Beech heritage led to industry leadership at dawn of business aviation's turbine age

By Al Higdon
Former Beech and Learjet Communications Executive
Cofounder of the Sullivan Higdon & Sink Ad Agency

For 35 years Al Higdon was an observer of and a participant in many of business aviation's biggest moments. Beginning in this issue and in the year ahead he will recount some of his experiences, including people he met and the events he witnessed.

Walter and Olive Ann Beech take pleasure in success at the 1936 Denver Air Race standing next to a Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing.

Walter Beech, founder of Beech aircraft, died in 1950, a decade before my arrival there in January 1961. I joined the company fresh with a business degree from the University of Kansas and a journalism degree from Wichita State, as well as a year with a St Louis public relations firm. I was 24 years old and had no aviation experience.

Olive Ann Beech, who 29 years earlier cofounded Beech Aircraft with Walter, had been solely and firmly in command for 10 years. She was the boss. She could be very gracious, but I also watched grown men quake in her presence.

This studio portrait of Olive Ann and Walter Beech was made at the time of their wedding.

No doubt what was her favorite color, from her many blue suits to the blue wallpaper in her office, to the custom blue seats in her personal Super 18. When the miniature "Oh Happy Day" flag was in place above her office doorway signifying something good had happened, you knew things might be a bit more relaxed. Absent this sighting, you entered her office with caution.

Beechcraft in those days under Mrs Beech (I never heard anyone at the company call her Olive Ann) was run in truly a family atmosphere, albeit not without guidelines of those times.

Women could not wear pants, nor smoke at their desks, as most men did. When I joined the firm's public relations department as a member of its press relations section, headed by James R "Jim" Greenwood, Beech was a 7-model company.

They produced the single-engine Debonair, the highly-successful Bonanza, the Travel Air, the very popular Baron, Twin Bonanza and Queen Air, and the venerable tricycle gear Super 18, which had recently superseded the tailwheel Model 18. Those products were preferred by a majority of NBAA member company aviation departments.

Jim Greenwood (L) with Al Higdon. Jim was Al's 1st boss and mentor in the business aviation industry.

Curiously, only 1 of the firm's senior management officials was a pilot, Wyman Henry, who joined Beech from the White Motor Company as vice president of marketing shortly before I arrived.

Henry had learned to fly in his 50s. Most of the other top managers had been with Beech since before World War II: Frank Hedrick was executive vice president and number 2 to Mrs Beech, who was his aunt; Leddy Greever was vice president for domestic sales, Michael Neuberger served as vice president for export sales, James Lew was vice president of engineering, and John Elliott was treasurer.

In this photo taken at Beech Aircraft in 1963 are (L–R) Beech Dir of Public Relations Phil McKnight, Mgr King Air Sales Tom Gillespie, Al Higdon, Astronaut Gordon Cooper and Mgr of Press Relations Jim Greenwood.

Unlike today, where airframe manufacturers all do a good job of soliciting customer input in their new product design processes, Beech allowed the engineering department to come up with new models that were then presented to the sales department to sell to customers.

I believe most of our competitors worked similarly. Obviously that was not the optimum procedure and the practice was rectified in the industry over the next 2 decades, with Cessna leading the way.

My heroes, as a neophyte in the public relations group, were guys 10–15 years my senior. All were veterans of World War II and/or the Korean Conflict, and middle managers in sales functions. Men like Tom Gillespie, a former Marine aviator, who had played football at West Virginia, and Marvin Small, a WW II US Army airman, who had played on the Kansas Orange Bowl team of 1948.

From left to right are Wendell Sullivan, Judy and Al Higdon, and Wendell's wife Ginny. Al and Wendell worked together for 4 years at Beech Aircraft in the early 1960s. In 1971 they cofounded Sullivan Higdon & Sink, an advertising and public relations firm that still exists today.

By the early 1960s, a conservative cultural trend at Beech had already settled in: maintain a comfort level with small bites in product development, such as building from the basic Bonanza wing to the Baron and Queen Air.

With the notable exception of the King Air, which was to become an industry dynamo, this relatively tiny step mentality – rather than embracing the sweeping movement to jets, early on – clearly put Beech in an untenable competitive position later on.

Al Higdon spent 12 years as a public relations executive with Beech and Learjet before cofounding an advertising/pr firm that represented more than a dozen clients in aviation, including Learjet and Cessna, over a 25 year period before his retirement at 60 in 1996.