“The Last Staggerwing”

“The Last Staggerwing”

“The Last Staggerwing”

In 1946 the realities of a postwar commercial airplane market forced Walter H. Beech to abandon a Beechcraft from the past in favor of a Beechcraft of the future.

The Beechcraft Model 17 was more than a flying machine; it was legendary. From the moment it first took flight, the airplane endured the test of time and resisted the relentless pace of aeronautical technology to earn its reputation as the paragon of cabin biplanes and the quintessential business aircraft of the Golden Age of Aviation in the United States. Conceived and created in the midst of the worst economic depression America had ever experienced, the Beech Model 17 represented a tremendous gamble for Walter H. Beech. By 1932 business empires were crumbling, many high-value stocks had become worthless, widespread unemployment left millions without jobs, and the rising threat of Communism fueled a growing social discontent.

To Walter Beech, his wife Olive Ann and engineer Ted Wells, the bullish biplane that first thundered aloft in November 1932 was worth the risk of failure. Wells had designed a cabin biplane that could hit 200 mph, land at 60 and feature a comfortable cabin that rivaled any Cadillac in a General Motors showroom. Despite these desirable characteristics, the Beechcraft Model 17R1, priced at more than $15,000, proved almost impossible to sell in a market devastated by the debacle on Wall Street that began in October 1929. During 1932 and well into 1933, the infant Beech Aircraft Company had built two airplanes and sold none. Although Olive Ann Beech once told the author that the company never approached bankruptcy during those lean years, documents indicate that it was teetering on the brink of insolvency.

Entrepreneur Beech and engine-er Wells knew the future of their tiny enterprise relied entirely on the merits of the fledgling design – merits they believed would provide the new Beechcraft its best chance for success in a crippled industry already littered with costly failures. The biplane’s negative stagger wing arrangement represented a departure from conventional thinking but gave the pilot unprecedented visibility. Another major innovation for an aircraft of its class was the electrically operated retractable landing gear that reduced drag and increased speed.

Theodore A. Wells was a talented engineer, experienced pilot and an accomplished sailor. He was responsible for creating the Model 17R1 that marked the return of Walter H. Beech to the commercial airplane business. (Wichita Public Library)

Although the name Staggerwing was not adopted by Beech Aircraft Company and did not appear in any of its publications, the moniker stuck and still survives today. The Model 17 series gradually became the premier, single-engine business airplane of the 1930s, chiefly because it blended superior performance, low direct operating costs and value with an ambiance its competitors failed to achieve. By 1934-1935, sales of the new B17L were growing – the fruits of a critical decision made by Wells and Beech in 1933 to build a smaller version of the cabin biplane that would sell for about $8,000.

Mating the thrifty, 225-horsepower Jacobs seven-cylinder, static, air-cooled radial engine to Ted’s smaller airframe resulted in a winning combination that at least stood a chance of success in the light airplane marketplace. By 1934 the B17L had put Walter Beech’s company on the road to profitability. In addition to commercial sales, during the mid-to-late 1930s the United States Army and Navy found the Model 17 could be adapted to the survive the rigors of military duty. By the end of World War II, 412 Army UC-43 and Navy GB-1/GB-2 aircraft had been produced for the allied war effort.

An early production Model B17L was photographed soon after emerging from the Beech Aircraft Company
factory on East Central Avenue. Note the cabin entry door that was only found on the left side unless the optional right-side door was ordered. The airplane was delivered to a customer in November 1934. Powered by the reliable Jacobs R-755 (L-4) radial engine, the B17L series proved to be the right airplane at the right time, despite the economic depression that gripped America. (Textron Aviation)

After victory in Europe and the defeat of Japan in 1945, postwar America rapidly transitioned to a peacetime economy that gave birth to the largest boom in aviation since the epic solo flight of Charles A. Lindbergh 18 years earlier. The civilian market was soon flooded with war-surplus aircraft such as the Boeing/Stearman PT-13 and PT-17 open cockpit biplanes, Cessna UC-78 and AT-8 twin-engine trainers, and Beechcraft UC-43/GB-1 and -2 single-engine ships, and UC-45 twin-engine Beechcrafts, many of which had been returned by Great Britain and other allies in accordance with provisions of the 1941 Lend-Lease agreement.

