Obituary: Olive Ann Beech

Bill Gunston
Tuesday 13 July 1993 00:02
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Olive Ann Mellor, businesswoman: born Waverly, Kansas 25 September 1903; Founding Partner, Beech Aircraft 1932, President 1950-68, Chairman 1950-82, Chairman Emeritus 1982-93; married 1930 Walter Beech (died 1950; two daughters); died Wichita, Kansas 6 July 1993.

OLIVE ANN MELLOR was born in 1904, a year after the first powered flight by the Wrights. In her generation, even to train as a typist was thought rather 'fast', especially among the wheatfields of Kansas, but Olive Ann was precocious from the start. At seven she had a bank account, and soon took over the family book-keeping. She graduated from the Wichita business school with flying colours, but then spoiled it by joining Travel Air, in the uncertain business of making small aircraft.

Walter Beech and the other Travel Air pilots delighted to treat their secretary to violent aerobatics. Not only did she enjoy these ordeals but she made it her business to learn all she could about the intricacies of aircraft design, as well as the potential market and the finances. She had nowhere to go but up - literally - and for good measure in 1930 she married Beech, becoming his partner in the Infant Beech Aircraft in 1932. Jointly they designed a luxurious cabin biplane, the Model 17, notable for its odd 'backstaggered' wings (the upper being further back). It had a choice of powerful engines and even of retractable landing gear, but in the Depression they sold one aircraft in the first two years.

They survived, and by 1935 had delivered 54. In 1937, along with the first of two daughters, the Beeches created a streamlined twin-engined monoplane, the Model 18. It was to remain in production with modifications for 30 years, to a total of 7,091; even the Model 17 reached No 781, and today they are collectors' items. In 1946 the first Bonanza showed just how aesthetically beautiful a light four-seater can be, and later versions are still in production.

In 1950 Walter Beech died, and his widow was unanimously elected President and Chairman of the Board. Seemingly frail, she demonstrated not only sound judgement but nerves of steel. She said: 'I like to have around me people who find ways to do things, not tell me why they can't be done.' Under her direction, the Beech Aircraft Corporation grew ever greater, in the 1960s not only taking on the manufacture of parts for the biggest jets but also sharing in the space programme, with large sections of the manned Gemini and the Apollo lunar module.

She drove the company to the position of being the Rolls-Royce among builders of private and business aircraft. They may not have equalled the sheer output of Cessna and Piper, though topping 50,000 by the end of 1991 is nothing to be ashamed of, but the average price of the Beech range has been significantly higher. The boss's personal Super King Air twin- turboprop was registered N925B, denoting her birthday on 25 September.

To the end she was Chairman Emeritus, and took a keen interest in every important design. Her passing, at 89, will leave a gap round the Beech boardroom table in Wichita.

(Photograph omitted)

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