Tullahoma’s Beechcraft Heritage Museum Flies High into History
The Roaring Twenties was an era of prosperity, breaking with tradition, a time when anything was possible through modern technology, and life was to be celebrated. Jazz music filled the dance halls, women won the right to vote, sports heroes and movie stars were fêted by the media.
Onto this stage emerged aviatrix Louise Thaden, one of America’s most captivating aeronautical record-setters during the late 1920s and 1930s. The only woman to ever simultaneously hold the speed, altitude and endurance records, she frequently beat well-known contemporaries such as Amelia Earhart, Pancho Barnes and Blanche Noyes.
Flying a Beech Staggerwing C17R into the record books, Louise Thaden and her co-pilot and navigator, Blanche Noyes, surprised the world when they won the Bendix Transcontinental Air Race of 1936, even beating out the boys in this first year that women were allowed to compete.
If you’d like to catch the spirit of this fearless heroine and discover a fascinating trail of aviation history, point your car, airplane or motorcycle 80 miles southeast from Nashville to the Beechcraft Heritage Museum in Jack Daniels territory.
Beechcraft aviation history has been stunningly preserved in the Tennessee town of Tullahoma. On a grassy campus adjacent to the Tullahoma Airport, you can touch and see every model of Staggerwing biplane ever built, admire the gleaming restored winners of air races, walk an entire hangar lined with Bonanzas and Barons that mark the evolution of Beech aircraft, and delve into archives chronicling this illustrious breed of airplanes.
Inside the entrance of the Beechcraft Heritage Museum is a dazzling silver Beech Bonanza and two larger-than-life portraits of Walter and Olive Ann Beech, founders of the corporation. Walter Beech was born in Pulaski, Tennessee, but spent most of his career based in Wichita, Kansas. His story begins with aviation pioneers Clyde Cessna and Lloyd Stearman in the 1920s. The three originally founded the Travel Air Manufacturing Company, and later split to follow their individual passions, resulting in the birth of Cessna, Stearman and Beech Aircraft Companies.
Lining one wall of the museum are colored sketches of original customer airplanes, detailing individual specs and paint schemes. On another are photographs capturing a pictorial history of the company. Faded memories donated by Olive Ann Beech from the factory’s archives. In one intriguing picture, two huge crates sit loaded on a monstrous flatbed truck. They contain disassembled Staggerwings ready for the long journey by truck, rail and ship to customers in New Zealand and Australia.
The Staggerwing was a rakish classic of a biplane, a powerhorse with a throaty growl. “It was the ‘Cadillac’ of airplanes, the first fast and comfortable corporate aircraft of the Thirties,” described John Parish Sr, who has donated the land and innumerable, impeccably restored Beechcraft classics to the museum. Staggerwing No. 1, the very first Beechcraft ever built, holds center stage.
The Twin Beech 18 was next in Beechcraft’s evolution. During World War II it was used extensively as a military trainer and became the aircraft of choice for Fortune 500 companies from the ’40s through the mid-’60s. The popular all-metal, single engine Bonanza, introduced in 1947, took the industry by storm and has been in production longer than any other airplane in history.
The gleaming red and black livery of the Travel Air “Mystery Ship” is captivating and I am instantly in love with this sleek, shiny racer that won the 1929 Thompson Air Trophy. Dream on, Amelia! We’re on the hallowed ground of aviation heroes, surrounded by trophies, memorabilia, and the most beautiful flying ships imaginable.
The legacy of aviatrix Louise Thaden is poignant. “When Louise was guest speaker at the Staggerwing Fly-In back in 1973, she suggested developing a museum on the site and promised to donate a lifetime of aviation memorabilia,” said Wade McNabb, curator and CEO of the museum. The original log cabin is now the Louise Thaden Library and a wonderful place to hang out.
A chapel was built to honor Olive Ann Beech, who donated extensive collections from Beechcraft’s archives. Visitors can read her original ledger from the factory, or flip through bound collections of early photographs.
The entire museum is a living and working entity. It’s the site of an Air Academy for kids, educational and maintenance seminars, aircraft restoration, and every October the annual Beech Party – the world’s only Staggerwing Fly-In that draws over 200 airplanes from all over North America. This year will mark its 40th anniversary.
As French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry so eloquently said, “A pilot’s business is with the wind, with stars, with night, with sand, with the sea…”
Let the magic of flying capture your spirit of adventure! The Beechcraft Heritage Museum is keeping the dream of flight alive for all to experience!
What’s your favorite exhibit? Let us know in the comments!
Photos by Dayle Fergusson & Courtesy of Beechcraft Heritage Museum