A farm boy from the backwoods of Tennessee traded his plow for a flying machine and rose through the ranks to become a major force in America’s infant aviation business.

Farming was never Walter Beech’s idea of a career. The long months year after year that he spent toiling in the hot Tennessee sunshine soon convinced him that tending his father’s modest farm near Pulaski, Tennessee, was an honorable profession but not one that he intended to pursue. Walter did, however, have a knack for fixing mechanical equipment on the farm and that led him at an early age to study how machines worked and how they could be improved. Beech did not progress beyond an elementary school education, but he was a voracious reader and slowly amassed an impressive vocabulary that would stand him in good stead in the years ahead.

In his late teen years, he left home and took a job as an apprentice mechanic at an automobile establishment. His talents with tools and the seemingly mysterious workings of the “horseless carriage” soon gave the young lad a firm reputation as an ace mechanic. That reputation eventually led him to a prestigious job as chauffeur for a bank manager in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Walter kept the boss’s car in impeccable running order and polished to a high gloss. During his time in Minneapolis Walter’s initial involvement with “aeroplanes” began in earnest. Although the story is vague and full of uncertainties, apparently Beech bought a wrecked biplane and with the help of a friend rebuilt it and made successful flights over the city.

In 1911 Walter Hershel Beech left the family farm in Pulaski, Tennessee, to work in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he became a respected automobile mechanic and chauffeur for the Union Investment Company. (Edward H. Phillips Collection)


When World War I broke out in 1914 Beech was still working in Minneapolis, but America’s eventual involvement in the conflict in 1917 stirred up his patriotic fervor and he joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps. After completing basic training his talents with a wrench were quickly recognized and he was trained as a mechanic for aviation engines. Early in 1918 Walter was assigned to U.S. Army Signal Corps Aviation School at Rich Field in Waco, Texas—a flat, quasi-desolate location compared to the heavily forested, rolling hills of his home in Tennessee.

Beech excelled at his job. He and the other mechanics helped keep the training fleet of Curtiss JN-4 “Jennies” airworthy and their Curtiss and Hispano-Suiza engines purring, despite the somewhat harsh environmental conditions at the base. Walter earned his way up the scale and was promoted to sergeant and placed in charge of the engine maintenance and overhaul department. Army records show that Beech was well-liked by his superior officers and had earned yet another reputation as a hard worker who got things done.

Sergeant Beech was recognized by officers at Rich Field as an “airplane motor expert” maintaining and overhauling Curtiss OX-5, Wright-Hispano Suiza and 12-cylinder “Liberty” aero engines. Rich Field operated more than 200 Curtiss JN-4 and de Havilland DH-4 biplanes to train aviation cadets. (Wacohistory.org)


Although “hearsay-history” has claimed Beech was a flight instructor in the war, he was not. He did yearn to fly and his enthusiasm was duly noted by his superiors, but the demands of war-time training kept him on the ground where his abilities were applied to helping win the “war to end all wars.” Nevertheless, he continued to press his case for learning to fly as a non-commissioned officer but it was not until after the Armistice in 1918 that his wish was finally fulfilled. He learned to fly in 1919 and earned his Army aviator wings in a Curtiss JN-4.

With little hope of promotion in the peace-time Army, Walter left the service in 1920 and took a job as a yeoman pilot in Arkansas City, Kansas. Unfortunately, a fire destroyed the hangar and the business he worked for ceased to exist overnight. Undaunted, he launched a search for employment that led him to Wichita, Kansas, in 1921. A friend had told Beech about E.M. “Matty” Laird’s fledgling aircraft company located in downtown Wichita with flying facilities located north of the city. He met Laird, who determined that Beech was a “pilot of limited experience” and failed to offer him a job.

Laird’s associate in the company, local oilman “Jake” Moellendick, believed Beech showed promise as not only a pilot but a salesman for the “Swallow” biplane being produced in small numbers. While Laird was away on a sales trip Moellendick hired Walter and put him to work. It was not an impressive beginning. He soon crashed a Swallow and the loss nearly wiped out the company, but he gradually paid back every penny to compensate Laird. Matty was not pleased with Moellendick’s rogue decision to hire Beech, yet as time went by he began to realize that Beech did possess talent as a salesman and his aviating skills were on the rise. Walter began to win local and regional air races that proved beneficial in promoting his reputation, that of Laird as well as putting money in the bank.

Beech was discharged from the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1920 and in 1921 was employed as a mechanic and demonstration pilot by the Wichita Laird Airplane Corporation in Wichita, Kansas. The biplane is a Laird “Swallow” designed by E.M. Laird. (Edward H. Phillips Collection)


After Matty’s departure from the company in 1923 Walter was tapped by Moellendick to be general manager and chief salesman. By that time, another name that would have a major impact on America’s infant aviation industry in the future was on the payroll—Lloyd Carlton Stearman. The two men became life-long friends and shared many of the same ideas for improving the “Swallow,” which by 1923 was gradually being outpaced both in sales and technology by a growing field of competitors.

