Few people believed in the success of the enterprise
The Staggerwing, Beech Aircraft's flagship aircraft, was conceived in 1932 as a private executive aircraft. It was intended for business leaders and other wealthy members of society.
The Beech 17 Staggerwing combined striking design and advanced technology. Photo: YouTube.com
It must be said that for the company’s founder, Walter Beach, and chief designer, Ted Wells, this venture was quite risky. Indeed, at the very time when work on the design and construction of the aircraft was underway, the Great Depression was raging in full force in the United States. And it seemed that even wealthy people certainly had no time for private air transport. At least on the part of us there was enough skepticism.
But this did not at all deter the enterprising creators of Staggerwing, and as a result of their work, on November 4, 1932, the new product took to the skies for the first time.
It cannot be said that Beech Aircraft immediately experienced the enormous success of its enterprise. One of the main reasons for this was the rather high cost. Depending on configuration and engine size, new Beechcraft Model 17 passenger aircraft were offered at prices ranging from $14000 to $17000. And the market, as we have already said, was in a rather depressed state at that time.
It is known that for the entire 1933 only 18 copies were sold. But, despite some stagnation, sales were gradually gaining momentum. In the end, the Staggerwing was still able to achieve great success in the market and set a high standard for the next generation of passenger aircraft.
The plane got its name Staggerwing, which means “staggering wing”, as you might guess, due to the non-standard configuration of the wings. They are located in the reverse order - the upper wing is behind the lower one.
The Beech 17 Staggerwing pilot's field of view has been significantly increased. Photo: YouTube.com
There is an assumption that the main reason for such an unusual decision was the goal of reducing resistance. Also, due to the unusual shape, it was possible to significantly improve visibility for the pilot.
Another advantage of the single-engine Staggerwing was the presence of an electronically retractable landing gear. It became the first general aviation aircraft to receive this option. This, accordingly, improved its aerodynamic characteristics and attractiveness.
The new aircraft, with a capacity of up to five people, had the following dimensions:
✅ length 7,98 m
✅ height 3,12 m
✅ wingspan - 7,97 m
✅ gross weight - 2,1 tons
The first series of Staggerwings were equipped with a Wright R-760 engine producing 420 hp. This power plant allowed the aircraft to reach impressive speeds with a maximum speed of more than 200 miles per hour (about 322 km/h). At the same time, the landing speed was only 60-65 miles per hour (96-104 km per hour). It could rise to a height of up to 6553 meters.
Eight different engines were used throughout its production, but the most popular model was the D17S. It was equipped with a Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior radial aircraft engine with a power of 450 hp. With.
With it, the aircraft could cover a distance of more than 800 km at a speed of 318 km/hour.
Beech 17 Staggerwing control system. Photo: YouTube.com
This version also demonstrated better handling. It received an extended fuselage, an increased number of control levers, and the ailerons were moved to the upper wings.
This aircraft was made by hand and was highly reliable. The luxurious leather interior and impressive performance characteristics have made it popular among business owners and corporations. In addition, the aircraft, demonstrating high speed performance, also attracted aircraft racers of the 1930s, thanks to which it became a direct participant in world records.
For example, the world-famous air racer Jacqueline Cochran set several speed and altitude records, rising above 9000 meters. She also finished third in the 1937 Bendix Trophy Race in her D17W Staggerwing biplane. And the Briton H.L. Farquhar traveled around the world in a B17R. He, traveling from New York through Siberia, Southeast Asia, North Africa and Europe to London, covered a distance of more than 34 km.
From civilian to military
When World War II loomed on the horizon, it was only logical that just yesterday civil aviation was reclassified as military aviation. Between 1937 and 1944, several hundred Staggerwings were modified and used by the United States Air Force for personnel transport and reconnaissance missions.
B17L models were directly involved in the Spanish Civil War. There they were deployed as FARE bombers. A number of Staggerwings aircraft ended up in China. In the Celestial Empire, during the years of its struggle with the Japanese Empire, they served as air ambulances. In addition, they often served as communications aircraft.
The Beech 17 Staggerwing broke several records. Photo: YouTube.com
It is noteworthy that, in an effort to cover urgent wartime needs, the US government resorted to an unconventional solution. They leased additional Staggerwings from private owners. It must be said that the commercial models were not very different from the military versions, with the exception of some details.
What happened then
At the end of World War II, Beech Aircraft returned to producing representatives of civil aviation. Its engineers developed a new version of the Staggerwing - the G17S model. It turned out to be the last modification of aircraft in this series. The aircraft was assembled from 1945 to 1948. In total, during this period, according to various sources, from 16 to 20 such copies were made, which were sold for $29.
In 1949, the last Staggerwing was delivered to the customer, after which the company replaced it in its line with another classic light general purpose aircraft, the Bonanza. The new model offered the same level of luxury and speed as the Staggerwing, and at the same time cost almost three times less. But this aircraft has a completely different, and quite long, history. It was produced from 1947 to 1996.
This is what the Beech 17 Staggerwing cockpit looks like. Photo: YouTube.com
As for the Staggerwing, its striking design, capabilities and reliability are unlikely to raise anyone's doubts, even decades later. It is currently known that approximately 200 of the 781 Staggerwings originally produced have survived to this day. However, many of them have been restored by their owners to flying condition and are in private hands. And the very first model, along with other representatives of the Staggerwing, is exhibited at the Beechcraft Heritage Museum, Tennessee.