Pilot Journal
Monday, September 1, 2008

Beech Party!

Celebrating Tullahoma’s annual Beechcraft birthday bash

A flight of three Staggerwings has just made a low pass along the runway; eight V-tail Bonanzas in two echelons are flying overhead at 1,000 feet AGL; and a Model 18 Twin Beech and a Twin Bonanza in formation swoop out of the sky and thunder by. More vintage Beechcraft in twos, threes and fours are making circuits and performing flybys for the crowd of several hundred gathered here at Tullahoma Regional Airport (KTHA) in eastern Tennessee.
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beechcraft museumThe museum and the fly-in were originally dedicated exclusively to the Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing. But both have grown more inclusive over the years, adding more members of the Beech family tree to their focus. (“Staggerwing,” by the way, is the aircraft’s popular eponym; the factory called the aircraft the Stagger Beech.) So every October, as the first hint of color appears in the foliage and the air is cool enough to see your breath at dawn, Beech enthusiasts gather for five days of camaraderie and informative seminars.

“This is a flying fly-in,” said Dick Hansen, a Super 18S Twin Beech owner from Batavia, Ill., who has been attending since the 1970s.

Last year’s celebration marked a host of milestones: 75th anniversary of the Beech Aircraft Corporation and the Model 17 Staggerwing; 70th anniversary of the Model 18 Twin Beech; and 60th anniversary of the Bonanza. This year’s gathering will mark another: the 35th anniversary of the museum and of the gathering of Staggerwings that sparked its founding.

A full-scale cutaway Staggerwing shows its structural details.

A 1936 C17B Staggerwing restored by Chuck Cianchette in 1971.
Travel Air 1000, Serial #1.
The roots of the fly-in go back to a group of antique aircraft enthusiasts drawn to the Tullahoma area by work at the nearby Arnold Engineering Development Center, the world’s largest and most advanced complex of flight-simulation test facilities, founded in 1951 at Arnold AFB. By the mid-1960s, the “Tullahoma Bunch,” as the enthusiasts became known, were holding an annual regional fly-in dubbed the “do-nothing happening”—this was the ’60s, after all.

“It got to be a pretty popular fly-in,” remembered John Parish, a charter member of the Tullahoma Bunch who had a passion for Staggerwings and lived with his family on property they owned adjoining the airport.

By the early 1970s, the national Staggerwing Club was holding its annual fly-in at the airport, with the Tullahoma Bunch helping out and serving up their renowned group-made chili for supper.

“We had a common recipe—we gave it out, everybody brought some and we put it all together. We had 55 gallons of chili,” said Parish, who had his own Staggerwing by this time.

Staggerwings weren’t then the revered rarities they are today. In those days, as many as 40 or more of the sleek and glamorous biplanes would show up for the event. The 1973 fly-in featured a guest of honor: pioneering aviatrix Louise Thaden, who won the 1936 transcontinental Bendix Trophy Race in a Model C17R Staggerwing, which helped establish the aircraft’s reputation for speed and performance. She was good friends with seminal Staggerwing preservationist and club president Dub Yarborough.

From nearby Jasper, Tenn., Wade McNabb, son of a Staggerwing owner, remembers the 1973 fly-in, too. “I was seven years old,” McNabb said. “And I can remember coming to the chili supper when I was four or five.”

That year, in a formal address at the annual banquet, Thaden urged club members to take steps to permanently preserve the fabled biplanes. Thus, the idea for a museum was born.

“Louise Thaden put the idea in Dub’s, Jim Gorman’s and my head,” said Parish, recalling the speech and its impact on the three club members who would lead the museum project.

Today McNabb, after working as an engineer for Pratt & Whitney, is CEO of the Beechcraft Heritage Museum, and Parish is chairman of the board of directors. (Though Parish downplays his contributions to the museum, he also donated the land it occupies.) Surprisingly, back then, not all Staggerwing fans felt the museum was a good idea—particularly the most important one, Olive Ann Beech, widow of Walter Beech and then-chairman of Beech Aircraft.


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