking 14,100 in February 1945.
As early as 1940 the U.S. Army recognized the need to train aerial photographers in the dangerous but essential process of gathering military intelligence about the enemy. To perform that mission the Army Air Corps bought 14 Beechcraft Model 18S and designated them F-2/F-2B. These ships routinely flew training sorties at an altitude of 25,000 feet and were equipped with supplemental oxygen systems. Each airplane was capable of carrying a variety of aerial cameras, including special equipment for night photography, and the cabin entry door was designed to permit the crew to take side-view or oblique-angle photographs. The Air Corps eventually bought 56 F-2-series airplanes, and the Army’s operational success and satisfaction with the twin-engine monoplanes helped to pave the way for orders of other military versions of the Model 18.
For example, before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Beech Aircraft Corporation was already producing small numbers of the AT-11 for the Army and its equivalent for the U.S. Navy, the SNB-1. Both versions were designed specifically to train bombardiers and gunners. When war on Japan and Germany was declared in December 1941, Beechcrafts such as the AT-11 and SNB-1 were already busy teaching fledgling aviators how to perform their jobs. Unofficially dubbed “Kansan” by the Army, the AT-11 was distinguished from its Model 18 stablemates by a large Plexiglas nose dome that housed the top-secret Norden bomb sight.
Eventually, a total of 1,560 AT-11s were delivered to the Army during the war, with production reaching a pinnacle of 749 airplanes in 1942 before manufacture was terminated in May 1944. These included the AT-11A version for aerial photography missions. Another 42 airplanes were built as F-2B reconnaissance platforms. In addition, the U.S. Navy also ordered a limited number of SNB-1 airplanes that were the equivalent of the Army’s AT-11. These ships were used primarily to train bombardiers and gunners and were equipped with an electrically-operated turret housing twin .30-caliber machine guns. As with the AT-11, bomb racks were incorporated into the lower fuselage aft of the main wing spar and accommodated ten 100-pound bombs. The Navy accepted the first 14 SNB-1 in August 1942, and another 59 airplanes were built that year. Production increased to 247 airplanes in 1943 when production was terminated.
One of the most unusual Beechcrafts to emerge from the production line was actually built before America’s entry into the war. Designated by the Navy as the JRB-1, five airplanes were ordered by the U.S. Navy in 1940. The JRB-1’s unique feature centered on the upper, forward fuselage/cockpit that was modified with a special observation cupola. The cupola allowed an observer to see, control and monitor the flight of remote-control aerial target drones. The prototype Model 18S served as a testbed. All five airplanes were delivered to the Navy in 1940.
As with the Model 18’s airframe that continued to evolve from 1937 through 1945, so did the engines that powered the monoplane. Early production versions of the commercial Model 18 were available with three choices of powerplants: the Wright R-760-E2 static, air-cooled radial engine rated at 320 hp (Model 18A), the Jacobs L-5 that developed 285 hp (Model 18B), and the Jacobs L-6 rated at 330 hp (Model 18D). In 1939 Beech Aircraft Corporation introduced the Model 18S equipped with Pratt & Whitney “Wasp Jr.” radial engines (R-985) each producing 450 hp. To handle the increased power the airframe was strengthened, maximum gross weight increased to 7,200 pounds from 6,500 pounds, and larger vertical stabilizers/rudders replaced the smaller units found on previous versions. The nine-cylinder R-985 engines became standard equipment on all military versions of the Model 18 built during the war.
By 1943 the production line was humming with activity as Beechcrafters struggled to keep pace with demand for the AT-11, SNB-1, SNB-2 and the C/UC-45. The latter was designed as a general purpose, light duty transport and eventually more than 1,400 were built for the U.S. Army Air Forces. Based on the commercial C18S airframe, the C/UC-45 fleet was powered by R-985-AN-1 or AN-3 engines. Airplanes built for the U.S. Navy were designated JRB-3 and JRB-4 and were essentially equivalent to the Army’s C/UC-45. Great Britain received a large number of C-45s under the Lend-Lease Act authorized by Congress in March 1941, and were designated as “Expeditor I and Expeditor II.” The final version built during 1945 was the C-45F that carried five passengers in a comfortable cabin, along with two pilots and 80 pounds of baggage.
