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

Issue: 10 / 2018By Joseph Noronha

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.