The Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing is a renowned biplane design that has become an icon of aviation history. It was designed and first built in the 1930s by the Beech Aircraft Corporation with the intention of creating a sleek and powerful plane aimed at wealthy businessmen.
The Staggerwing’s design contained many revolutionary ideas for its time, with a unique biplane configuration that featured an upper wing that was set back from the lower wing to increase speed and handling while improving pilot safety.
Its unique features helped to establish the Model 17 as a successful racing plane and it was used by pilots to set new records. The Model 17’s design also helped it to appeal to military as well as private pilots.
The Beech Aircraft Corporation had been founded by businessman Walter H. Beech, his wife Olive Anne Beach and aero engineer Ted Wells in 1932.
Beech had served as a pilot for the United States Army during the First World War before becoming a test pilot in the 1920s for different aircraft companies. He then worked as a manager for the Swallow Airplane Company, and later for Curtiss-Wright when they took over Swallow.
However, transitioning to the business side of aircraft manufacturing did not dampen Beech’s interest in developing planes and experimenting with aircraft technology.
He sought to create a plane manufacturing company that had a particular focus on leisure or executive aircraft. The new Beechcraft factory was established in Wichita, Kansas.
In 1932, Beech and his company began developing what would become the Model 17 as the first aircraft for the Beech Aircraft Corporation, which Beech envisaged as a fast, sleek looking plane that would appeal to business executives.
With speed, reduced weight and efficiency in mind, Beech’s designs for the Model 17 featured an 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 reducing the risk of the plane stalling.
The fuselage was designed to be as aerodynamic as possible. It was fabric-covered and faired together (meaning the body was joined together in a way where the external surfaces blended smoothly) with wood formers and “longerons” – longitudinal members of the airframe on the fuselage, over a steel tube frame.
The Model 17 would also use retractable landing gear, something quite uncommon at that time, especially on leisure or private aircraft. Power was provided by a number of different engines, varying between 225 and 710 horsepower.
The interior was conceived by Beech with luxury in mind to ensure the plane would find its target audience. The fittings were trimmed in leather and mohair. The Model 17 was capable of carrying up to five people, which Beech imagined would help pilots and their passengers reach an important destination on time.
However, Beech’s meticulous attention to detail and the Model 17’s unique features meant the construction process was intricate and each unit would have to be custom built as ordered.
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Nonetheless, the company persevered with the process and the first Model 17 completed a successful maiden flight on the 4th of November, 1932.
Testing and proving results found that the Beech 17 was an aircraft that could achieve a top speed of 201 miles per hour and able to climb at 1,600 feet per minute to a maximum altitude of 21,500 feet, aspects considered impressive for non-military planes of the era.
However, while the plane featured many innovative designs and proved to be promising, the timing of the Model 17’s release was a marketing and economic gamble. America was still at the height of the Great Depression in the early 1930s at the time of the Model 17’s release and the hefty asking price (ranging between 14,000 and 17,000 dollars depending on the interior trim and engine size) turned away many prospective customers at first.
Sales were indeed slow after the plane’s release, with only eighteen Model 17s being delivered to customers in 1933.
However, as the aircraft’s speed and luxury became more widely known and praised by customers, sales figures began to steadily increase throughout the 1930s.
Although Beech had marketed the Model 17 as a luxury aircraft, it proved to be just as popular with aviation pioneers and sports pilots as well as business executives.
The Model 17’s speed and handling quickly established it as an aircraft of choice for air races during the 1930s.
The Model 17 first proved itself as a serious racer when it won the 1933 Texaco Trophy Race, beating competition from more established aircraft builders.
Two years later in 1935, a British diplomat Capt. H.L Farquhar, successfully flew around the world in a Model 17, travelling some 21,332 miles from New York City to London, taking a route over Siberia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and back across Europe.
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Aviation pioneers Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes together won the prestigious Bendix Trophy Race in 1936 piloting Beechcraft Model 17 models, marking the first time that a female pilot had won the celebrated race. Another female aviator, Jacqueline Cochran, set several women’s speed records using a Model 17, establishing an altitude record of over 30,000 feet and also finished third in the 1937 Bendix Trophy Race using a Staggerwing. The aircraft also made an impressive showing in the 1938 Bendix race.
