Confession: I am not a pilot.
I love flying, but I can’t fly a plane. I’ve flown in huge commercial airplanes on 14 hour international trips to Asia, and I’ve been in small four-seater Grumman planes flown by a friend. I would fly to work every day if I could instead of driving. Yet I’ve never gotten my own pilot’s license; never had the desire to fly the plane myself. To me flying is a small cocoon of happiness where I can read, or stare out of the window, or just be silent. Let someone else worry about all the logistics of getting me there; I’m just here to enjoy the ride.
And as a beautiful mashup of my love of flying and my love of museums, naturally I love going to aviation museums. The designs and shapes of the planes; the ingenuity and technology needed to get a person aloft; and the personality of each plane is unique. Why are there so many brands of planes? How has plane design changed over the years? And what makes one plane different from another? With all those questions and more, I found myself on a sunny afternoon at the Beechcraft Heritage Museum in Tullahoma, Tennessee.
I’ve been to other general aviation museums around the country, but the Beechcraft Heritage Museum is unique because it is solely focused on one brand of aircraft – Beechcraft. Started in 1932, the Beechcraft company has been building planes in Wichita, Kansas, and still produces airplanes there today. So my first question was, why is there a museum dedicated to this specific brand of aircraft at all? And, secondly, why is the museum located in Tullahoma, Tennessee?
This was just the start of my questions when I sat down with Charles Parish – Executive Vice-President and son of the museum founder – along with Jody Curtis (Director of Marketing & Membership) and Sherry Roepke (Resident Director). Some of the stories Charles shared include why the Beechcraft airplane design is unique, how the first plane was designed, and the evolution of the plane’s design since 1932. Charles talks about his father acquiring Big Red — the Beechcraft plane that really started the museum – and shares the backstories of the planes and people that helped kickstart the museum into being and continue to propel it into the future.
Drawn on a napkin by Walter Beech and his chief engineer, Ted Wells, they created the “staggerwing” design iconic to the original Beechcraft airplane. In most biplane designs the upper wings are forward of the lower wings. The staggerwing design flipped that and put the upper wing behind the lower wing. This design improved performance, visibility and the stall characteristics of the airplane.
Positioned as the “Cadillac” of aircraft, Beech and Wells also designed the first Beechcraft staggerwing as a “cabin” class airplane. Before that, planes had an open cockpit – the passenger sat in the front and the pilot sat in the rear in the open air. Cabin class meant the pilot and passengers were inside the aircraft and the pilot moved from the rear to the front of the plane.
Also amazing is the number of “firsts” in this museum. They have Serial #1 Travel Air (predecessor company Walter Beech was involved in prior to starting the Beechcraft company), Serial #1 Staggerwing, and Serial #1 Mystery Ship. In addition to the Beechcraft staggerwing airplanes, you’ll also see Bonanza and Baron branded planes. Still part of the Beechcraft family, the Bonanza and Baron lines were introduced to target new markets, take advantage of new technologies, and are still manufactured today. The original staggerwing was a biplane with two sets of wings with a fabric-wood-fabric construction. The Bonanza is an all metal, single-engine Beechcraft with one set of wings that was first produced in 1947, and the museum has the #9 and #18 planes ever produced. The Baron is a twin engine Beechcraft.
If you’re driving to Tullahoma and wondering if you’re in the right town, then just look at the utility poles lining the streets – small, painted fighter jet style airplanes are attached to many of the light poles. Still need more convincing this is a plane-crazy town? Then check out some of the plane sculptures by the sidewalks in front of local businesses. (Living in Tennessee I naturally had to include a picture of the University of Tennessee Space Institute plane.)
Some of the key objects in this impressive collection include:
Big Red – you can’t miss the giant red airplane as you walk into the front lobby of the museum. As the first vintage plane Charles’ father acquired at the Antique Airfield fly-in (which is still held today in Blakesburg, Iowa) in the late 1960’s, Big Red is the plane that started it all. Flown by his father until it took up its permanent place in the collection, Big Red’s beautiful lines and presence welcomes all visitors to find out more about how the museum started.
Gilmore – next to Big Red in the front lobby is a bright yellow plane named Gilmore. Look closely and you’ll see a lion decal on the plane. Why is the plane called Gilmore and why is there a lion decal on the plane? Listen to the episode and hear the story of a stunt pilot named Roscoe Turner, a lion cub, and a man named Deline (pronounced de-lion) with a sense of humor.