Walter Beech’s postwar plan was to resume production of the venerable Model D17S but upgrade the design to create the G17S version. By 1945 Mr. Beech, contrary to a myth perpetrated nearly 100 years ago that he was a staunch advocate of the biplane, clearly recognized that the future of general aviation lay with the all-metal monoplane, and during 1944-1945 his engineers had created a winner in the modern Model 35 Bonanza.

 

Walter Beech knew that the Model 17 had always been an airplane that was largely hand-built and was extremely labor-intensive to manufacture. There was no denying that if he decided to build the Model G17S the end product would be a stately, powerful and robust Beechcraft that would continue to outclass its competitors. The market, however, had changed dramatically, and customers were looking for a modern airplane that would provide economical aerial transportation. Walter’s chief competition, the Piper Aircraft Corporation in Pennsylvania, and in particular, the Cessna Aircraft Company located across town, were planning new designs that promised to relegate the aging welded steel tube and fabric-covered aircraft of the 1920s-1930s to the salvage yard.

A late 1930’s photograph of the fuselage assembly line illustrates the labor-intensive nature of the Model 17 series. The amount of time and the high cost of handcrafting required to build the classic Beechcraft would be a major factor in its demise after World War II. (Textron Aviation)

Officials of both companies understood what the postwar private pilot and flying businessman wanted in the next-generation light airplane. Piper was developing the PA-6 Sky Sedan, a four-place monoplane with retractable landing gear, a maximum speed of 160 mph and a price tag of $4,000. Cessna president Dwane L. Wallace had his engineers hard at work developing Project P-370, also dubbed the “Family Car of the Air” that had a projected maximum speed of 140 mph. Both airplanes, had they been placed into production, would have proven worthy adversaries of the Bonanza, but Piper cancelled the Sky Sedan in 1946 and the P-370 did not progress beyond a mockup of the fuselage.

As for Beech Aircraft Corporation, when World War II ended in the Pacific and Japan surrendered unconditionally, the men and women of the company could look back on the previous four years with pride and a great send of accomplishment. Beechcrafters had built and delivered more than 7,300 airplanes to the United States Army Air Forces and the United States Navy. Of these, more than 5,200 were AT-11, AT-7 and SNB military versions of the prewar commercial Model C18S.

With the Axis powers in their death throes, during the summer of 1945 the United States Defense Commission gradually began releasing materials for the manufacture of commercial airplanes, chiefly to help support the resumption of peacetime production. Walter Beech and other company officials had been planning in earnest for a reconversion since earlier that year. Only two weeks after the Japanese surrendered, Beechcraft workers had completed a detailed factory inventory and was well along in preparation for production of the postwar Model D18S twin-engine monoplane. In addition, on December 7, 1945, a mere 16 weeks since victory over Japan had been secured, the Civil Aeronautics Administration issued the first postwar Approved Type Certificate to Beech Aircraft Corporation for the D18S.

Although the new “Twin Beech” took center stage on the production line, the venerable Model D17S had not been neglected. Unlike its all-metal siblings the D18S and Model 35 Bonanza, four years of war and technological progress had finally rendered Ted Well’s wood and fabric biplane obsolete. Despite Mr. Beech’s desire to produce a next generation of the Staggerwing, the attractive biplane would be more of a manufacturing liability than an asset to the company’s balance sheet and nobody knew that better than Walter himself. Studies indicated that to compensate for skyrocketing labor and material costs that were a byproduct of the war, customers would have to pay $29,000 for the new model dubbed the G17S. By contrast, a standard-equipped Bonanza was priced at a mere $7,000 and offered similar performance for much less money.

In 1946, $29,000 was considered an exorbitant amount of money for a biplane born in the 1930s, and Beech realized that the cost alone would severely limit sales. Beginning with its introduction in 1932, the Model 17 had always been an expensive airplane to build. Walter and Ted, however, knew that was the price they had to pay to reap the performance benefits provided by the biplane’s clean, aerodynamic design. In an era when semi-monocoque, all-metal aluminum alloy airframes were being pioneered by visionaries such as Jack Northrop and Donald Douglas, the Beechcraft’s steel tube fuselage and empennage were welded together using proven but time-consuming acetylene gas technology that dated back to World War I.

