The Beech Staggerwing - enduring beauty

By Willie Bodenstein


In the early thirties 'Art Deco' was all the rage. It was found in buildings, furnishings and all other designs of the era including the Beech Staggerwing. The Beech 17 or Staggerwing owed its name to a typical reverse stagger of its wings; the lower wing is farther forward than the upper wing. Such was the success of her classic lines and symmetry, that formed a perfect balance between muscular strength and delicate grace, that in 2007 three thousand Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) members in the USA voted her as the 'Most Beautiful Airplane' ever built.

In 1932, the world was in depression and in Europe war clouds were building. The Travel Air Company, in which Walter Beech, Lloyd Stearman, William Piper and Clyde Cessna were directors, was bankrupt despite being the most prolific manufacturer of light aircraft in the early to late twenties. All four men then began their own aircraft manufacturing businesses and these four surnames are still synonymous with the best of American light aircraft manufacturing to this day. Walter Beech took the gamble on a game changing enclosed cabin biplane designed to carry five in comfort for 1000 miles at speeds exceeding 200 miles per hour. The Staggerwing was born.

It was huge gamble. The Staggerwing was expensive. It sold for $18,000, a small fortune in a time when a Cadillac, America's most luxurious car, would set its relatively wealthy buyer back only $2,500. However, the Staggerwing had two things 'going' for her. She could fly faster and further than any of her competitors. The power of her 450hp (340 kW) Pratt & Whitney R-985-AN-1 'Wasp Junior' radial engine could whisk a business executive and up to four associates to a destination 670 miles (1,078 km) away at 202 mph (325 km/h). She was also the ultimate symbol of prestige and that was what, even way back then, sold aircraft.

Construction was complex .The Staggerwing was a true hand-built aircraft and it took many man hours before she was ready for delivery. Her steel tube frame had wood formers and stringers covered with fabric, whilst the luxurious cabin was trimmed in leather and mohair. The unusual negative stagger wing configuration maximised pilot visibility.

Photo by kind permission Wikipedia Commons

The Staggerwing was first flown on 4 November 1932 and despite being expensive and rather demanding to fly, sold reasonably well. However, not as well as Walter Beech would have hoped. In 1939, the first year of production, only 18 Model 17s left the factory. However, sales increased steadily and by the start of WWII, with total sales of 424, she had captured a substantial share of the passenger aircraft market.

Able to reach a top speed of 212 mph (341 km/h) it is little wonder then that the Staggerwing soon showed her 'mettle' in air races. In 1933, an early version of the Model 17 won the Texaco Trophy Race and in 1936, female pilots Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes entered and won the Bendix Trophy Race. The following year Jackie Cochran set the women's speed record of 203.9 mph (328 km/m) and an altitude record of 30,000 feet (9,144 km). To top it off Cochran also finished 3rd in the Bendix Trophy Race. In 1935, the Staggerwing proved that she had the ability to fly long distances when a British diplomat, one Captain H.L. Farquhar flew around the world from New York to London by way of Siberia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and back across Europe travelling a total distance of 21,332 miles (34,331 kilometres). Quite a feat.

Photo by kind permission Wikipedia Commons

Then civil war broke out in Spain (1936-1939) and all of a sudden the Staggerwing found herself in uniform. A number of civilian Staggerwings were pressed into service whilst China ordered a number to serve as air ambulances in its war with Japan. Then the United States entered World War ll which was by then raging in Europe and the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) purchased three Model D17S. Designated YC-43 these aircraft were sent to Europe to serve as liaison aircraft with the country's air attachés in London, Paris and Rome.

Photo by kind permission Wikipedia Commons

In the USA, the need for an executive transport aircraft for the military soon became apparent and in 1942 the United States Army Air Forces ordered the first of 270 Model 17S. Almost 120 additional Staggerwings were also purchased from private owners or were impressed for service into the US Army and US Navy. The British Air Force acquired 106 through Lend-Lease for use as light personnel carriers. The Finish Air Force also acquired a number of Staggerwings where they served from 1950 to 1958.

Photo by kind permission Wikipedia Commons

With World War ll over, Beech converted its manufacturing capabilities back to civil aircraft production. The final model was the G17S of which 16 were produced. In 1948 the final Staggerwing was sold. Total aircraft production by then had reached 785. Replacing the Staggerwing was another icon, the V-tail Bonanza. Although smaller than her elder sister and with less horsepower she could carry four people at a similar speed, but she sold for about a third of the Staggerwing's price.

Technology and the introduction of the V-tail and other competitors was the final 'nail in the coffin' of the Staggerwing. However, such was the enduring beauty of the almost 85-year-old design that large numbers survive in private collections where they are lovingly cared for to this day.

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