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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“We [Parish, Yarborough and Gorman] went to visit Mrs. Beech to discuss what we planned to do,” Parish recounted. “We told her that we would never come for funding from her or Beechcraft. We were doing this because we loved the airplane. She said, ‘I don’t like museums, number one, and number two, things like this are started by people with big ideas and small pocketbooks, and a few years after they start, they run out of enthusiasm.’”

beecraft museumThat didn’t deter club members from proceeding with plans for the museum. The first building, a small log cabin to display memorabilia donated by Thaden, was constructed. McNabb’s father, Glen, a corporate pilot and FBO owner, became the museum’s curator. The Beechcraft Staggerwing Museum grew, acquiring donated airplanes and memorabilia, and erecting hangars to display them. And soon, Mrs. Beech changed her views.

“In just a few short years, she realized we had the leadership and were managing the museum on a sound financial basis, and she became very, very supportive,” Parish said.

Shipments of historical material from the factory relating to the Staggerwing began arriving at the museum, sent at Mrs. Beech’s direction. The original wind-tunnel model, the original landing-gear mechanism, photographs and documents essential for restoring and maintaining the airplanes were among the artifacts.

The homage the Staggerwing inspires is understandable. As the aircraft that launched Beech Aircraft Corporation, it’s an important piece of aviation history. Its deco design and luxurious, hand-crafted custom interior appointments also make it a work of art. A top cruise speed of more than 180 mph and a range of 600 miles make it a fast and comfortable airplane. And it’s an aircraft that will certainly get you noticed on arrival. [See “Resurrecting A Dream” from Plane & Pilot May 2008.]

The museum expanded in 1995 to include the Model 18 Twin Beech, and again in 2003 with the addition of the Bonanza-Baron line. Last year, the museum became the Beechcraft Heritage Museum, expanding its mission to cover the preservation of all Beech aircraft and heritage, and to promote education through aviation. In its educational capacity, the museum is a satellite site for the EAA’s Air Academy, hosting a multiday program for youngsters twice a year. A glider program for older youths is coordinated through the University of Tennessee’s Space Institute. And the museum hosts school visits throughout the year.

The museum’s collection comprises more than two dozen meticulously restored aircraft, including the first Beechcraft made, a 1932 Model 17R-1 Staggerwing; one of only three existing pre-WWII Model 18D Twin Beeches; two of the oldest Model 35 Bonanzas, from the first year of production in 1947; the first Model 55 Baron, built in 1960; and a turbine-powered A36 Bonanza that flew around the world four times. Artifacts like full-scale cutaway models display the craftsmanship and mechanical ingenuity that went into these machines.

But the museum’s nine Staggerwings remain its crown jewels. Each evokes a multitude of emotions: awe at the workmanship that went into the construction and restoration; reverence for the history they represent; and respect for the visionary minds that made them a reality. NC499N, the first Beech aircraft ever built, stayed in the field where it crashed for almost 50 years before its resurrection. NC14409 is a 1934 B17L, designed as an “economy” version of the Staggerwing, which sold for less than $10,000 but still outperformed competitive aircraft of the day. The later models on display—a 1936 C17L, a 1938 E17B, a 1939 F17D, two D17S models and a pair of 1946 G17S models—trace the evolution of the Staggerwing. The 1946 Staggerwings cost about $29,000. A new Model 35 Bonanza, which debuted the next year, cost less than $9,000. By then, the Staggerwing’s heyday was over. (Production ended in 1949.)

Outside, classic airplanes are still parading around the pattern, keeping the Beechcraft history and heritage alive. And though they no longer serve up their communally prepared chili, many of the original Tullahoma Bunch are on hand, too.

“A very large percentage are still involved. It’s really amazing,” Parish said. “The Staggerwing brought us together. [But] what keeps us together isn’t just a great airplane or a line of great airplanes, but the people associated with it, and the friendships and relationships and fellowships that evolved over the years.”

Yet, this is no musty time capsule of an event. A new generation of classic Beechcraft owners and museum boosters is taking the institution forward. McNabb would like to see more Beechcraft models in the museum’s collection. He ticks off names: the Duke, King Air, Queen Air, T-34, the Musketeer… He cuts to the chase: “We would love to see every make and model of Beechcraft represented.”

Louise Thaden would likely be pleased at what the Beech aficionados have done with the suggestion she made so many years back.

Said Parish, “Realizing something was just a dream 35 or 40 years ago, and to see that dream become successful—it’s a doggone good feeling.”


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