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

Al and Judy Higdon on the steps of a Beech King Air 90 on the occasion of the aircraft model introductory day in 1964.

During my 4 years at Beech in the early 1960s, the company introduced 2 new commercial products, which was about average in the industry at that time. One offering at the lowest rung of its products was moderately successful. Another was the crown in its collection which succeeded beyond anyone's expectations – and is still doing so.

With its lowest cost single-engine model, the Debonair, retailing at about $60,000, the company was largely shut out from the pilot training and entry-level owner-flown markets, dominated for years by Cessna and Piper. So, in the early 60s, it did something very few airframe manufacturers had been able to do successfully; "design down" the price point scale.

In 1963, we introduced the Beechcraft Musketeer, a sporty, tough, good looking fixed-gear aircraft. With prices starting at about $13,300 it was considerably below the Debonair and certainly the Bonanza. It was available in 3 introductory models, the Sport, Sundowner and the retractable gear Super III.

This Queen Air powered by 2 Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 A-6 TP engines was flown in May 1963. Designated Model 87, it was the direct precursor of the King Air, which first flew on Jan 20, 1964. Unlike the King Air, this unit was not pressurized.

The new Musketeer was dramatically launched via a several-month-long introductory, coast-to-coast "Three Musketeer Tour." As the name suggests, there were 3 units traversing the continent flown by Beech's 2 very competent women demonstration pilots, Joyce Case and Gene Nora Stumbaugh, accompanied by Mike Gordon, head of Musketeer sales.

Demonstrations and orientation flights were given at every stop along the way. I was aboard most of those segments as a public relations rep to drum up local and national media interest.

While the airplane got considerable buzz and gathered a loyal following of owners over its 20-year production span, its ability to successfully compete with more established fixed-gear Cessna and Piper products was limited. And because of relatively low volume sales its profitability was just not up to Beech standards. Consequently, production was ceased in 1983 after delivering 4366 units, including 744 retractable gear Musketeer Sierras.

In 1963 Beech engineers developed a product that would dominate the turboprop market for decades. This modern example, a Beech MC12W Liberty, is based on the King Air 350ER. Its heavyweight landing gear increases MTOW to 16,500 lbs and "blister" fuel tanks on the engine nacelles increase the range to 2500 nm.

Concurrently, also in 1963 but at the other end of the scale, Beech engineers were hard at work on a product that was to hit the industry by storm. Not only that, it would continue to astound pundits for decades with its domination among turboprops and its staying power in the face of the jet onslaught. Yes, that would be the King Air.

Introduced to the market at a then breath-stopping price tag of $320,000, the King Air quickly supplanted its sister ship, the Super 18, as top-of-the-line model for numerous corporate flight departments. In addition, its refinements and model upgrades over the next 50 years have set standards which may never again be duplicated. A succession of model changes to the King Air and Super King Air family have resulted in a cumulative delivery total approaching 8000 units.

Ironically, the success of the King Air may have blinded Beech officials to the bigger challenge of product development in those pivotal early years of the 1960s. The good news was that Beech Aircraft was highly profitable. The bad news was some of those short-term profits came at the expense of investment in the company's future as the industry moved to the jet age.

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.