a personal memoir
Post-WWII sales efforts of Beech in Japan
By Alex Kvassay
Former salesman for Beech and Learjet
Flight of 3 Japanese-built T34 Mentors over Fuji's Utsunomiya factory.
Were Staggerwings ever considered for kamikaze missions? The question is entirely speculative—but not entirely baseless. Beech 17 Staggerwings were built in Japan in the 1930s, before WWII. We have no idea how many were built, how they were used, and if the Japanese Air Force flew any.
But, remember, before the end of the war, the Japanese were really scraping the bottom of the barrel. They were rejuvenating old airplanes in storage that were "good for one more flight." Maybe someone in Japan will read this article and try to clear up this mystery.
Licensed production of the Beech Staggerwing in Japan is a very little known chapter in Beech history. It was a closely guarded secret at Beech after the war. In fact, since it was not considered polite to talk about it I could never find out much about the program. Beech Engineer Virgil Adamson had spent several months in Japan in the 1930s advising the Japanese on this production.
Much later, in 1958, when Japanese engineers spent time in Wichita in connection with T34 Mentor licensed production in Japan, Adamson was still working at Beech and I knew him very well.
Beech 17 Staggerwing over Kansas.
My job in the export department was to take care of the 4 Japanese engineers from Fuji Heavy Industries, who were spending several months at the Beech factory preparing for the license production of the T34—the military trainer version of the famous Bonanza. To continue to keep the Staggerwing license agreement a secret, I was told that Adamson was never to meet the Japanese engineers and that his existence was never to be mentioned to them.
The agreement with Fuji Heavy Industries included the delivery of parts of 90 T34s for assembly in Japan, to be followed by full production at Fuji's Utsunomiya plant.
The 4 engineers in my care in Wichita were Team Leader Minoru Ohta (designer of the naval version of the Zero fighter and a Fuji board member), Powerplant Engineer Toshiro Suganuma, Systems Engineer Yoshio Katayaba and Design Engineer Yoshio Inoue.
When shipping parts to Fuji, small items (called AN parts at that time) such as nuts and bolts and washers were shipped by weight. They were invoiced as 10,000 nuts, for example, but they were shipped as so many pounds. No one actually counted them—until they arrived in Japan. Then we would receive a complaint like: "Invoiced 10,000 nuts, received 9934 nuts, short 66 nuts."
Fuji team in Wichita KS. (L–R) Powerplant Engineer Yoshio Inoue, Engineer Toshiro Suganuma, Team Leader Minoru Ohta and Engineer Yoshio Katayaba.
I questioned Ohta about this. His answer was, "We have too many employees. It's against the law to lay them off, so we let them count nuts and bolts."
Another problem was their constant requests for technical information. For example, Suganuma asked me for specifications on the spark plugs. Next day, Katayaba asked for the same thing. I told him I'd just given that information to Suganuma.
"Oh yes," he admitted, "but that is his. In Japan we do not share our knowledge."
I questioned Ohta again, who by then was a great friend of mine, and he explained that, with such an abundance of employees, you can be noticed and hope to be advanced only if you know more than your fellow workers. Sharing your knowledge with co-workers would be counterproductive for your career, so we were stuck with a lot of unnecessary duplication of technical documents.
The Beech Bonanza/Mentor wing leading edge was mounted on the main wing panel by means of what they called "piano hinges" and secured by a "piano hinge wire." These parts had to be manufactured by the use of 2 specialized machines—a milling and a drilling machine—both equal to the full length of a wing panel. When Inoue asked for the drawings for these machines, I had to inform him that Beech leased them from a company on the east coast, had no technical construction data on them, and in any case could not supply them.
Inoue asked if he could take photos. No. Could he make sketches? No. Could he stand there and look at them? Yes. So Inoue spent a whole day standing there quietly watching the operations of the 2 machines.
Several months later, when I was visiting the Fuji factory in Utsunomiya, Inoue took me aside to a locked room and showed me what appeared to be exact copies of the 2 machines. But he told me, "No, they are not exactly the same—I made many improvements on them." All I could do was congratulate him.
The Japanese engineers had a car in Wichita. They bought an old used Studebaker for $500. Suganuma, the engine man, was the only one who could drive a car. One day, Ohta asked me to drive him to the bank using their car. I noticed right away that the oil pressure gauge was down almost to zero, so I told him to have Suganuma take it to a filling station and check the oil.
The very next day, a Saturday, I had a call from a Kansas Highway Patrolman. He told me that he'd found 4 Japanese 20 miles north of the city in a car with a seized engine. I immediately drove there to rescue my 4 friends and arrange to have the car towed to a garage.
Then I asked Ohta, "Did you tell Suganuma to check the oil?"
"Yes," he said. "Suganuma, did you check the oil like I told you yesterday?"
"Yes, sir," said Suganuma.
"And did you refill the oil tank?"
"No, sir," he said. "You only told me to check it." And this was an engine designer.
Again, Ohta had to explain. "You only do exactly what you are instructed to do," he told me. "If you go beyond your orders, you're on your own—you're sticking your neck way out."
Believe me, working with the Japanese was an experience—but it was a very friendly association. They ordered ingredients from San Francisco to cook a Japanese birthday dinner for me in their residential hotel.
As part of the Japanese production of the T34, they also made a 4-place version, imitating the Bonanza, and called it the Fuji LM1. However, this aircraft with its enlarged fuselage was still far too cramped for 4 average-size people. Maybe 4 Japanese could fit into the cabin. I am probably one of the few who has ever flown in an LM1.
Much later, in the 1970s, Mitsubishi sent me a first-class round-trip ticket to Tokyo. They wanted me so see the MU300 business jet production and give them my opinion. This aircraft later became the Beechjet 400. At that time the prototype had not yet flown, but after looking only at their performance estimates, I told them that it seemed to me the aircraft needed more power and recommended Garrett engines. They did not want to hear this.
On the production line I saw serial number 42 being assembled. I suggested they stop production right away and await the results of the test flights—otherwise they might spend a fortune and much time modifying those 42 airframes. They did not want to hear this either, so they'd wasted a first-class ticket on me. I did not charge for my services, as these were old friends.
Bill Lear took a different approach. He had no time or money to build a (usually hand-built) prototype. Starting with serial number 1, all Learjets were built on production tooling. Doing this before the aircraft was ever flown was a considerable risk, but in the case of Lear it paid off. No major modifications were required as a result of the flight tests. Stepping out of the airplane after the first flight, Test Pilot Hank Beaird told Bill Lear, "You have a winner here!"
Alex Kvassay sold corporate aircraft for 30 years, earning a reputation as the industry's premier international salesman of his day. Now 85, retired and living in Wichita KS, Kvassay continues to travel for pleasure—recent solo trips have taken him to Libya, North Korea and Cuba.