Beech, Olive Ann (1903–1993)

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Beech, Olive Ann (1903–1993)

American aviation pioneer and co-founder and chief executive officer of Beech Aircraft Corporation. Name variations: O.A. Beech. Born Olive Anne Mellor in Waverly, Kansas, on September 25, 1903; died on July 6, 1993, in Wichita, Kansas; daughter of Frank B. (a carpenter and building contractor) and Suzannah (Miller) Mellor; attended public school in Paola, Kansas, and American Secretarial and Business College, Wichita; also attended night school; married Walter H. Beech, on February 24, 1930; children: Suzanne Mellor Beech and Mary Lynn Beech.

Began work in aviation as secretary-bookkeeper (mid-1920s); became knowledgeable in various aspects of aviation (1930s); co-founded Beech Aircraft Company (1932); because of husband's poor health during World War II, ran Beech Aircraft during a time of rapid expansion; became president and chair of the company after husband's death (1950); elected Woman of the Year by the Women's National Aeronautical Association of the U.S. (1951); under her leadership, Beech Aircraft became a leading manufacturer of private aircraft, also winning major missile and space contracts; retired from presidency (1968); sold company (1980).

From a $20-a-week job as a bookkeeper, Olive Ann Beech rose to become chief executive officer of the multimillion dollar Beech Aircraft Corporation. Founded with her husband, the company was a leading Midwest producer of light commercial aircraft and military training planes, which supplied 90% of the planes used for training American bombardiers and navigators during World War II.

Born in 1903, Beech grew up in a Kansas farming community. After finishing public school, she attended a business college and improved her stenographic and bookkeeping skills. She worked several years as a bookkeeper for a manufacturing firm, then in 1925 she began working as a secretary-bookkeeper for the Travel Air Manufacturing Company, a struggling firm producing airplanes for business and sport purposes, founded that year by aviation pioneer Walter H. Beech. Dedicated and conscientious, she was soon promoted to the post of office manager and secretary to Walter Beech. But Olive had never been near a plane. During the first few weeks, she had to have the chief engineer prepare a breakdown drawing of a plane, with all the parts marked, because she couldn't tell an empennage from a cowling. "I used this drawing for many years when teaching new employees the nomenclature of aircraft," she told the Christian Science Monitor in 1951.

As the only woman of the company's 12 employees, Beech quickly caught the eye of her charming, but somewhat difficult, bachelor boss. On her first day, he warned her not to bother the married men, and she countered by letting him know that she would not be bothering him either. In 1930, shortly after the company merged with Curtiss-Wright, they married. Walter's work (he was now an executive officer of the new firm) took him to New York City, during which time Olive was not active in the business. Two years later, the couple returned to Wichita because Walter missed the hands-on construction of aircraft.

In 1932, they founded the Beech Aircraft Company (later Corporation), announcing that the purpose of their new firm would be to "make the best airplanes in the world." Olive served as secretary-treasurer, then director. From the fledgling company came the two airplanes that would provide its foundation for years to come: the classic Model 17 single-engine Stag-gerwing biplane and the Model 18 Twin. Olive Beech played an important role in winning the 1936 Bendix Transcontinental Speed Dash, convincing her husband that a victory would be more impressive if their Model 17 was flown by women. As a result, Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes flew a Beechcraft to victory in America's most famous cross-country race and set a new transcontinental speed record for women.

By the late 1930s, the company had landed enough defense contracts to qualify as a critical war industry. By 1938, their sales exceeded $1 million, and the company dominated the market of private-owner and commercial planes in the 285 to 459 horsepower class. By 1940, they had military orders worth $22 million. That same year, when Beech was pregnant with her second daughter, Walter was stricken with encephalitis from which he would never fully recover. While her husband lay in a coma, Olive Beech took over running the company from her own bed in the maternity section of the hospital. She oversaw negotiations for a $23 million loan and $50 million in revolving credit from 36 banks to finance the continuing production of planes to meet mounting orders. In the spring of 1941, the company began producing its Beechcraft Model 18, which served throughout the war as a bomber trainer and as a short-haul airship. She also dealt with the numerous management problems of sudden expansion, including recruiting, training workers, and finding subcontractors for parts. Under her guidance, sales reached a wartime peak of $122 million in 1945. By the end of the war, the company had produced 7,400 Beechcrafts, plus spare parts. At its peak production, the firm employed 15,000 workers.

The postwar years were often difficult, as the number of workers dropped to 2,600 in 1949. Beech Aircraft was highly adaptive, however, and turned into a diversified manufacturing enterprise that produced corn harvesters, cotton pickers, washing machines, and such humble but popular consumer items as pie plates. The death of Walter Beech in November 1950 did not disrupt the company's future since Olive Ann Beech had been de facto chief executive officer (CEO) of Beech Aircraft for many years. She now held the titles of president, board chair, and CEO. The Korean War brought large orders from the Pentagon, but Beech knew that defense orders alone would not guarantee her firm's long-term financial health.

Surrounding herself with "people who like to find ways to do things, not tell me why they can't be done," she guided Beech Aircraft toward industrial prominence through planned policies of expansion and diversification, and by early entry into the nation's space program. In December 1955, Beech Aircraft announced the first flight of its Model 73 jet trainer, a craft designed to train pilots in the operation of turbojet aircraft. Other plane designs in the following decades indicated that the spirit of innovation remained alive and strong in the company.

For much of her career, Olive Beech was also a mother and homemaker who found time to serve a variety of other interests. She was active as a philanthropist, patron of the arts, and supporter of youth. Beech earned respect from her peers in aviation and business as the recipient of awards and appointments to high-ranking positions, including the Board of Directors of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In 1943, she was chosen by The New York Times as one of America's 12 most distinguished women. In 1951, she was chosen as "woman of the year" by the Women's National Aeronautical Association. She was twice named by Fortune magazine as one of the top ten businesswomen in the United States. As a highly respected industrialist, she was appointed to national boards by presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, and Nixon. In 1968, Beech turned over the presidency of Beech Aircraft to her nephew Frank E. Hedrick but retained the post of chair. In the final years of her control, the payroll was more than 10,000 and annual sales were over $900 million. In 1980, Beech Aircraft was purchased by Raytheon Company, and Beech was elected to the parent company's board and executive committee.

Olive Ann Beech was honored in 1980 with the "Sands of Time" Kitty Hawk Civilian Award, conferred at the Wright Brothers Banquet of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. That month, she also received the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy "in recognition of significant public service of enduring value to aviation in the United States." In July 1980, she was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame, joining her late husband who was so honored in 1977. Olive and Walter Beech became only the second couple to be enshrined in the Aviation Hall of Fame, the other being Charles and Anne Lindbergh . In 1982, Olive Beech became chair emeritus of Beech Aircraft and retired from the board of Raytheon. She died on July 6, 1993, at the age of 89.


Bird, Caroline. Enterprising Women. NY: W.W. Norton, 1976.

Candee, Marjorie Dent, ed. Current Biography 1956. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1956.

Chronicle of Aviation. Liberty, MO: JL International, 1992.

McDaniel, William H. Beech: A Quarter Century of Aeronautical Achievement. Wichita, KS: The McCormick-Armstrong, 1947.

"Olive A. Beech, 89, Retired Head of Beech Aviation," in The New York Times Biographical Service. July 1993, p. 933.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia