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Olive Ann Beech: The First Lady of Aviation


Walter and Olive Ann Beech - Founders of Beechcraft

Olive Ann Beech was born on September 25, 1903 in Waverly, Kansas to Franklin Benjamin Mellor—a housing contractor—and Susannah Miller Mellor who raised pigs, geese, chickens, and a cow, selling the pigs and eggs for household money.

She was the youngest of four girls and would become the co-founder, president, and chairwoman of Beech Aircraft Corporation.

In 1917, the Mellor family moved to Wichita where she attended the American Secretarial and Business College. At the age of 18, she left Wichita for employment with an electrical contracting firm in Augusta, Kansas.

She began her aviation career in 1925 working as bookkeeper and secretary at Travel Air Manufacturing Company, formed by Clyde Cessna, Lloyd Stearman, and Walter Beech in 1924. The company became the world's largest producer of commercial aircraft within four years of its opening.

The only female among the 12 employees of the company, and the only one without a pilot's license, Olive Ann learned the business from the ground up, handling all correspondence, maintaining records, and conducting transactions.

She married Walter Beech on February 24, 1930 in Wichita, “The Air Capital of the World.” At the age of 14, he built a glider of his own design using materials he found around his own home, the experiment was a failure. Ten years later, on July 11, 1914, he made his first solo flight in a Curtiss biplane he and a friend rebuilt.

Walter and Olive Ann established their own company, Beechcraft, on April 19, 1932. With a $6.5 million market value, she became president in 1950 when he died on November 29 from a heart attack.

The first airplane the company designed and built, a mid-30s Model 17 Staggerwing Beech, “bridged the gap between slow open-cockpit biplanes of the past and the modern, all-metal tricycle wonders that were soon to come.”

In 1937, Beech Aircraft introduced the Twin Beech which was adopted for use by the U.S. Army Air Corps and was sold all over the world.

The company grew dramatically during World War II. After the war was over, production slowed, and they began to diversify the line beyond aviation to keep their trained employees at work. They made vending machines, pie plates, a corn harvester, and the futuristic Dymaxion House (DYnamic, MAXimum, tensION), which could be mass-produced to help address housing problems of the time.

Under her guidance, Beechcraft was a leader in adopting the gas turbine power plant for its general aviation airplanes.

Beechcraft took steps to support the United States' space exploration efforts during the late 1950s with development of cryogenic systems for NASA.

She was the first woman to receive the National Aeronautic Association's Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy, the highest honor the organization bestows, for her contributions to the aviation industry.

When Beechcraft merged with the Raytheon Company in February 1980, Olive Ann was elected to the board of directors.

Her career spanned 50 years prior to her retirement in September 1982 to become the Raytheon's Chairman Emeritus, a position she continued to hold until her death on July 6, 1993 at the age of 89.

She was the first woman to head a major aircraft company.

“If you enjoy your work, all you have to do is be capable and take the pitfalls along with the good.”

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