Thursday, January 1, 2004
Beech Travel Air
How an accidental friendship led to an Oshkosh champion
The grass around the 1958 Beech Travel Air was beaten down, trampled by thousands of feet, wearing a path around the wings and tail of N100BH. When you see this kind of wear and tear on the ground at Oshkosh, where more than 2,000 show planes sit proudly in the sun, it’s a sure sign that something special has arrived.
The airplane literally glistened in the sun—an unmistakable gleam reflected by the windshield challenged everyone to draw closer. In the 1950s, Olive Ann and Walter Beech were known for turning out classy airplanes from their Wichita, Kan., plant, but few rolled out the door that even remotely looked like this one at Oshkosh.
Today, most Travel Airs are used by flight schools for twin-engine training, relatively few are in private hands and even fewer are in pristine condition. A useful load of 1,172 pounds, an economical fuel flow and relatively fast cruise speeds didn’t overcome the higher horsepower and gross weights offered by Beech’s new light twin, the Baron. The Beech model 95 first filled the product slot between the model 35 V-tail Bonanza and the larger twin-engine D-50 Twin Bonanza. One hundred and seventy-three airplanes were built that first year, and by the time production ended 10 years later, 720 Travel Airs had been manufactured.
Beech couldn’t have known it was creating an unsung twin-engine workhorse. Conceived as a simple step in its product line, the Travel Air’s simple elegance and economic operation made it one of Beech’s most successful airplanes, the proverbial light-light twin. The first versions of the airplane shared the fuselage and interior detailing of the J35 Bonanza, arguably the finest-handling versions of the V-tail airplane ever made.
Crisp roll and positive pitch response have endeared the airplane to thousands of fledgling multi-engine pilots. Good handling and, by today’s standards, marginal single-engine performance aren’t enough to save an airplane from the oblivion of use and neglect, however. Some special verve or attraction is required. Without a V-tail, or two big-bore engines and six seats, you have to wonder what was special about this particular “Badger.” For those who didn’t know, Beech was originally going to call the model 95 project the Badger until it became known that the U.S. Air Force was also interested in the name. Deferring to the Air Force, Beech chose to resuscitate an old name in its history, and the new Travel Air was born.
How did this Travel Air come to dazzle the crowds at Oshkosh? The truth is that the airplane got there by accident—or the result of accidental friendship.
You could say that the restoration of N100BH began in the Airframe and Powerplant School, where JJ Janovetz and Richard Wheeler became friends. Their love of things aviation led them to the decision to work on their private pilot’s licenses, which in turn resulted in their partnership in a Piper Warrior. Along the way, Janovetz went to work as a mechanic for renowned air-show pilot Charlie Hilliard. Janovetz became a true craftsman with aluminum and steel, one of those rare mechanics who works in art rather than nuts and bolts.
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