Another military version of the venerable Model 18 built during the war was the AT-7. It was designed to meet the Army Air Force’s requirement for a multi-engine trainer dedicated to teaching navigators. Modifications to meet that mission centered chiefly on the cabin interior. These included installation of work tables, drift meters and compasses as well as an auxiliary instrument panel in the front of the cabin. A small, clear Plexiglas canopy (mounted in the upper fuselage just aft of the cockpit) allowed students to take celestial navigation sightings.
Thousands of navigators completed their training in the AT-7 before being assigned to medium and heavy bombers such as the B-26, B17 and B-24. Designated by the Army as the “Navigator,” initial production of the AT-7 began in 1941 when 187 airplanes were delivered. Production gradually increased to a high of 361 ships in 1943. More than 880 AT-7s eventually were built for the Army Air Forces, but in 1943 at least 19 of these were built as UC-45 personnel transports.
In addition to training navigators the AT-7 was used as a feasibility platform for the test installation of snow skis and floats. In November 1942 one airplane was modified with floats, and in August 1943 another airplane was modified with interchangeable fittings for skis and floats. Another 12 AT-7s were reworked in September followed by 30 airplanes in October. Designated as the AT-7A, -7B and -7C, these Beechcraft’s were fitted with a large ventral fin under the aft fuselage to increase directional stability with the floats installed.
For 20 years after the end of World War II the U.S. Air Force continued to fly the C-45, as did the Navy with its fleet of SNB-1 and SNB-2 Beechcraft’s. The vagaries of war, however, had taken its toll on the aging airplanes and the entire fleet was in need of major overhaul and modification. In 1947 the Navy returned 117 SNB personnel transports to the Beechcraft modification facility in Herington, Kansas. During the next 10 years each airplane was completely disassembled, inspected, repaired or modified as required with new parts and assemblies.
From 1951-1961 both the Air Force and the Navy had a large number of SNB, C-45, AT-7 and AT-11 airplanes reworked at the Herington facility. The modifications and upgrades included a new, stronger wing center section truss structure, landing gear struts, wheels equipped with disc brakes and installation of full-feathering, Hamilton Standard propellers, and engine nacelles were lengthened and streamlined. Cockpits were reworked with new instruments and installation of Sperry autopilots. The sum of these changes essentially brought the Air Force and Navy fleets up to commercial D18S configuration. All Navy aircraft were redesignated SNB-5P and Air Force transports were redesignated C-45G/H.
The commercial Model C18S served as the basic airframe for military versions of the Model 18 during the war and garnered massive orders compared with its smaller, single-engine sibling, the Model 17. That aging design, however, served with distinction as a fast personnel transport during the conflict wearing the uniform of many allied nations.
Along the way it had some interesting stories to tell. One of those stories centers on a C17R that operated in England under the registration G-AESJ. The ship was owned by expert aerial photographer Sidney Cotton, an Australian-born pilot who had purchased the Beechcraft in April 1939 as part of his small fleet based at Heston. Cotton’s Aeronautical Research and Sales Company was actually a front for a clandestine reconnaissance operation he provided for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. After Hitler invaded Poland, both England and France issued an ultimatum to Germany’s Fuhrer, demanding that he withdraw from Poland. That ultimatum was ignored and on September 3, 1939, the two nations were again at war with their old adversary.
Only days before hostilities were officially declared, however, the Royal Navy feared the Germans would send their capital ships into the North Atlantic Ocean to take up key strategic positions that would threaten England’s security if war broke out. In response, the British Admiralty sent the Home Fleet northward to the Shetland Islands. What the Admiralty desperately needed to know was where the German ships were located. Cotton volunteered his company to fly a reconnaissance mission using the Beechcraft, which possessed the speed and high altitude capabilities required for such a mission that would take the C17R over Wilhelmshaven in Northern Germany.
