A Year of Anniversaries for Record-Setter Bill Odom and the Beechcraft 35 Bonanza

Posted on Mon, May 20, 2019
favorite

2019 marks the 70th anniversary of two long-distance light plane records by William P. Odom. Those records were set in the Museum’s Beechcraft 35 Bonanza, which is displayed at our Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. In addition, it is also the 100th anniversary of William Paul Odom’s birth, on October 21, 1919, in Porum, Oklahoma.

On January 12, 1949, Odom flew the appropriately named Waikiki Beech from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Oakland, California, and set a light-plane distance record of 2,406.87 miles. Then, on March 7 and 8, Odom set another distance record flying 4,957.24 miles from Honolulu to Teterboro, New Jersey, in just over 36 hours. The Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) awarded Odom the 1949 Louis Bleriot Medal for his record-breaking distance flights.

The March 1949 record flight details on the left side of the Bonanza.

The Waikiki Beech carried extra cabin and wing tip fuel tanks for the record flights, but the fuel and oil costs for Honolulu to Teterboro totaled a mere $75 (about the same as driving a car cross-country). Odom’s family noted that he fueled himself with Fig Newton cookies. Odom made a point of flying in a business suit and landing cleanly shaven (making his Remington electric razor an important flight accessory).

Odom will be represented in two new galleries following the renovation of our DC location:  Waikiki Beech will be included in One World Connected, scheduled to open in 2022, and we will also display his razor in the new gallery We All Fly, as an example of the modern executive’s ability to arrive ready for business by personal plane.

Following the Honolulu-Teterboro flight, a hula girl graced the right side of the Waikiki Beech. Peter Mack’s world flight markings replaced her in 1952. 

For Odom, flying was in the family, as his uncle, Vernon Powers, took flight lessons from Charles Lindbergh (who, in 1926, was an airmail pilot and flight instructor in St. Louis, Missouri).  By age 18, Bill Odom was already working for Trans World Airlines (TWA) at their station in Amarillo, Texas, handling radio operations. Odom’s career flights are too numerous to detail here, but one thing is certain – he loved flying the world and setting records.  In 1940, he volunteered with the Canadian Royal Air Force, ferrying aircraft to Great Britain, first as a navigator and then as a pilot. He flew in the Air Transport Command during World War II and made 102 flights over the Hump into China from India; he also flew in most of the other theaters of war. Odom had stints flying a variety of aircraft including DC-3s as a ferry or executive pilot at American Overseas Export Airlines, the Chinese National Aviation Corporation (CNAC), Sperry Gyroscope, and the Chrysler Corporation.

In 1947, determined to fly around the world, Odom found a benefactor in Milton Reynolds, the savvy marketer of the modern ballpoint pen. In April of that year, Reynolds accompanied Odom and a navigator on a first “test” flight in the Douglas A-26B Reynolds Bombshell, modified to carry an extra 1,000 gallons of fuel, which he bought for Odom. Reynolds’ trade deals using ballpoint pens eased the way with officials and airport staff throughout the flight.  Odom then flew solo in August 1947, from Chicago to Chicago, just under 20,000 miles, in three days, one hour, five minutes, and 11 seconds. This elapsed time included brief fuel stops, though Odom never really slept during the over 75 hour flight. Howard Hughes, the former world record holder, sent a note of congratulations for the second flight.  Another adventure, flying a C-87, the military version of the B-24 Liberator, out of China, nearly landed Odom in jail.

NX80040 in flight. The Bonanza produced less drag due to its aerodynamically clean design that included retractable landing gear.

By 1949, Odom and Beech Aircraft decided to do some record setting in the single-engine four-seater Bonanza executive and private aircraft, introduced in 1947. The gambit was designed to boost sales, as a post-war pilot boom was not as strong as anticipated. During the flights, Odom enjoyed an average cruising speed of 146 mph in the sleek metal plane with retractable landing gear and a distinctive V-tail. Following the two record flights in the Bonanza, which was the fourth ever built, Odom flew a promotional tour around the United States. Though it later shed the V-tail for a more conventional tail surface, this classic aircraft design of the post-World War II era wildly exceeded expectation and is still in production today. With more than 17,000 Model 33, 35, and 36 (six-seat) Bonanzas built since 1947, it is one of the most successful aircraft and industrial designs ever.

In 1952, Congressman Peter F. Mack of Illinois flew this same Bonanza, rechristened Friendship Flame, on a good will round-the-world tour of more than 33,000 miles, visiting 45 cities in 35 countries. In recognition of its historic flights, the plane now carries its Waikiki Beech markings on the left side of the fuselage and the Friendship Flame markings on the right.

The Museum’s Beechcraft Bonanza, shown here at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, is one of more than 17,000 Bonanzas built; the model is still in production.