At the height of the Great
Depression, aircraft executive Walter H. Beech and
airplane designer T.A. “Ted” Wells joined forces to
collaborate on a project many considered foolhardy—a
large, powerful, and fast biplane built specifically
for the business executive. The Beech Model 17,
popularly known as the “Staggerwing” (the name comes
from the top wing being set, or staggered, behind
the bottom wing) was first flown on November 4,
1932, setting the standard for private passenger
airplanes for many years to come.
The Model 17's unusual wing
configuration—the upper wing inversely staggered
behind the lower—and unique shape resulted in a
design that maximized the pilot's visibility while
minimizing the aircraft's tendency to stall. The
fabric-covered fuselage was faired (joined so that
the external surfaces blended smoothly) with wood
formers (a frame attached to the truss of the
fuselage in order to provide the required
aerodynamic shape) and stringers (longitudinal
members of the frame of the fuselage, usually
continuous across a number of bulkheads or other
points of support; also known as “longerons”). The
Staggerwing's use of retractable landing gear,
uncommon at that time, combined with streamlining
and reducing the weight of the materials, produced
an aircraft that could achieve a top speed of 201
miles per hour (323 kilometres per hour) (but with a
landing speed of a stall-proof 45 miles per hour [72
kilometres per hour]), and able to climb at 1,600
feet per minute (488 meters per minute) to a maximum
altitude of 21,500 feet (6,553 meters).
Sales started slowly at first;
the first Staggerwings' high price tag (between
$14,000 and $17,000, depending on the size of the
engine) scared off potential buyers in an already
depressed market for civil aircraft. Only 18 Model
17s were sold during 1933, the first year of
production, but sales steadily increased.
Each Staggerwing was custom-built
by hand. A luxurious cabin trimmed in leather and
mohair, carrying up to five passengers in comfort,
quickly won over the flying public. The Model 17's
impressive performance also made it a favourite
among pilots—its use of powerful radial engines
(ranging from 225 to 710 horsepower [168 to 529
kilowatts]) made it faster than most military
aircraft of the era. This reputation soon translated
into sales; before long, the Staggerwing captured a
substantial share of the passenger aircraft market.
By the start of World War II, more than 424 Model
17s had been sold.
The Staggerwing's speed also made
it the darling of the air racers of the 1930s. An
early version of Model 17 won the 1933 Texaco Trophy
Race. In 1935, a British diplomat, Capt. H.L
Farquhar, successfully flew around the world in a
Model B17R, travelling 21,332 miles (34,331
kilometres) from New York to London, by way of
Siberia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, North
Africa and back across Europe. Louise Thaden and
Blanche Noyes, piloting a Beechcraft Model C17R,
together won the prestigious Bendix Trophy Race in
1936, marking the first time that women had won that
celebrated race. Famed aviatrix Jacqueline Cochran
set several women's speed records, established an
altitude record of over 30,000 feet (9.144 meters),
and finished third in the 1937 Bendix Trophy Race,
all while flying a Staggerwing. The aircraft made an
impressive showing in the 1938 Bendix race as well.
As World War II loomed on the
horizon, a number of Model B17Ls were pressed into
service by the Republican forces as bombers during
the Spanish Civil War. China ordered a number of
Staggerwings to use as ambulance planes in its fight
against Imperial Japan.
Beech, meanwhile, embarked upon a
major redesign of the aircraft, to be known
officially as the Model D17 Staggerwing. The D17
featured a lengthened fuselage that improved the
aircraft's landing characteristics by increasing the
leverage generated by the elevator. Ailerons were
relocated on the upper wings, eliminating any
interference with the air flow over the flaps.
Braking was improved by the introduction of a
foot-operated brake that was synchronized with the
rudder pedals. All of these modifications enhanced
the Staggerwing's performance, which would soon be
put to the test under wartime conditions.
Powered by a 450-horsepower
(336-kilowatt) Pratt and Whitney R-985 engine, more
than 260 Model D17S Staggerwings were mass-produced
during World War II, designated as the UC-43. The
U.S. Navy and Army Air Corps used the versatile
aircraft as a personnel transport; the British Royal
Air Force also received 106 “Travellers” to fill its
own critical need for light personnel transports. As
the military versions differed only slightly from
commercial models, the Army procured an additional
118 civilian Staggerwings from private owners to
meet its requirements as well as those of the U.S.
After the war's end, Beech
immediately converted its manufacturing capabilities
back to the production of civil aircraft with one
final modification of the Staggerwing, the Model
G17S, building 16 of the powerful aircraft that sold
at a price of $29,000 apiece. The lightweight V-Tail
a high-powered four-passenger luxury aircraft, soon
replaced the venerable Staggerwing in the Beech
product line, at about one-third the price. The
Staggerwing production line was shut down in 1948,
and the final aircraft was sold the following year.
In all, 781 Beech Model 17
Staggerwings were manufactured in eight different
series during 16 years of production. Hundreds of
Staggerwings are still flying today, six decades
after its introduction, still compared favourably to
modern private aircraft. Technologically advanced
for its time, the Staggerwing's timeless aesthetics
place it in a class by itself.
Length: 26' 2"
Height: 10' 3"
Wingspan: 32' 0"
Empty Weight: 3085 lbs.
Gross Weight: 4700 lbs.
Horsepower: 450 hp
Power plant: Pratt & Whitney R-985-AN-1 Wasp Junior
Range: 500 miles
Speed (max): 198 mph