Beech D17S Staggerwing
Following the merger of the highly successful Travel Air Manufacturing Company with the Curtiss-Wright Airplane Company in mid 1929, Travel Air co-founder Walter Beech was given the position of President of the Aircraft Division. Wanting to pursue his passion for aircraft design, Beech resigned his position and in April 1932 moved to Witchita, Kansas where he and his wife, Olive Anne, formed the Beech Aircraft Company. Renting space in the idle Cessna plant and with less than twenty employees Beech set about designing a luxury executive aircraft, seven months later on November 4, 1932 the first prototype flew. As the last Travel Air aircraft built had been the Model 16, Beech chose to follow the numerical sequence and gave his new aircraft the name Beech Model 17.
Designed by Ted Wells, the prototype Model 17R was a sleek hand crafted biplane with a steel-tube fuselage and wing spar structure, an innovative feature in the days when wooden wing spars were considered the norm. The fuselage had wooden stringers and formers and was covered with a fabric skin while the upper and lower wings utilized wooden truss ribs and also were fabric covered. The faired landing gear was fixed and the aircraft was powered by a 420-hp Wright R-760 engine which, combined with exceptional streamlining, gave it a top speed of over 200 mph while still managing a 60 - 65 mph landing speed. By far the most unusual and distinguishing feature of the aircraft was the unusual wing layout with the upper wing being inversely staggered almost 26 inches behind the lower wing. Not only did this help with the aircraft's stall characteristics and main gear location but also to assisted the pilot's visibility from the cockpit. This wing layout also led to the Model 17's better known name, the Staggerwing. The story goes that in January 1933 the aircraft was sent to a Miami air show where it won the Texaco Trophy. During a high-speed run the air show commentator said, "look at that negative staggerwing Beechcraft go" and the name stuck.
The performance of the 17R was remarkable; it could outperform all single engine pre-war light aircraft as well as many American pursuit (fighter) aircraft. However, despite earning praise from many people, high cost and tricky ground handling made it difficult to sell and with only one aircraft on the books and no potential customers on the horizon it became obvious to Beech that some compromises in design and performance had to be made if the Beech Aircraft Company was to stay in business. With an eye on the lucrative corporate market, Beech demonstrated the 17R to Tom Loffland who ran an oil drilling company in Oklahoma and had shown an interest in the aircraft during the construction stage. Loffland was suitably impressed and a deal was struck where he paid a large deposit for a second aircraft and also paid the Beech payrolls while it was being constructed. Work started on the second Model 17 early in 1933 and by July of the same year the finished aircraft was delivered to its new owner.
Apart from its tricky take off, landings and ground handling everyone who flew the Model 17 loved it and despite the fact that only two aircraft had been produced in as many years, with only one of these being sold, Beech began work on a new version of the aircraft. This was the Model B17L, introduced in March1934, and while it retained the same general design as the Model 17R it did introduce some modifications, the most obvious being fully retractable pneumatically operated landing gear. Other changes included the use of wooden wing spars instead of metal and wings of a different airfoil. The power plant was changed to a 225-hp Jacobs R-755D L-4 which, when combined with improvements in streamlining and weight reduction, gave the aircraft a top speed of 175 mph and a landing speed of 45 mph. The new design proved to be a commercial success, helped along even more when a B17R (G-ADLE) piloted by Capt. H. L. Farquhar successfully completed a 21,332-mile around the world flight in 1935. Shortly after construction of the B17L began two fixed landing gear Model A17 aircraft were built, not for any particular commercial reason but more as an experiment to find out what an original Model 17 would be like with a more powerful engine installed. The A17F was powered by a 690-hp Wright R-1820-F11 Cyclone engine and the A17FS had an SR-1820-F3 supercharged Cyclone engine developing 710-hp. With a top speed of 250 mph the A17 was the fastest Model 17 ever built, faster also than all commercial and military aircraft of the time.
