At the height of the Great Depression, aircraft executive Walter H. Beech and airplane designer T. A. "Ted" Wells joined forces to collaborate on a project to produce a large, powerful, and fast cabin biplane built specifically for the business executive. The Beechcraft Model 17, popularly known as the "Staggerwing", was first flown on November 4, 1932. During its heyday, it was used as an executive aircraft, much as the private jet is now, and its primary competition were the Waco Custom Cabin and Waco Standard Cabin series of biplanes.
The Model 17's unusual negative stagger wing configuration (the upper wing staggered behind the lower) and unique shape maximized pilot visibility while negligibly reducing interference between the wings. The fabric-covered fuselage was faired with wood formers and stringers over a welded, steel tube frame. Construction was complex and took many man-hours to complete. The Staggerwing's retractable conventional landing gear, uncommon at that time, combined with careful streamlining, light weight, and a powerful radial engine, helped it perform well.
In the mid-1930s, Beech undertook a major redesign of the aircraft, to create the Model D17 Staggerwing. The D17 featured a lengthened fuselage that improved the aircraft's handling characteristics by increasing control leverage, and the ailerons were relocated to the upper wings, eliminating interference with the flaps. Braking was improved with a foot-operated brake linked to the rudder pedals.
Sales began slowly. The first Staggerwings' high price tag (between US$14,000 and $17,000, depending on engine size) scared off potential buyers in an already depressed civil aircraft market. Only 18 Model 17s were sold during 1933, the first year of production, but sales steadily increased. Each Staggerwing was custom-built by hand. The luxurious cabin, trimmed in leather and mohair, held up to five passengers. Eventually, the Staggerwing captured a substantial share of the passenger aircraft market. By the start of World War II, Beechcraft had sold more than 424 Model 17s.
Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes won the 1936Bendix trophy in a Model C17R Staggerwing. Thaden also won the Harmon Trophy for her achievement. Jackie Cochran set a women's speed record of 203.9 mph (328 km/h), established an altitude record of over 30,000 feet (9,144 m), and finished third in the 1937 Bendix Trophy Race, all in a special Model D17W Staggerwing. The aircraft made an impressive showing in the 1938 Bendix race, as well.
In 1970, due to a dispute with the T-6 racing class, the Reno National Air Races invited five Staggerwings to perform a demonstration race. Two G models and two D17 models raced. The five pilots were Bryant Morris, Bert Jensen, Don Clark, Noel Gourselle, and Phil Livingston, the only pilot to have prior racing experience in the T-6 class. The race was flawless with ABC Wide World of Sports coverage, but protesting T-6 racers prevented the class from future competition with allegations of safety issues.
Early in World War II, the need for a compact executive-type transport or courier aircraft became apparent, and in 1942, the United States Army Air Forces ordered the first of 270 Model 17s for service within the United States and overseas as the UC-43. These differed only in minor details from the commercial model. To meet urgent wartime needs, the government also purchased or leased (impressed) additional "Staggerwings" from private owners, including 118 more for the Army Air Force plus others for the United States Navy. In Navy service, the planes were designated as GB-1 and GB-2. The BritishRoyal Air Force and Royal Navy acquired 106 "Traveller Mk. I" (the British name uses the UK double "l" spelling) through the Lend-Lease arrangement to fill its own critical need for light personnel transports.
After the war's end, Beech immediately converted its manufacturing capabilities back to civil aircraft production, making one final version of the Staggerwing, the Model G17S. They built 16 aircraft, which they sold for US$29,000 apiece. Norway sold one D17S to Finland in 1949, which the Finnish Air Force used from 1950 to 1958.
The lightweight V-tailBeechcraft Bonanza, a powerful four-passenger luxury aircraft, soon replaced the venerable Staggerwing in the Beech product line, at about a third of the price. The Bonanza was a smaller aircraft with fewer horsepower, but carried four people at a similar speed to the Staggerwing. Beechcraft sold the 785th and final Staggerwing in 1948 and delivered it in 1949.
