‘First Lady of Aviation.’ ‘Queen of the Aircraft Industry.’
These are two of the more common titles used when speaking of the life and legacy of Olive Ann Beech, the wife of Beechcraft founder Walter Beech. More than that of her famous husband, Olive Ann Beech’s life and legacy is closely intertwined with the history of Beechcraft and it’s success and legacy in aviation history owes much to her abilities as an aviation industrialist on par with men like Donald Douglas, Bill Boeing, and James McDonnell, who have received far more recognition.
Born Olive Ann Mellor in the small Kansas town of Waverly in 1903, she demonstrated financial acumen from a very young age – she was given her own bank account at the age of seven and by the age of eleven was managing a good portion of the family finances. In 1917, her family moved to Wichita, Kansas, where Mellor skipped high school to go straight to a secretarial and business college. At 18, she took a job with an electrical contractor as an administrative assistant. By the time she was 21, Mellor had landed her first job in the aircraft industry, working as a bookkeeper with the nascent Travel Air Manufacturing Company in Wichita, which was founded in January 1925 by Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech, and Lloyd Stearman.
Beech proved adept at learning the aviation business and before long was handling all of Travel Air’s correspondence, accounting, and business transactions. She was promoted to office manager and personal secretary to Walter Beech, a World War I veteran and barnstormer with a penchant for practical jokes. One day, he invited Mellor to fly with him in a two seat open cockpit biplane, intending to scare her with flying aerobatics. Up in the air, he rolled the airplane upside down and looked back to enjoy the terrified look on his secretary’s face, when, to his horror, he saw her seat was empty. Distraught that Mellor had fallen out of the airplane, Beech landed and headed to her parents’ home to break the news of the accident. Much to his shock, Mellor was the one who answered the door. She had hidden in the cockpit and then, when Beech landed, hopped out and raced home to teach him a lesson. Mellor proved she was Beech’s equal, with steel nerves of her own.
When they became engaged, Beech, ever the prankster, threw Mellor into the pool at the formal reception. Angry with Beech, Mellor left the reception to buy new clothes. She sent the bill to Beech and, according to legend, he paid it with profuse apologies to the woman who would become the foundation of his life and career. They wed on 25 February 1930.
About a year after Travel Air’s founding, Clyde Cessna departed on amicable terms to pursue his own monoplane designs, leaving Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman as the majority owners of the company. In 1929, the year before Beech and Mellor’s wedding, Stearman sold his stake in Travel Air to Walter Beech, departing to found a company that he would eventually move back to Wichita as a Boeing subsidiary. That year, Curtiss-Wright purchased Travel Air and the newlywed couple moved to New York where Walter Beech became a VP at Curtiss-Wright. As the Great Depression deepened, Curtiss-Wright closed the Travel Air plant in Wichita in 1931.
Beech resigned his position and the pair returned to Wichita to start their own aircraft manufacturing company, the Beech Aircraft Corporation. With Olive Ann Beech’s business and financial acumen, the Beech Aircraft Corporation acquired many of the former facilities of Travel Air and hired back many of its former employees. It was common knowledge at the company that Olive Ann Beech played an important role in all of the company’s the major decisions.
Their first aircraft design was the elegant Beech Model 17 Staggerwing, which first flew in 1932. To promote the Staggerwing, Olive Ann Beech suggested having women fly the aircraft in the 1936 transcontinental Bendix Race. Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes piloted a Staggerwing from New York to Los Angeles in only 14 hours 55 minutes, a full 45 minutes ahead of the second place finishers. The pair were the only women besides Jackie Cochrane to win the Bendix Trophy for air racing.
When Beechcraft went public in 1936, Olive Ann Beech was the third largest shareholder of the company. The following year, Beechcraft introduced another iconic general aviation design, the Model 18 Twin Beech which become immensely successful for the company. Her husband was in charge of engineering and production, while Olive Ann Beech managed the company and oversaw its finances. With the clouds of war approaching in 1940, Walter Beech was hospitalized with a brain infection and fell into a coma. Olive Ann was also in the hospital, delivering their second child. Executives seized the opportunity to try to take control of the company, but they underestimated Olive Ann.
While still hospitalized, she had a direct phone line set up from her bedside to the Beech plant. She summoned each and every upper level executive of the company to meet with her personally and each morning held meetings in her hospital room. At a time when women weren’t seen as corporate leaders, Olive Ann Beech firmly established who was in charge at Beechcraft. By the time Walter Beech was released from the hospital, Olive Ann had dismissed fourteen executives. She ran all aspects of the company until her husband was able to return to work. With increasing military orders coming in for military versions of the Model 17 Staggerwing and the Model 18 Twin Beech, Olive Ann Beech secured $83 million in loans and credit, $50 million of which she personally arranged with 36 different banks.