During its production the Model B17 was designed with several engine options, these being the B17B with a 285-hp Jacobs R-830-1 L-5, the B17E with a 285-hp Wright R-760-E1 and the B17R with either a 420-hp Wright R-975-E2 or 450-hp E3. Despite the impressive performance and popularity of the early Model 17s, their landing and ground handling characteristics still left a lot to be desired. The aircraft were nose-heavy which made three point landings difficult and the tall landing gear increased the chances of ground loops. In order to rectify these shortcomings, the designers at Beech went back to the drawing board and in 1936 the Model C17 was introduced. A negative four degree angle of incidence was introduced to the tailplane to keep the tail down while landing and the main gear was shortened to reduce the possibility of a ground loop. Other than these changes, the C17 was identical to the B17 version including the choice of engines (with the C17B, E, L and R having the same power plants as the respective B17s). The changes to the aircraft did not solve the problems however the C17 proved itself to be a winner in air racing with wins and places in several major races. A Model C17R (NC15835) piloted by Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes won the 1936 transcontinental Bendix Trophy Race, the first time a woman had won this normally male dominated event.
Introduced in 1937, the Model D17 saw the first major design changes since the Model B17. In order to give more leverage to the elevators and improved handling characteristics the fuselage of the aircraft was lengthened by 18 inches and the ailerons were moved to the upper wings to prevent interference with the airflow over the flaps. Other changes included a cantilevered tail section, new wing section and windscreen profiles. The hand-operated wheel brakes were replaced by foot-operated brakes which were co-coordinated with the rudder. Once again, the aircraft was built with a range of different engines starting with the D17A and its 350-hp Wright R-760-E2 followed by the D17R with a 420-hp Wright R-975-E2. The 450-hp Pratt and Whitney R-985-AN-1 Wasp Junior powered Model D17S proved the most popular and was produced in larger numbers than all other Staggerwings.
Although designed as a civil aircraft, the outbreak of the Second World War saw large numbers of the D17S ordered by the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) and United States Navy (USN) as personnel transport, liaison and communication aircraft (several B17Ls had previously been impressed for use as bombers during the Spanish civil war). Designated UC-43, 207 aircraft were delivered to the USAAF while the USN received 63 where they were re-designated the GB-1 and GB-2. In addition to those that had been ordered directly from Beech, a further 117 were impressed from the private sector. The Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm also received a total of 106 aircraft under the terms of the lend-lease programme between the United States and Britain. Staggerwings serving with the RAF and FAA were renamed the Traveller. Various other nations, including New Zealand, made use of local aircraft for military duties. In New Zealand, a Model C17L (ZK-AEU, c/n107) was impressed from the Auckland Aero Club by the RNZAF in October 1939 and allocated to the Communications Flight at Rongotai as NZ573. It was released to the Auckland Aero Club and registered as ZK-AJS in May 1945.
Production of the Staggerwing ended in 1948 with the 450-hp Pratt and Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior powered Model G17S. Based on the Model D17, it featured a few improvements that had been put on hold during the war. The engine cowl, windshield and landing gear doors were altered to reduce drag, larger tail surfaces were fitted and an even more luxurious interior was installed. The last aircraft left the Beech factory in 1949, during the 16 years the aircraft was in production a total of 785 were built with the majority of these being the Model D17S.
The aircraft pictured here (ZK-AMU, c/n 203) is a Model D17S and is the second Staggerwing to fly in New Zealand. It was built in April 1938 and first used by the Canadian Department of Transport in Ottawa. After many years service with Canada's Controller of Civil Aviation, the aircraft sold in the 1950's and went through a series of owners in Canada before being left derelict after it's certificate of airworthiness expired at the end of 1958. A rebuild of the aircraft to airworthy condition began in 1972 and was to continue, on and off, for 13 years. By the time the aircraft returned to the air in April 1985, it featured some non-standard Model D17S equipment and fittings such as GPS, full IFR capabilities, autopilot, a starboard door and modified landing gear.
In 1994 the aircraft was purchased from an air ranch in Florida by it's current New Zealand owners, moved to California, dismantled and shipped to New Zealand. On arrival it was reassembled and registered as ZK-AMU on November 29, 1995 followed, on December 8 of the same year, by a New Zealand Certificate of Airworthiness. It is currently based at Auckland's North Shore.
Text © 2002 Stuart Russell.
One 335 kW (450hp) Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior
Wingspan: 9.75m (32ft)
Length: 7.96m (26ft 1 1/2in)
Max T-O weight: 2,132kg (4,700lb)
Max level speed: 319km/h (198mph)
Range: 805km (500miles)