Model 17 War service
In the run-up to the Second World War, several modified Model 17s found themselves deployed into frontline combat use.
During the Spanish Civil War, a number of civilian Model 17s were appropriated and pressed into service by the Spanish Republican Air Force to be used as bombers. In the late 1930s, the Chinese Air Force also took delivery of modified Model 17 variants to serve as air ambulances. It was thought that the Staggerwing would make an effective ambulance thanks to its spacious interior and speed.
In October 1941, Beech also clandestinely sent a Model 17 in military camouflage paint to the Netherlands to serve as a get-away plane for the evacuation of Prince Bernhard of Lippe, the husband of the Dutch Queen Juliana, to London during the German invasion of the country.
In 1938, Beech noted that the Model 17 showed potential as a rugged military plane and began producing a modified version of the Staggerwing at his factory, which the company named the UC-43 Traveler. The United States Army Air Corps looked into using the UC-43 model as an observation aircraft or to ferry VIP personnel and purchased three models for testing. These three models were posted abroad as personal planes for American military attaches in London, Paris and Rome.
When America joined the war, it became apparent that there was a need for a nimble and fast transport plane. The United States Army Air Force (USAAF) ordered 270 Model 17s for domestic military service within the United States and designated the UC-43 Traveler for overseas operations.
In addition, the US government also purchased and leased second hand Staggerwing planes from private owners for military use to mitigate the waiting time for completed units and collected 118 Model 17s for army and navy use.
The factory produced military variant of the Model 17 remained close in design to the civilian counterpart with a few significant modifications; a radar antenna was mounted between the main landing gear for radio communication and landing lights were fitted near the lower wingtips. The engine units were changed to a 450 hp Pratt & Whitney R-985 type for more power.
The Model 17 was not typically deployed in a frontline combat role with the United States, but it did see extensive military use during the war with the British Royal Air Force who purchased 106 UC-43 Travelers under the “Lend-Lease” agreement with the United States to act as light cargo and personnel transporters.
The Model 17 Traveler variant was also used in a limited capacity by the militaries of Australia, Brazil, China, Cuba, Norway, Uruguay, and the Netherlands, where it was mainly used for light transport and personnel ferrying duties.
In the aftermath of the war, Beech’s company returned to making private and luxury aircraft for the civilian market. They released one final civil variant of the Model 17 known as the G17S. This stayed in production until 1949 with a total of 785 being made and winding up in both private and military use.
The company also rebranded itself as Beechcraft and branched out into more sophisticated but affordable aircraft, the most successful being the Beechcraft Bonanza, which replaced the Model 17 in the company’s commercial lineup.
In the post-war era, the Staggerwing continued to be a feature at races and served as a demonstrator aircraft at the 1970 Reno Air Race, although they were unable to compete in the race itself due to safety regulations on older aircraft.
The Model 17 remained in limited military service around the world until the late 1960s, with the Norwegian air force retiring theirs in 1959 and the Uruguayan military withdrawing their last Staggerwing in 1962.
Although discontinued by Beechcraft, the Model 17 Staggering helped to establish Beech and his new company as a renowned manufacturer name at a time when there was little demand for private civilian aircraft.
The Model 17 Staggerwing stands as an example of the creativity and ingenuity of the aviation industry in the 1930s by fostering unique design ideas that resulted in a fast but successful and versatile aircraft and versatility made a favorite of private pilots, air racers, and military personnel.
- Capacity: 5
- Length: 26 ft 9 in (8.15 m)
- Wingspan: 31 ft 12 in (9.75 m)
- Height: 8 ft (2.4 m)
- Empty weight: 2.800 lbs (1,270 kg)
- Gross weight: 4.250 lbs (1,928 kg)
- Powerplant: Various – 225 – 710 hp
- Maximum speed: 241 mph (387 km/h)
- Range: 670 mi (1,078 km)
- Service ceiling: 25,000 ft (7,620 m)