Hawker Beechcraft trace its history back to a former barnstormer, test pilot and salesman who grew up on a farm in Tennessee.
Walter Beech and his wife, Olive Ann, founded Beech Aircraft Corp. in 1932. They started the airplane manufacturer with the profit they made when they sold Travel Air — another airplane maker Walter Beech helped found with Lloyd Stearman and Clyde Cessna — to Curtiss-Wright Corp.
Beech Aircraft’s first airplane, the Model 17, was the first commercial airplane to have a top speed of 200 mph and a low landing speed of 60 mph, allowing it to land on short runways. The company would go on to produce 785 Model 17s.
Beech Aircraft saw significant growth with the start of World War II, producing more than 7,400 airplanes for the U.S. and its allies, including the AT-11 “Kansan” twin-engine trainer.
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In 1950, Walter Beech died of a heart attack and Olive Ann Beech became president of Beech Aircraft. She would guide the company through three decades of expansion and the first production of the twin-engine Beech Baron and King Air, models of which the company continues to produce today. Production of the iconic Bonanza began in the 1940s. Production of that single-engine airplane also continues today.
In 1980, the company was acquired by Massachusetts-based defense contractor Raytheon, and two years later, 50 years of Beech family management of the company ended with Raytheon’s appointment of Linden Blue as chief executive.
It was under Blue’s tenure that Beech Aircraft launched plans for the then-futuristic Starship business turboprop. It was a cutting-edge airplane not only for its appearance — for instance it was absent a tail and had a second set of smaller wings mounted just behind the nose — but also because the bulk of its airframe was made of composite materials. The plane’s rising research and development costs — estimated at the time between $700 million and $1 billion — along with a two-year delay in FAA certification, increasing weight, cabin noise, $4.4 million price tag and lackluster demand led the company to end production in 1994. The company built 50 Starships for sale and three for testing.
The year the Starship officially died also was the year that Beech Aircraft became Raytheon Aircraft Co., a name reflecting Raytheon Co.’s merger of Beech Aircraft and Raytheon Corporate Jets, a unit that produced the Hawker line of business jets that Raytheon acquired from British Aerospace a year earlier.
By 1994, the company was already on its fourth Raytheon-appointed chief executive, Art Wegner. Under Wegner, the company announced plans for its Premiere I light business jet and the Hawker Horizon (now the Hawker 4000) super midsize business jets, both of which were considered revolutionary because of their all-composite fuselages.
But building and selling those airplanes would prove to be problematic for the company; there were certification delays, tepid sales and production issues.
By the time Jim Schuster arrived in 2001 to take the reins from Hansel Tookes, who succeeded Wegner, the company was losing a million dollars a day in operating income and had a long list of issues that needed to be addressed, Schuster told the Eagle in a November 2008 story.
“I was asked to come in and figure out what to do with the company,” he said in the story.
The changes Schuster initiated involved cutting jobs, selling some real estate the company owned, reviving the Beechcraft name, expanding globally, and certifying 19 aircraft. Schuster also prepped the company for its $3 billion sale to private equity firms Onex and Goldman Sachs in 2007.
While analysts credited Schuster for a major turnaround of what by then had been renamed Hawker Beechcraft, when he announced in November 2008 his plans to retire, the company had recently disclosed its plans to lay off 5 percent of its workforce, and it had posted dour sales and a net loss in the prior quarter. That was also around the time the country — and eventually Wichita — entered its deepest recession since the Great Depression.