Walking into the softly lit hangar for dinner this night was to enter a pilot's dream house. In one corner was a 1932 Staggerwing 17R serial number one, the very first Beechcraft manufactured, standing proudly in her elegant wheel fairings; in another was a 1938 S18D Twin Beech serial number 178, the 11th Model 18 built, colorful in her original Prairie Airways livery; and diagonally across the room was Miss Shiny, a 1947 Model 35 Bonanza serial number 18 all polished aluminum and red bird trim. These immaculate craft glistened in their spotlights, each a work of art, filling the room with a visceral vitality even though the youngest of the trio is 61 years old. There have been many successful Beechcraft designs, but these three, the Models 17, 18 and 35, are the holy trinity of the revered Beech Aircraft Company founded in 1932 by Walter Beech and his wife, Olive Ann, and known today as Hawker Beechcraft. This evening's dinner, around dozens of tables with glowing blue ice-like centerpieces, was part of a five-day celebration last October to honor the 35th anniversary of the Beechcraft Heritage Museum in Tullahoma, Tennessee. Dining together were some 325 friends, or soon to be friends, with a common passion: Beechcraft airplanes. A stranger could have plunked down at any table and have a new circle of friends in 10 minutes. They might include a gifted mechanic specializing in Beech 18s, a Staggerwing owner fully aware that he is merely the temporary custodian of an historic aircraft, a Bonanza pilot who flew his ship around the world, or possibly the person who donated the building, but the newcomer would only see their common bond that brought them to this place at this time in the presence of these magnificent aircraft. They are family.
What is now a first-class museum housing artifacts, documents and aircraft found nowhere else in the world grew from a modest idea. Yet, despite its spectacular growth, it still has the atmosphere of a family home carefully expanded over the years as the family grew.
Like so many beautiful things in life, it began with a love affair, which in this case was between a former World War II Navy pilot, W.C. "Dub" Yarbrough, and Big Red, his glorious G17S Beechcraft Staggerwing serial number B-3, the third of only 20 built right after WW II. Dub was one of the first Navy Blue Angels, and Big Red was the last of an era of exquisite, high-performance radial-engined cabin biplanes. They were made for each other. In 1963 Dub started the Staggerwing Club from which the Staggerwing Museum was formed in 1973 with the hard work, generosity and expertise of people like Dub, Jim Gorman, John Parish, Red Holloway, Glenn McNabb, Bill Halverson, Robert Smith, Dick Perry, Bob Fergus, John Latta and Louise Thaden, who were the first trustees. Louise, you may remember, won the 1936 Bendix Air Race in a Staggerwing much to the surprise of her more famous competitors unaware of the Staggerwing's performance and Louise's skills, which were exceeded only by her fine qualities as a person. Many others contributed greatly after those early days including the Beech Aircraft Company, Olive Ann Beech, her daughters, Suzanne Warner and Mary Lynn Beech Oliver, and their families. The tradition of the founders is carried on today by museum President Michael Greenblatt and CEO and Curator Wade McNabb, Glenn's son.
As the Staggerwing Museum grew to include other Beech airplanes from the Travel Air to the Starship, the name was changed in 2007 to the Beechcraft Heritage Museum, which now includes the Louise M. Thaden Office and Library Building, Walter H. Beech Hangar, O.A. Beech Gallery and Chapel, Eddie Ross Restoration Center, George York Technical Library, Beech Center, Alton E. Cianchette Hangar and the Bonanza/Baron Museum.
Each October the family, and that means anyone who owns, operates or is inspired by Beechcraft airplanes, gathers in Tullahoma for the annual fly-in to share what they know, show what they fly, get reacquainted, and welcome new members. The time is filled with events such as seminars on radial engines, Models 17, 18 and Bonanza maintenance; safety discussions; dawn patrols; photo sessions; a fly-in breakfast; avionics clinics; and a cocktail hour each evening before dinner and a guest speaker.
In honor of the 35th anniversary this year, Julie Clark performed a wonderful dusk airshow in her famous T-34, members of the Lima Lima T-34 formation team flew a remarkable display, and Matt Younkin brought everyone outside for a spectacular night aerobatic routine in his C18S Twin Beech.
Despite the economic downturn, some 200 airplanes flew in, including 10 Staggerwings, 28 Bonanzas, 10 Barons, 38 T-34s, 9 Twin Beeches, 7 other Beech varieties, and a number of other makes. In addition, many of the museum aircraft were rolled outside making an impressive flight line. The collective aeronautical knowledge of the people flying those airplanes was astounding, and their pleasure in passing it along to new members of the extended Beech family is what gives the Beechcraft Heritage Museum the air it breathes.
Interesting airplanes attract interesting people, and there were many of both last fall in Tullahoma.
Tullahoma, Tennessee, is 70 miles southeast of Nashville. For further information go to beechcraftheritagemuseum.org.