In March 2003, Plane & Pilot magazine named the Staggerwing one of its Top Ten All-Time Favorite aircraft.
In the April, 2007 issue of AOPA Pilot magazine, it was reported that the Staggerwing was voted by nearly 3000 AOPA members as the Most Beautiful Airplane. "Members said it's the perfect balance between 'muscular strength and delicate grace,' and rated it highly for its 'classic lines and symmetry.'"
The November 2012 issue of Aviation History magazine ranked the Staggerwing fifth in their top 12 list of the Worlds Most Beautiful Airplanes. Stating that "Some might think 'the Stag' ungainly, backward wings and all, yet it has become the prime example of vintage beauty." and "...the aftward upper wing led to the big, steeply raked windscreen that is also a key element of what some have called an art deco classic."
Fixed gear prototype made first flight on November 4, 1932.
By 1934, Beechcraft had designed and built four models. They were the 17R (420 hp Wright engine); the A17F (690 hp Wright engine); the A17FS (710 hp Wright engine); and the B17L (225 hp Jacobs engine). All were fixed gear models with the exception of the B17L, which had a pneumatically retractable undercarriage. Of the three models, the B17L proved best suited to meet the market demands, and became the first production model.
First production model, manufactured from March 1934 to March 1936.
YC-43 (S/N 39-139) assigned to the American Embassy in London, England
Three Model D17S with a 450hp R-985-17 engine for evaluation by the United States Army Air Corps
UC-43 s/n 43-10859
Production version with a 450hp R-985-AN-1 engine, 75 ordered for the USAAC and 63 for the United States Navy as the GB-1, 132 were later transferred from the USN to the USAAC.
Model D17R with 440hp R-975-11 engine, 13 impressed into service.
Model D17S with 450hp R-985-17 engine, 13 impressed into service.
Model F17D with 300hp R-915-1 engine, 37 impressed into service.
Model E17B with 285hp R-830-1 engine, 31 impressed into service.
Model C17R with 440hp R-975-11 engine, five impressed into service.
Model D17A with 350hp R-975-3 engine, one impressed into service.
Model C17B with 285hp R-830-1 engine, 10 impressed into service.
Model B17R with 440hp R-975-11 engine, three impressed into service.
Model C17L with 225hp R-755-1 engine, three impressed into service.
Model D17W, one impressed into service. This aircraft was originally built in 1937 for famed aviatorJacqueline Cochran. Cochran flew the plane in the 1937 Bendix cross-country race and placed first in the Women's Division and 3rd overall. She also set a Women's National Speed Record of 203.895 miles per hour using the plane.
A GB-1 Traveler
United States Navy transport version of the D17, ten bought in 1939 and ten impressed into USN service.
USN version as GB-1 but with a 450hp R-985-50 or R-985-AN-1 engine, 271 built, 132 later transferred to USAAF as UC-43s. Also additional aircraft from a cancelled British contract and impressed aircraft.
One Model C17R as an executive transport for the United States Navy.
British designation for the former US Embassy in London's YC-43 and 107 UC-43 and GB-2 aircraft delivered mainly for the Royal Navy.
333 – F17D on display at the Beechcraft Heritage Museum in Tullahoma, Tennessee.
395 – D17S on display at the Beechcraft Heritage Museum in Tullahoma, Tennessee.
4835 – D17S on display at the Beechcraft Heritage Museum in Tullahoma, Tennessee.
4890 – UC-43 on display at the Yanks Air Museum in Chino, California. It has the USAAF serial number 43-10842. It was the museum's first aircraft and bears the seal of the U.S. Ambassador to London.
6701 – D17S airworthy at the The Fighter Collection in Duxford, Cambridgeshire. It was built in 1943 as a US Navy model GB-2. It was shipped to the UK and flown by Royal Navy's 782 Naval Air Squadron as Traveller Mk.I FT475. Postwar, it was returned to the US and flown by the US Air Force before passing into private hands. It came back to the UK in 1990 and has since flown with several owners under the UK registration G-BRVE.