OLIVE ANN BEECH (1903-1993)

Both Olive Ann and her hus­band Wal­ter Beech, were in­ducted into the US Na­tional Avi­a­tion Hall of Fame – one of only two cou­ples so recog­nised


It may seem strange that although Olive Ann Beech never pi­loted an air­craft in her life, she was called the “First Lady of Avi­a­tion” in the United States (US). Her claim to fame was not on ac­count of her ex­ploits in the air, but on the ground. She en­tered the world of avi­a­tion as an of­fice girl in 1924, yet over a ca­reer span­ning about 56 years, she earned more awards, hon­orary ap­point­ments and spe­cial ci­ta­tions than any other woman in the his­tory of avi­a­tion. Both she and her hus­band Wal­ter Beech, were in­ducted into the US Na­tional Avi­a­tion Hall of Fame – one of only two cou­ples so recog­nised.

Olive Ann Mel­lor was born on Septem­ber 25, 1903, in Waverly, Kansas. Her sharp busi­ness in­stincts were ev­i­dent even at the ten­der age of seven and her mother soon opened a bank ac­count for her. By age 11, she was writ­ing the fam­ily che­ques and pay­ing all their bills. In 1917, the fam­ily moved to Wichita, Kansas and later Olive Ann joined Travel Air, a lead­ing air­craft man­u­fac­turer, as a Sec­re­tary. She was the only woman among their 12 em­ploy­ees and the only per­son with­out a pi­lot’s li­cence. The pi­lots de­lighted in tak­ing her up for joyrides and throw­ing the air­craft vi­o­lently around. Not only did she sur­vive the rough treat­ment, but she learnt all she could about fly­ing and air­craft de­sign as well as the se­crets of avi­a­tion fi­nance and mar­ket­ing. In due course, she was ap­pointed per­sonal sec­re­tary to Wal­ter Beech, one of the com­pany’s founders. As any ro­man­tic nov­el­ist will tell you, that is when it all be­gan.

In con­trast to Olive Ann, Wal­ter Beech’s fas­ci­na­tion with flight be­gan early. At the age of 14, he built a glider on the fam­ily farm, us­ing com­mon ma­te­ri­als from around the house. The con­trap­tion was a spec­tac­u­lar fail­ure. In the early 1920s, Beech, Clyde Cessna, and Lloyd Stear­man formed Travel Air and within four years, turned it into the world’s largest pro­ducer of com­mer­cial air­craft. De­spite be­ing a woman, Olive Ann’s busi­ness acu­men earned their re­spect and she be­gan to play an in­creas­ingly im­por­tant role in the com­pany.

In Fe­bru­ary 1930, Olive Ann mar­ried Wal­ter Beech. In 1932 they de­cided to in­vest all their sav­ings in a new en­ter­prise – the Beech Air­craft Com­pany, with Wal­ter as Pres­i­dent and Olive Ann as Sec­re­tary-trea­surer. Oper­at­ing with just a hand­ful of em­ploy­ees from rented premises in Wichita, Beech be­gan to de­sign and build some of the finest light com­mer­cial air­craft in the world. The first of these was the Beechcraft Model 17 Stag­ger­wing. Since sales were ini­tially slow, Olive Ann had a brain­wave that the com­pany should spon­sor a woman pi­lot in the 1936 Bendix Transcon­ti­nen­tal Speed Race. Thus it hap­pened that a Beechcraft Stag­ger­wing with Louise Thaden as pi­lot and Blanche Noyes as nav­i­ga­tor, flew across the US, ar­riv­ing in Los An­ge­les half an hour be­fore its clos­est com­peti­tor. The plane even proved faster than the mil­i­tary air­craft of the time, giv­ing rise to the slo­gan, “It takes a Beechcraft to beat a Beechcraft.” Later, Jackie Cochran set a women’s speed record of 328 kmph and es­tab­lished an al­ti­tude record of over 30,000 feet in a spe­cial Model D17W Stag­ger­wing. With their next prod­uct, the Beechcraft Model 18, the com­pany re­ally be­gan to go places and over 9,000 of these air­craft were built.

How­ever, in 1940, Wal­ter Beech was hos­pi­talised for nearly a year with en­cephali­tis. Olive Ann Beech stepped smoothly into his shoes and steered the com­pany com­pe­tently through the cri­sis. When the US en­tered the Sec­ond World War, Beech turned to mil­i­tary air­craft man­u­fac­ture and de­liv­ered over 7,400 planes used to train nav­i­ga­tors and bom­bardiers. In 1947, the Beechcraft Bo­nanza, a gen­eral avi­a­tion air­craft, was in­tro­duced. It turned out to be a real bo­nanza and per­haps the most revo­lu­tion­ary light air­craft ever. The six-seat, sin­gleengine air­craft has been in con­tin­u­ous pro­duc­tion longer than any other air­craft in his­tory and is still be­ing built. More than 18,000 Bo­nan­zas of var­i­ous vari­ants have been de­liv­ered to cus­tomers by Beech and its suc­ces­sors, in­clud­ing Tex­tron Avi­a­tion, both in the V-tail and con­ven­tional tail con­fig­u­ra­tions.

Olive Ann’s next ma­jor test came when Wal­ter Beech died sud­denly of a heart at­tack in Novem­ber 1950. She was unan­i­mously elected Pres­i­dent and Chair­man of the Board, be­com­ing one of the first fe­male Chief Ex­ec­u­tives in Amer­i­can busi­ness and cer­tainly the first to head a ma­jor air­craft com­pany. She brought to the job her own spe­cial touch – sound judge­ment and steely calm amidst the storm. She said. “I like to have around me peo­ple who find ways to do things, not tell me why they can’t be done.” She con­tin­ued in the post till Beech was pur­chased by Raytheon in 1980. Olive Ann Beech died on July 6, 1993.

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