a personal memoir

Beech and the missing bombsight... a rarely heard story

By Alex Kvassay
Former salesman for Beech and Learjet

This Beech AT-11, with its distinctive glass nose, is now on display in New Zealand. A top-secret Norden bombsight was accidentally installed in it during WW II.

Before I can start with this story I must give some background information about business aviation in New Zealand.

While I was working for Beechcraft, there was only 1 commercial Beech airplane, a Bonanza, operating in New Zealand. In 1968 I visited the owner, Gerold Wagg, at his farm in the middle of an extinct volcano. Everything was lush green in the fertile volcanic soil. He also had Piggy, a completely tame 350 lb wild boar, who flopped down in front of me and wanted his belly scratched.  

Much later, in 2002, along with my son Tony I participated in an aviation oriented tour of New Zealand, flown around the country in an old DC3. This was an absolutely delightful trip. By then the New Zealand Air Force owned at least 1 Beech King Air. According to the last somewhat outdated listing I saw, there was a Gulfstream, a Citation and a Lear 35 stationed in Auckland.  

Piet Van Ash owned and operated the NZ Aerial Mapping Company, to which Beech made its only commercial sale during World War II, with permission from the US Army Air Corps.

We saw quite a bit of activity including the rebuilding of a World War II vintage de Havilland Tiger Moth and similar vintage aircraft, including a de Havilland Dragon Rapides. I was once a passenger in a Dragon Rapide airliner with no seats in the cabin, passengers sitting on the floor, flying between Djibouti and Aden.  

One of the highlights of the New Zealand air trip in the DC3 was landing on the Tasman glacier in a Pilatus Turbo Porter. Another highlight was visiting the Auckland Aviation Museum. To me the most interesting aircraft on exhibit was a wartime Beech AT-11. Equipped with a glass nose, the AT-11 was the military version of the Twin Beech 18. This one had the glass nose replaced locally.

And this is where my story on the missing bombsight starts. During World War II all US civilian aircraft production was halted. Aircraft factories and most car manufacturers converted to making military aircraft. During the war Beech produced some of the wooden frame AT-10 trainers and the AT-11 (Twin Beech 18) bombing aircraft trainers.

About 1500 of this type were built during the war, most of them equipped to simulate the actual bombing aircraft environment of the larger bombers, the B-17 and B-24. They also were equipped with the same C-1 autopilot which was used on the large bombers and through which the flightcrew member in charge of dropping the bombs could have control of the aircraft during bomb runs. 

During World War II the Norden bombsight was a closely-guarded secret by the US Army Air Corps.

The Norden bombsights, installed at the Beech factory, were one of the super secret instruments used during the war.

Bombing flightcrew members were instructed to destroy the bombsight in the event of an emergency or crash landing behind enemy lines. Control of these bombsights was extremely strict.

Then one day, as the war raged on, a US Army Air Corps inspector at the Beech factory discovered that Beech was short 1 super secret Norden bombsight. I was told by some really old timers that there was great consternation and repeated searches for this missing highly prized and very secret piece of equipment, all without any result.

Now, for a moment going back to New Zealand, there was the NZ Mapping Company, headed by Piet Van Ash, a friend of ours at the Beech Export Department. Piet confirmed to me the story I heard from the Beech old timers. This company had an important wartime contract with the US Army Air Corps for photographing some strategic islands in the South Pacific. For this they needed a more modern aircraft than what they possessed.

The Air Corps, as an exception, authorized Beech to sell commercially an AT-11 to the NZ Mapping company. This was the only commercial sale Beech made during the entire war. The aircraft was flown to the West Coast, disassembled and then shipped to New Zealand by sea freight.

Shortly after the aircraft arrived and was beginning to be reassembled, to their great consternation, the New Zealanders found a super secret Norden bombsight installed in this commercially sold aircraft.

The US air attaché urgently arranged the return of the Norden bombsight to the right parties in the United States. And the mystery of the missing bombsight at Beech was resolved. I don't know if anyone was disciplined as a consequence.  

Alex Kvassay sold corporate aircraft for 30 years, earning a reputation as the industry's premier international salesman of his day. Now 87, retired and living in Wichita KS, Kvassay continues to travel for pleasure—recent solo trips have taken him to Argentina, Libya, North Korea, Cuba and Algeria.