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Meet the Beech engineer who didn’t get paid to design the Bonanza airplane

Prototype Beechcraft Bonanza Model 35. First flown on December 22, 1945.
Prototype Beechcraft Bonanza Model 35. First flown on December 22, 1945. Courtesy

An estimated 350 airplanes are descending on the Wichita area for the American Bonanza Society’s 50th Anniversary convention.

The group’s annual convention, which starts Thursday and is expected to draw about 800 of the group’s 9,200 members, comes on the 70th anniversary of the first delivery of the Bonanza, a single-engine airplane that’s still in production today at the Textron Aviation East Campus at Central and Webb.

Wichitan Paul Miller was a member of the Bonanza’s original design team.

Miller, 99, was one of the eight Beech Aircraft Co. engineers comprising a “volunteer” team led by Ralph Harmon that designed the piston-engine, four-seat airplane.

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“If one individual gets the credit, he’s the one,” Miller said of Harmon, who he added was a visionary and “a great boss.”

Harmon, however, needed engineers on the Bonanza team who were willing to work without pay.

That’s because the idea for the Bonanza emerged during World War II. And Beech was in the throes of war-time production.

“There was no work of any consequence in the country that was not war related, really,” Miller said, “and of course, we in the airplane business were not allowed to do anything except support the war effort.”

Beech produced 7,400 airplanes for the military during the war years, according to “The History of Beech.”

The consensus at Beech was that once the war ended, it would need to have something new to offer in the way of civil aircraft.

Designing the Bonanza without compensation was job security for after the war, Miller said.

Beginning sometime around late 1943 or early 1944, Miller said, he and the other engineers would put in their normal work hours during the day and return to Beech two nights a week to set about designing the Bonanza on paper. Later, they added Saturday afternoons to their after-work routine.

“We always went home and came back after the rest of the crew had gone so people didn’t ask questions,” Miller said.

Of course, Walter and Olive Ann Beech knew what Miller and the team were doing, but they did not ask questions about the team’s progress.

“They said, ‘You go ahead and do it … but don’t do any work that’s going to infringe on the war effort,’” Miller said. “We’ll just deny we know anything about it.’

“They were awful glad to see we had a good paper design when the war was over.”

In 1945, the first prototype Model 35 Bonanza flew. Two years later, Beech delivered the first Bonanza to a customer.

Since then, more than 18,000 Bonanzas have been delivered by Beech and its successors, including Textron Aviation.

“The thing is now some 70 years old,” Miller said. “It’s amazing.”

Jerry Siebenmark: 316-268-6576, @jsiebenmark

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