Cotton’s pilot, Robert Niven, accompanied by a trained aerial photographer, departed Heston late in the morning of September 2 and climbed swiftly toward the Dutch coast. Carefully executing Cotton’s prearranged flight plan, Niven flew the Beechcraft high above Wilhelmshaven while keeping a sharp lookout for Luftwaffe fighter sweeps that were frequently present. Thanks to good weather, the photographer obtained a series of excellent photographs of the port far below. Fortunately, no German fighters were encountered and the Beechcraft returned safely to Heston.
After the photographs were developed, Cotton took them to the Admiralty for interpretation. To the Royal Navy’s relief, the bulk of the German High Seas Fleet was still in port and posed no immediate threat. That crucial mission was not the last for the C17R. It was eventually impressed into the Royal Air Force and served with No. 41 Group until it suffered an accident in January 1941, and was scrapped.
Another heroic tale involving a Model B17R took place early in the war as Japan’s military steamrolled over British, Dutch and American opposition in the South Pacific. The Beechcraft had served with Philippine Air Lines during 1940 but was quickly impressed by American military forces after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. On the night of April 1, 1942, the B17R was flown into Bataan carrying a load of candy, telegrams and news of the war for the besieged American garrison. A few days later it evacuated a group of Curtiss P-40 fighter pilots from Bataan and flew them to Mindanao, followed by a similar mission on April 7.
On April 9 the B17R ferried another two fighter pilots to Cebu, then retrieved two officers on Leyte and flew them to Mindanao. After making additional flights to resupply troops fighting the Japanese and to evacuate key military personnel, the gallant Beechcraft met its end on April 15. It was intercepted by Mitsubishi float-equipped fighters in the vicinity of Mindanao. Badly damaged by gunfire, the gallant C17R and its pilot were forced to make a crash landing near Malaybalay. The pilot escaped from the wreckage as the fighters repeatedly strafed the helpless biplane. As a result, it was damaged far beyond repair and was abandoned to the elements.
By contrast with the C17R, a majority of Model D17S airplanes built during the war saw little or no combat against the Japanese or the Germans. Designated C/UC-43 by the Army Air Forces and GB-2 by the Navy, the Model 17 served not only the United States but was operated throughout the conflict by the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy, the Netherlands, the Nationalist Government of China and Brazil. In addition, the UC-43 and GB-2 ships were used extensively in the Pacific Theater of War as light duty, liaison and VIP transports. The airplanes also performed lead navigation flights for island-hopping groups of fighters and bombers as the Navy and the Marine Corps pushed steadily westward across the Pacific Ocean toward Japan.
Wartime production of the UC-43/GB-2 totaled only 412 airplanes. Although a majority of these were operated by the Army Air Forces and the Navy, many of these were reassigned to allies under the Lend-Lease Act. When hostilities ended in 1945 many war-weary UC-43/GB-2 found their way back into civilian hands through surplus sales conducted by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. In accordance with provisions of the Lend-Lease Act, the Royal Navy returned a majority of its “Traveller Mk. 1” aircraft to the United States where they were declared surplus and sold or scrapped. Some airplanes, however, remained in England and were sold to civilians.
Beechcrafters built more than 7,000 airplanes between January 1942 and December 1945, as well as 1,635 complete sets of wing and nacelle assemblies for the Douglas A-26 “Invader.” Net sales volume reflected the hectic pace of meeting wartime contracts. In fiscal year 1942 the Beech Aircraft Corporation held orders for 1,287 military airplanes worth more than $59.5 million, but that figure had exploded to thousands of aircraft worth $126.5 million in 1943 at the height of production.
During the war Beechcrafters worked hard, long hours and their efforts were duly recognized by the government. The workers and the company received the prestigious Army/Navy “E” award for production efficiency not once but five times, further solidifying Beech Aircraft Corporation’s reputation for consistently delivering the weapons of war to America’s fighting men and women in uniform.