(Oh, and for those that listen to the story and want to know where is Gilmore today? Find the “real” Gilmore at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum)
Uncovered Staggerwing – whether you’re interested in restoring a Beechcraft or just like to see how things are put together, this model shows the wood frame of the plane without the fabric covering. One of my favorite displays at museums are cutaways, stripped back examples, or windows that peek into the hidden parts of an object to see how everything works inside.
Twin Beech – as an evolution from the original single-engine Beechcraft, the Twin Beech (Beech 18) is unique for its two-engine design. There is also a C45 military version of it on display.
D-18S Twin Beech – the “bling” of airplane finishes, the D-18S reminds me of a flying Airstream trailer. With a highly polished, silver reflective surface, this plane’s exterior finish definitely catches the eye – and requires a significant amount of maintenance to keep that exterior shine. It’s actually in flying condition today and is used regularly by its owners.
Beechcraft War Effort – Beechcraft has a long history as both a civilian and military aircraft. Civilian uses include personal and corporate transportation while military uses include bomber training and transportation of personnel.
T-34C – on permanent loan from the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida. Used for jet pilot training purposes, the open mouth and aggressive teeth painted on the front of this plane has the classic look of a military plane from the 30’s and 40’s, but was actually used into the late 80’s or early 90’s. The tandem seating cockpit was also different from other Beechcraft planes, which allowed for the instructor to sit behind the pilot during training exercises and is the way most fighter jets are configured today.
#18 Bonanza – another plane with a high polished exterior and a red trim, this is the 18th Bonanza to actually roll off the assembly line.
#1 Travel Air – before it was the Beechcraft company, it was originally the Travel Air brand. The very first Travel Air can be found in this collection and is unique because it was a water-cooled engine versus the more common air-cooled engine. Another thing I love about the museum? The placards next to each plane (and, yes, I’m completely okay with the fact that I read every single label in a museum). For instance, on this one, the cost for this plane in 1924 was $3,500. What’s that in today’s U.S. dollars? Around $51,000 in today’s dollars.
Photos of the Beech Factory – since I work in manufacturing, I love seeing old photographs of the early manufacturing plants. Surprisingly, the Beech factory seems pretty efficient even though every Beechcraft airplane was basically put together by hand. No automated machinery or robots, but experienced hands and a caring workforce delivered a quality product.
Travel Air “Mystery Ship” – designed for speed, the Mystery Ship was a closely guarded secret. No one was allowed to see it until it raced. Similar to NASCAR cars today, the Mystery Ship was mainly a promotional tool for the company because as Charles notes, “People paid attention to things that were fast and won races.” Listen to Charles revealing the secrets to why it was a fast airplane. Want to see a picture of the Mystery Ship? Then you’ll have to visit the museum because in keeping with the spirit of the plane – no photo here; we’re keeping this one under wraps.
#1 Staggerwing – as the first Beechcraft branded plane ever made in 1932, this is the most significant airplane in the collection, but with a short life as it crashed in 1935. We can only scratch the surface on how the plane parts were recovered, how it was restored, how the plane came to the museum, and the mysterious arrival of the missing data plate is an entire story just by itself.
Louise Thaden Library – aviator, racer, world-record holder – a fascinating woman and one of the reasons the museum was started. Louise Thaden donated her entire collection of memorabilia to the museum documenting her amazing aviation accomplishments throughout her long life. Honestly, I spent hours in the log cabin library reading through documents, looking at photographs and articles about her. Charles’ description of her as, “a quiet lady, but with a very strong personality” only hints at the determination she must have had to race – and repeatedly win – against men starting in the 1930’s. Make sure to find her original pilot’s license (and check out who signed it!).
Wind Tunnel models – the original scaled, wind tunnel models of the Beechcraft Bonanza built out of wood in the early 1940’s. Prototyping new designs was just as important back then as it is today and would have taken a master craftsman to build a wooden model that replicated the exact dimensions of the finished aircraft.
Bonanza Cutaway – another cutaway plane display, but of the Bonanza single-wing design. When you visit, look at the front of the plane, you can peek through a window to see behind the instrument panel and understand how the instruments and avionics connect together. (I did mention earlier that I loved cutaways and really seeing how things work, didn’t I?)