The first Model 17R1 built underwent a series of modifications before it was sold in May 1934 to the Ethyl Corporation as an executive transport. The distinctive design of the biplane illustrated the design talent of engineer Ted Wells. In December 1935, the hard-working Beechcraft was destroyed in a crash near Nunda, New York, killing pilot Dewey Noyes and an official of the Ethyl Corporation.
(Staggerwing Museum Foundation)

The robust steel jigs necessary to hold the thin-walled tubing in place during the welding process were heavy and required periodic maintenance. The highly skilled men who performed the delicate task of blending hot flame and rod against cold steel had to possess a keen eye, a deft touch and work quickly to create an acceptable joint that not only met exacting standards but kept the production line rolling along smoothly. The rugged Pratt & Warren fuselage truss was largely concealed under complex, hand-made spruce fairings that gave the airplane its attractive shape. Assembling and installing the fairings, which covered the upper and lower surfaces and both sides of the fuselage framework, took considerable time to accomplish correctly so that later when the cotton fabric was applied to the skeletal framework, it would shrink tightly to give the Staggerwing its graceful lines.

The two plate glass windshield sections were developed specifically for the Model 17 by Pittsburgh Plate Glass, and were fitted into place before fabric was applied. The process of stretching the linen over the fuselage and stitching it snugly to the fairings had to be perfect before coats of butyrate dope were applied, shrinking the fabric taut. The factory had a special area for this purpose that was equipped with massive brick firewalls and a large sliding barrier that would prevent flame from spreading throughout the complex if a fire erupted.

The highly flammable cellulose nitrate dopes were bought from a number of suppliers including the Merrimac Chemical Company, Glidden and Berry Brothers. The multiple coats of clear, silver and final color were sprayed onto the fabric inside special paint booths. Overall, the doping process was laborious – it was necessary to wet-sand the fabric between applications to ensure a smooth finish of the final gloss color coat that everyone would see. Both skill and experience were required to obtain the hand-rubbed, shiny paint finish that became a hallmark of the Model 17 series.

It was possible (for an extra fee) for a customer to order a unique paint scheme, but the factory frowned upon the choice of white, chiefly because it failed to adequately protect the silver-colored dope that protected the cotton from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays that gradually deteriorated that fabric’s fibers and decreased strength. According to a letter from company vice president John P. Gaty to Beechcraft dealers dated November 1940, “It is requested that customers be discouraged from ordering planes painted white. Because white airplanes require several more coats of paint than any other color, the result is that the thick film of paint cracks very easily. Considerable trouble has been experienced with all planes painted white and your customers should always be plainly warned that we will not make any service adjustments on a white paint job.” Obviously, another disadvantage was the additional few pounds of weight imposed because of the extra coats.

Building the Model 17’s wings was another labor-intensive operation but did include some automation. The spruce spars were fabricated to specifications by automatic routers and planers that significantly reduced man-hours required to complete a shipset. By contrast, building wing ribs was a relatively easy process for a skilled worker but still required many different pieces of wood to be placed into a jig for nailing and gluing together, along with gussets for reinforcement.

Despite the adverse economics of manufacturing a postwar Model 17, Walter Beech decided to proceed with development of the next-generation cabin biplane. Ted Wells assigned assistant chief engineer M.A. Chester and program manager Al Clark the task of breathing new life into the aging Beechcraft, officially designated the G17S.

Based solely on the popular D17S that had been in production since 1937, the G17S would receive a number of important upgrades aimed at fostering customer appeal in an effort to help justify its high price. By September 1945, Clark had completed an outline of changes that included:

  • Relocating the Pratt & Whitney R-985AN-3-1 or R-985AN-3 forward slightly to improve load distribution.
  • Designing a new engine mount to accommodate the engine installation.
  • Incorporating a new, pressure-type engine cowling with a single, manually controlled cowl flap mounted at the bottom, trailing edge.
  • Increasing the area of the vertical stabilizer to 7.98 square feet to provide increased directional stability.
  • Installing an improved cabin ventilation system to provide increased airflow for the pilot and passengers.
  • Fairing the fuselage more smoothly into the engine cowling to present a more pleasing contour, and covering the fuselage aft with aluminum alloy sheet (including upper and lower wing fillets), skin formers and bulkheads. In addition, wing walks were to be replaced with metal surfaces.
  • Adopting a larger, two-piece windshield.
  • Installing a redesigned instrument panel featuring a new control wheel and relocated engine and propeller controls.
  • Using a hydraulic valve to replace the parking brake lever.
  • Improved brake master cylinders. Goodyear single-disc brake system. New main landing gear doors.
  • Redesigning the entire cabin interior including window sills and trim. Cabin sidewalls were to be covered with beige Spanish leather from the instrument panels aft to the pilot’s seat. Gray-green Candair broadcloth from the front seats aft to the baggage compartment. Beige Candair broadcloth was applied to the cabin headliner. The cabin floor was carpeted with a sand-colored Candair Lock-Tite weave. As for the seats, they were covered with gray-green Bedford cord fabric. Leather was available as an option.
  • Changing from wire-wrapped turnbuckles on control cables to swaged-type fittings.
  • Wing rib stitch spacing reduced to six inches from 6.5 for the D17 series.

