Olive Ann conquered the skies by churning out war-grade aircraft, used by the US Military in World War II. The president and chairwoman of Beech Aircraft for over 30 years, Olive oversaw the development of Beech from sales of $6.5 million in her first year at the helm, to finally selling off Beech Aircraft for over $800 million to Raytheon.
An unusual childhood
Beech was born as Olive Ann Mellor on September 25, 1903, in a rural farmhouse in Kansas, to Franklin and Susannah Mellor. Both her parents imbibed the values of hard work in her—her father was a building contractor and her mother sold dairy products to meet household needs. Between the two, Olive’s mother was a stronger force—taking care of the finances and running the show. Olive naturally took after her mother, opening her bank account at the age of seven and helping her parents with the finances and paying bills. When children would be rolling in the sand, Beech was handling jobs suitable for people thrice her age.
Olive started working since the age of 12. Skipping high school, she instead chose to study business courses at the American Secretarial and Business College, and took a job as a bookkeeper at Staley Electrical Company after graduation.
After a brief stint at Staley’s, Olive found employment at Travel Air (TA), an upstart aircraft manufacturer where she was their thirteenth employee (and the only female employee). Olive initially had to endure rough treatment at the hands of all the other pilots who would take her in the sky and violently jerk it from left to right as they flew. However, Olive’s strong will persevered—majorly because she enjoyed the work she was doing.
Early on at Travel Air, Olive proved herself very useful, taking care of not only the bookkeeping duties but also handling the firm’s finances, just like she had done at her Kansas home. Resourceful as ever, Olive hired other women to handle the petty issues, and would involve herself in any financial argument between Walter Beech (the chief pilot and an avid plane racer) and Clyde Cessna (chief airplane designer).
After some time, Cessna parted ways to focus on a new airplane design under his own banner. Sales were slow, and investors became wary of Travel Air being able to produce innovative designs, which were characteristic of the period under Cessna’s leadership. At that time, Olive stepped up—she and Walter teamed up to keep sales afloat. Walter would exhibit his breath-taking flying skills to audiences in Travel Air’s aircraft, and Olive would sell the tickets. Though it kept the boat steady, both knew it was a matter of time before their luck ran out. After much discussion with Olive, Walter agreed to merge Travel Air with Curtiss-Wright—the manufacturers of TA’s engines.
As part of the deal, Walter gained $1mn as a major shareholder and was appointed Vice President at Curtiss, with Olive the finance manager. Having been in this together for so long, Olive and Walter also decided to marry and continue working together.
Starting Beech Aircraft
After a 12-year stint at Curtiss, both Walter and Olive were bored of the monotony of their day job. Having gained over two decades of experience in the aviation industry, they decided to start their own aircraft company. It was decided at the outset that, Walter would design the aircraft and Olive would help in sales and finance. Walter initially expected Olive to chip in and work for free; however Olive was adamant she be paid for her service just like any other employee.
With a 12-person company, Beech Aircraft was born. Their first aircraft, the Beech Model 17 Staggerwing opened to a tepid response due to its high price tag in an already depressed aircraft market. Eager to increase sales, Olive presented a brilliant idea – to race the Staggerwing in the 1936 transcontinental Bendix Trophy Race. To gain more traction, she wanted a female pilot to compete with the best pilots in the world. Her confidence won over the shareholders, and Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes were chosen to ride the aircraft. Defying all expectations, Thaden went on to win the race, with the runners-up completing the race after almost an hour. That incident convinced many takers of the abilities of not only the engineering aspect of Beech, but also its management team, especially Olive.
Taking control of Beech Aircraft
After their victory at the Bendix Trophy Race, Beech Aircraft launched their Model 18—known as Twin Beech. The model sold particularly well, bringing in large revenues for the Beeches. A temporary blip in earnings for the next two years was followed by World War 2—creating a spike in demand for military aircraft and carriers.
The World War prompted the Beeches to cut commercial production and convert the Model 17 & 18 into military-style aircraft for the US military. While on one side, the company was moving from strength to strength, on the other side Walter Beech was slowly fading away from public life after being diagnosed with encephalitis. When Walter fell into coma, rumours about the possible successors for Beech began to surface. Olive was distraught, yet she made sure that control of the company remained with Walter—and after him, herself.
Olive established a direct line to her factory from the hospital. 14 men, presumably conspirators, were fired to enable Olive to take firm control of Beech Aircraft. Very soon she became the authority behind all major decisions—her background in finance and as secretary also gave her huge insight into the company’s internal working. Walter was reinstated as president on his return, but after his sad demise in 1950, there were no questions asked over the successor of Walter this time around.
Olive turned out to be one of the sharpest minds in the game; her meetings with insurers usually turned in her favour and she was able to secure huge loans by instilling confidence in lenders. Olive steered Beechcraft through tumultuous times, such as the Korean War when Beech Aircraft were again in high demand by the US military. Under her leadership, Beech produced iconic models such as the Beechcraft Hawker corporate jet, the “99 Airliner” commercial liner & the flagship “King Air” model. King Air was the Air Force One for President Lyndon Johnson, who used it when flying to his Texas ranch.
Beech also won wide appreciation for her work with NASA; it developed the cryogenic storage systems for all Apollo spacecraft landings. Indeed, Beech branched out into every possible domain – Army, Navy, Space and even commercial liners to ensure Beech Aircraft remained dominant in the aviation sector and not lose ground.
Legacy and Impact
Beech was associated with Beechcraft for nearly 43 years, and with the aviation industry for over six decades. Olive won more accolades than any female pilot in aviation history, and is often remembered as the “First Lady in Aviation”. She was highly represented in high level government panels, finding a place in Lyndon B. Johnson’s President’s Commission on White House Fellows. In 1981, Olive was inducted alongside Walter in the Aviation Hall of Fame, immortalising her legacy as an aviation industry stalwart.
Most importantly, Olive was instrumental in inspiring millions of women to choose a career in aviation, a field traditionally reserved for males of the society. She not only taught women to fly high, she ruled the skies for over six decades.
Anant Gupta is a Business Intelligence Analyst at KPMG.