Olive Ann Beech – throughout my conversation with Charles, both Walter Beech and his wife Olive Ann Beech figure prominently in the success of the Beechcraft company. Walter Beech passed away in the mid-1950’s and his wife, Olive Ann Beech, took over the running of the company and successfully did so for the next 30+ years. If you happen to stroll down a hallway painted baby blue, that was Olive Ann Beech’s favorite color. The hallway is painted that color, the furniture in her chapel in the museum is painted that color, her office at the company was painted that color, and her Twin Beech 18 airplane was painted that color. As Charles sums it up, she was definitely “one-of-a-kind.”
“Around-the-Worlders” – unique to the museum are three “around-the-world” Bonanza airplanes that traversed multiple times around the world. Not as part of a competition, but just for fun, at least one of these planes has done this four times. Listen to the story of a surprise landing in Moscow, Russia, during the height of the Cold War and find out why the fuel tanks are sometimes referred to as “Dolly Parton” tanks.
“Starship” – very different in design from the other Beechcraft airplanes, the Starship is a canard design with a long nose and dramatically angled wings back toward the rear of the plane. When I saw this design, I thought of fighter jets and the way their wings sweep back towards the rear.
“Duke” – the very last Beechcraft Staggerwing built, the Duke looks like “it’s going 300 miles an hour just sitting still” – and Charles is certainly right about that. As beautiful as the #1 Beechcraft built, the Duke closes out the Staggerwing chapter of the Beechcraft brand, but not the legacy of the company. Still being manufactured some 85+ years later in Wichita, Kansas, you can still purchase a new Beechcraft airplane today. And don’t forget to check out vintage airplane shows where you might just find an old Staggerwing just waiting for someone to restore her.
The first time I took my sister’s family to visit Graceland, my brother-in-law Brad spent hours looking at Elvis Presley’s cars. He talked about engines, and model years, and design changes, and paint jobs. He talked to random strangers about them. At one point he lay down on the ground so he could get a better look underneath one of them (seriously, I thought at any moment museum guards were going swoop in and kick us out). When I visited the Beechcraft Heritage Museum, I kind of understood the fascination – although for me it’s planes and for him it’s cars. The beauty of the planes, the lines of the designs, imagining myself sitting inside while flying over the earth – I get it. Even if you’re just a general flying enthusiast like myself, you will definitely appreciate the beauty and design of the Beechcraft. And if you happen to be traveling to the museum with a hardcore aviation enthusiast, well, I hope you understand if they just walk around every single plane multiple times and stop to read every plaque. Oh, and if they decide to lay down on the ground to check out some obscure thing on the underside of the plane, then just volunteer to be the lookout and be patient with our inner museum nerdness.
If you’re a museum nerd like me, then add the Beechcraft Heritage Museum to your “must-see” list and tell them, “I heard about you on the Made in Museums podcast.”
If you love to document your travels to off-the-beaten-path places, then show me where you’re heading or where you’ve been by sharing your stories with me at Made in Museums on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you want to let me know about a curious museum that you’ve visited, and that I should cover on this show, contact me through social media or just send me an email.
Beechcraft Heritage Museum website
Beech Party – the museum hosts this annual event every year in October. Whether you own a Beechcraft or not, this event is great for any aviation enthusiast with educational programs and access to planes flying in from all over the country. Check the museum’s webpage for additional information and specific dates.
Glider Academy, Scott Perry Academy – the museum also hosts several programs for kids. I am completely jealous that I’m too old to take the Glider Academy, but if you know a budding aviator then these are fantastic programs for them to get started.
Visiting Hours and Admissions – since this information could change, please visit the museum’s webpage to find the most up-to-date information.
Travel Guide – I’ve created a travel guide for this museum highlighting the “must-see” items in the collection and any other information I thought might be helpful when planning your visit to this incredible museum.
Gift Shop – as part of supporting these great independent museums, I always purchase something from the gift shop. It may be something small like a keyring or a book, but my favorite item to purchase is a T-shirt (yep, another fun fact about me, I love T-shirts!). When you’re at the museum, check out their great gift shop or go online to find everything they offer.
During the interview, Charles, Jody and Sherry mentioned several partnerships with aviation organizations. I’ve listed them below along with a link to their websites so you can find out more information about the programs they offer.
Eagleville Soaring Club – the museum hosts a great glider program for kids, but if you’re an adult and want to try gliding and live in the Tennessee area, then check out this group for more information about their guest rides.