By February 1946 general specifications and performance of the Model G17S had been confirmed by engineering and approved by the sales department. The airplane’s maximum speed at an altitude of 5,500 feet was projected to be 212 mph with a cruising speed (75 percent power setting) at 10,000 feet of 201 mph. Four fuel tanks in the fuselage and wings held 124 gallons (170 gallons optional) and would provide a zero-wing range of 1,000 statute miles.

In an effort to spur sales the aircraft’s $29,000 purchase price was based on an overhauled R-985 engine that would reduce the price to $25,000, but only if the customer supplied the factory with a complete installation package for the powerplant, including the exhaust system. Another $500 allowance was given if the customer provided a Hamilton-Standard Model 2D30-237 two-blade, constant-speed propeller. To further reduce costs, only three finish colors were available – Loening Yellow with Consolidated Blue or Insignia Red trim, Consolidated Blue with Loening Yellow trim, and Insignia Red with Loening Yellow or Consolidate Blue trim.

The last Model D17S built before the United States entered World War II in December 1941 was constructor number 424 (registered NC21934) that became the prototype for the postwar Model G17S. To test the major engine installation modifications incorporated in to the modified Beechcraft, Al Clark and his team of engineers began a series of flight tests with a new cowling installed. Those tests indicated the need for changes and after further modifications a final configuration was tested and approved along with all the other upgrades to the airframe and cabin interior.

The G17S would be built in the company’s Plant Two facility located south of the main factory campus. The facility had been home to production of the UC-43 and GB-2 airplanes during the war. Plans called for allotting up to 50 delivery positions for the airplane for the 1946 model year.

In addition, Beech Aircraft Corporation’s marketing and sales force, both in-house and in the field, began extolling the attributes of the G17S to potential customers and taking orders. Initially the factory had orders for 32 airplanes, but then troubles began as the number of sales contracts fell to 25, and of those only two buyers had plunked down a check for 25 percent of the total price. Eventually consumer interest in the G17S fell further to 20 airplanes. Many customers had cancelled their orders in favor of the twin-engine Model D18S or chose to await delivery of the Model 35 Bonanza.

Postwar publicity photograph depicted a family of four about to embark on a flight in their Beechcraft Model G17S. The airplane was constructor (serial) number 424 – the last Model D17S built before America’s entry into World War II and the prototype for the postwar G17S series. The new landing gear door panels, however, had not been installed.
(Textron Aviation)

Initial deliveries of the G17S finally began on July 13, 1946, when constructor number B-1 was accepted by the Cuban Dominican Sales Company. The Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) issued Approved Type Certificate 779 to the G17S on October 11, 1946. Airplanes that were eligible for the approval were constructor number 424 and B-1 through B-20. Although all of the airplanes were manufactured in 1946, not all were delivered that year. Constructor numbers B-1 through B-15 and B-20 were completed at the factory and delivered to customers beginning in July 1946 through July 1947. Another four of the Beechcrafts, B-16 through B-19, were built using parts obtained from the Henry Seale Aviation Supply Company located in Dallas, Texas. Beech Aircraft records state that these airplanes were sold back to the Henry Seale Company, which resold the biplanes to customers. The last Staggerwing was delivered on June 17, 1949.

By the late 1940s the dwindling supply of spare parts to keep the aging Model 17 series in the air was rapidly becoming a serious problem. As far back as September 1945 the company had notified all owners and operators that the growing shortage of parts would affect the maintenance and repair of their airplanes, and by 1949 the factory’s postwar stock of Model 17 spares had been exhausted.

As a result, by 1950 all Model 17 tooling had disappeared from the factory floor and back shops. Although every vestige of the Staggerwing was gradually erased from the daily operations of the Beech Aircraft Corporation, the biplane that birthed that company left a rich and unforgettable heritage that will always be unmatched by any business aircraft in its class.

For further information about the history and preservation of the Beechcraft Model 17 series biplanes, go to www.beechcrafthm.org.

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