Olive Ann Beech oversaw the expansion of Beechcraft’s production plants to meet the military orders for Beech aircraft. During the Second World War, Beech produced nearly 7,500 aircraft and earned the Army-Navy “E” Award five times, which was given to companies that achieved what the military termed “Excellence in Production.” During World War II, only 5 per cent of companies supporting the war effort won the coveted “E” Award. More than 90 per cent of the bombardiers and navigators in the U.S. military during World War II were trained on Beech aircraft.
In the midst of the war, Olive Ann Beech began planning for the war’s end and a transition back to peacetime production. The Model 18 Twin Beech was prepared for civilian production and in 1947, Beech introduced the Model 36 Bonanza, an iconic piston single aircraft that has remained in continuous production to this day.
Walter Beech died from a sudden heart attack on 29 November 1950. At the age of 47, Olive Ann Beech became president of Beechcraft and chairman of the board, the first woman to head an aircraft manufacturing company. An intensely private individual, there is little in the historical record about how Beech reacted to the loss of her husband. Despite her long years as the virtual head of Beechcraft, various executives attempted to unseat her, unwilling to take orders from a woman. Every single one of her challengers was shown the door, including her own brother-in-law.
Beech’s executive suite was on the first floor of the Beechcraft production plant. According to legend, she displayed a flag outside her door: a sun if she was in a good mood, a storm cloud if her mood was bad.
At the helm of Beechcraft through the 1950s and 1960s, Beech diversified the company’s product line to include target drones for the U.S. military, as well as the cryogenic and pressurization systems for the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. She led the formation of an in-house financing arm that would help owners of Beech aircraft finance their purchases.
On the other side of Wichita in the mid-60s, Bill Lear was exciting the world of general aviation with his Model 23/24 Learjet. Some suggested Beechcraft should also get into jets, but Beech nixed the idea, instead authorizing the development and production of the immensely successful King Air line of turboprops. In 1966, facing a shortage of capital, Bill Lear approached Olive Ann Beech about Beechcraft acquiring Learjet and its product line. Olive Ann struck down the idea, allegedly telling the board of directors, “I’m not pulling Bill Lear’s chestnuts out of the fire!”
In 1968, after eighteen years as the president and CEO of Beechcraft, Beech began to delegate more authority to her nephew, Frank Hedrick, who who had been one of Beech’s most trusted lieutenants in the years after Walter Beech’s death in 1950. In 1968, Hedrick was named the company’s new president, while Beech remained CEO and chairman of the board. It was Hedrick who got Beech’s blessing to finally get into jets. Beechcraft began a joint venture with Hawker Siddeley that lasted from 1970-1975 and produced the HS.125 business jet. Beechcraft also become a subcontractor on the Space Shuttle, building the OMS (Orbital Maneuvering System) pods on each side of the base of the vertical tail for the Shuttle Orbiters.
At the age of 70, Beech told her nephew that the time was right to find a buyer for Beechcraft. On 8 February 1980, Raytheon purchased Beechcraft for $800 million. Beech and Hedrick sat on the board of Raytheon for two years. The sale to Raytheon made Beech the second largest shareholder at Raytheon at the time. With changes in the corporate structure at Raytheon, Beech was eventually ousted from the board of directors. Her departure from Raytheon marked fifty years from the establishment of Beechcraft in 1932. From the first Model 17 Staggerwings to the time Beech retired, Beechcraft had built nearly 54,000 aircraft.
If one had invested $10,000 in Beechcraft when Beech became CEO in 1950 and cashed out with the 1980 sale to Raytheon, the investment would have grown to $1.23 million, an annual return of about 18 per cent. By comparison, the same amount invested in the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the same time frame would only be worth $145,000, with an annual return of 7.5%.
In her retirement, Beech was one of the biggest philanthropists in Wichita, working with the descendants of Clyde Cessna on several benefit projects. She received an honorary doctorate from Wichita State University and joined her husband in the Aviation Hall of Fame. She passed away on 6 July 1993 at the age of 89.
At a time when the aviation industry – and the executive suite – weren’t believed to be places for women, Beech’s managerial skills and business acumen helped her forge an historical legacy and made Beechcraft a household name in aviation. She was more than the ‘First Lady of Aviation’ or the ‘Queen of the Aircraft Industry.’ She was an aviation industrialist and business magnate in her own right.
Every Beech aircraft that has ever taken to the skies is a winged tribute to Olive Ann Beech.