According to Wichita historians, when Beech and Stearman approached Moellendick about improving the all-wood “Swallow” with a modern, welded steel tube fuselage their overture was strenuosly rejected by the boss, and the two young men decided to strike out on their own and build a better airplane. To help them in their quest, they sought and secured the invaluable cooperation of Clyde Vernon Cessna — already respected as an aviation pioneer in his own right. Cessna had been the first to build an airplane in Wichita and the first to open a flight school in the city, and his aerial exhibition company had been operating throughout the Midwestern states since 1912.

In addition to Cessna, a small group of Wichita businessmen invested in the new venture known as the “Travel Air Manufacturing Company.” In December 1924 it began life in a cramped, for woodworking shop adjacent to the Arkansas River that flowed through the heart of the city. The company’s first product was the result of Stearman’s design talent and Beech’s safety suggestions that set it apart from every other ship in its class. Dubbed the “Model A” it was a graceful biplane powered by the ubiquitous 90-hp., Curtiss OX-5 eight-cylinder engine. Major features that set it apart from the aging “Swallow” included a fully enclosed engine, a two-place front cockpit and steel tube fuselage and empennage structures (the wings remained wood). The airplane was an immediate success although initial sales came slowly, but Beech’s hard work demonstrating the ship gradually paid off and by the end of 1925 the company had to temporarily stop taking orders to fulfill existing demand.

In 1924 Walter Beech (shown), Lloyd Stearman and Clyde Cessna, in concert with a few Wichita businessmen founded the Travel Air Manufacturing Company and began limited production of the Model “A” biplane powered by a Curtiss OX-5 engine rated at 90 horsepower. (Edward H. Phillips Collection)


In 1926 Travel Air moved to a larger facility across the river on the west side of town and production continued to expand. The building soon proved inadequate and after much discussion and negotiations with investors, a new factory was designed and built about five miles east of the city on East Central Avenue. When production began in the new facility, of the original trio of founders only Beech and Cessna remained. Late in 1926 Stearman had departed Kansas for California, lured west by friends and his desire to build his own brand of flying machine (his stay was brief, however, and by late 1927 he was back in Wichita building airplanes).

The Travel Air company flourished throughout 1927 under Cessna and Beech’s leadership. Cessna departed the company that year to build his “dream machine” — a full cantilever wing monoplane. After only three years the founding trio had parted ways, but in the years ahead all three would remain friends and co-supporters of one another’s success. Beech became president at Travel Air and soon had his engineers busy designing a cabin monoplane for the company’s growing product line. Under the leadership of chief engineer Horace Weihmiller, ably assisted by Herbert Rawdon and others, the Type 6000 began rolling off the production lines in 1928 and quickly proved popular with businessmen who were growing tired of open cockpits, ear-bursting noise, exhaust fumes and bearskin flying suits.

By September 1929 the Travel Air factory five miles east of downtown Wichita had been completed as workers struggled to build up to 25 airplanes per week to meet demand. (Textron Aviation)


The years 1928-1929 were highly profitable for Travel Air and for Walter Beech, both of which had caught the attention of the giant aviation conglomerate known as the Curtiss-Wright Corporation. In the summer of 1929 Curtiss-Wright absorbed Travel Air into its fold that included other successful aircraft, engine and propeller companies. Beech’s managerial talents were put to good use at the corporation’s headquarters in St. Louis where he served as vice president of sales. The “Roarin’ 20s” roared on for another few months until that fateful day in October 1929 when the American dream went horribly wrong. As stocks plummeted in the weeks that followed, Travel Air and every other airplane manufacturer tried desperately to sustain sales, but to no avail. By 1931 demand had nearly dried up entirely and new biplanes and monoplanes offered for half or less of their original price still found no customers. Beech rallied his troops in the field and exhorted them to sell, sell, sell! It was, however, a hopeless task. In 1930 Beech was forced to lay off hundreds of workers and production slowed to a trickle of its former pace.

Walter H. Beech and Olive Ann Mellor were married in February 1930. She had served as the company’s office manager since being hired in 1924 by Clyde Cessna, and proved to be an indispensable employee with organizational skills that kept the business running smoothly. (Mary Lynn Oliver)


The fledgling American aviation industry, which in the wake of Charles A. Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight in May 1927 had experienced a meteoric rise in both the popularity of air travel and the sale of personal aircraft. Flying was “all the rage” and the last years of the “Roarin’ Twenties” gave birth to hundreds of new airplane and engine companies as well as airlines. With that explosion in growth, however, came the call for government regulation. Walter Beech supported such regulation, as did a majority of officials within the aeronautics community. It fell to the Department of Commerce (DOC) to craft a set of regulations aimed at promoting safety for the flying public, certification of aircraft and licensing of pilots and mechanics.

Government inspectors drawn from the ranks of commercial aviation and former military pilots were assigned to oversee different regions of the country and report to their superiors in Washington. Overall, the new system worked reasonably well, although many aviation pioneers such as Beech, strongly independent and individualistic, sometimes chaffed at the imposition of rules they saw as frivolous and unnecessary.

One example of such rules was the struggle between Beech and the DOC to license the first Type 6000 cabin monoplane. Designed in 1928 by Travel Air chief engineer Horace Weihmiller and his staff, the Type 6000 represented one of the earliest attempts to move the airplane market away from open cockpit biplanes, bulky flying suits, leather helmets and goggles to enclosed cabins where businessmen could fly in shirtsleeve comfort. Beech had spearheaded the Type 6000 program and was its most enthusiastic proponent, flying the prototype from coast-to-coast in the summer and autumn of 1928 on a series of demonstration tours to Travel Air dealers and distributors.

In December 1928 Hollywood actor Wallace Beery came to Wichita and accepted delivery of his custom-built Type A6000A cabin monoplane. At a cost approaching $20,000 it was among the most expensive airplanes built by the company. (Textron Aviation)


Production versions of the Type 6000 were larger and more powerful than the original, and Beech had assumed that the first airplane fell under the government’s certification of production versions. He was wrong. When the airplane was inspected by a DOC official in California, it was rejected and the annual license, required by the new rules, flatly denied. The owner quickly expressed his irritation to the Travel Air dealer that sold him the aircraft, and in turn the dealer complained to Walter Beech back at the Travel Air factory. In the wake of that tiff the stage was set for what would become a “dogfight” between one of the most respected airmen in America and the federal government.

By 1928 Walter Beech believed that the future of business aviation favored the cabin monoplane, not the open-cockpit biplane. A prototype, designated the Model 6000, was built and demonstrated extensively to potential customers who soon plunked down deposits for their own “office in the air.” (Edward H. Phillips Collection)


Beech fired the opening shot — a cordial letter to the DOC asking that the airplane be licensed without further delay, since it was only the prototype of the Type 6000 series and the owner was anxious to fly the airplane to expand his business opportunities. The DOC refused, stating that the airplane did not meet certification standards of production airplanes and could not, and would not be licensed unless Travel Air could prove that the monoplane met every technical standard of production airplanes. Despite this setback, Beech was determined to persevere and recalled the airplane to Wichita. He ordered his engineers to bring the monoplane into compliance with the Type 6000B’s approval, but they quickly determined what Walter already knew – that it was impossible to comply because of the many structural differences between the two versions, not to mention the extent of such changes being cost-prohibitive.

By 1930 the Travel Air Company had merged with aeronautical giant Curtiss-Wright Corporation and Walter Beech became a vice president in that organization. He soon tired of flying a desk and yearned to start building aircraft bearing his name. (Mary Lynn Oliver)


Beech was disgusted with the situation. In yet another attempt to resolve it, he returned to diplomacy. Walter was personally acquainted with many of the inspectors and regional officials of the DOC and directly appealed to their understanding and benevolence by conceding that the airplane could not meet DOC approval standards but emphasized that it was a prototype, not a production airplane. He went as far as to stake upon his personal honor, in writing, that the aircraft was structurally sound. As a final gesture, he extended a passionate plea that this one time, the DOC would bend the rules slightly and order its inspectors to license the prototype. They refused.

Stung by the DOC’s response, Beech was forced to retreat but he quickly regrouped. Travel Air bought back the airplane, sold it to another dealer and for several years it went through a series of owners who one-by-one sadly discovered that the airplane was a rogue design, a “white elephant” of the skies, orphaned by Travel Air and rejected by the DOC. Its final days were spent sitting forlornly in a hangar where it was destroyed by fire in the early 1930s.

Walter and Olive Ann Beech co-founded the Beech Aircraft Company in April 1932 and built Ted Well’s cabin biplane designated Model 17R. The Beechcraft’s maximum speed more than 200 mph and landing speed of 60 mph set it apart from all other aircraft in its class. Beech posed with the Model 17R and his dog Tony soon after first flight of the Beechcraft in November 1932. (Mary Lynn Oliver)


While the ashes of the first Type 6000 were still smoldering, Walter Beech was a man on the move. He was a senior official of the Curtiss-Wright Corporation and championed the design, manufacture and sale of the company’s CW-1 “Junior” — a small, single-engine pusher monoplane designed to sell in a Depression economy, as well as the twin-engine. twin-tail “Kingbird“ cabin monoplane that was a precursor of the “Condor” airliner of 1933. By 1932, however, Walter H. Beech had grown weary of the corporate life and was ripe for a new adventure – a fresh challenge that would revive his passion for building airplanes. He could not have known that in 1931 friend and fellow ex-Travel Air employee Ted Wells had begun work on a cabin biplane that would whet Beech’s appetite for success and ignite his passion for building the best business and private airplanes money could buy.