Flying Magazine Sept 1983

Stagger wing

The First Beech craft

Text by Patrick Bradley

Photos by Russell Munson

In what had begun to look like an ill conceived deal, partners Richard Perry and Richard Hansen stared in disbelief. At first, second and third glance-indeed, no matter how they looked at it-their newly purchased airplane remained a basket case, a wreck. Strewn about the floor of an old garage were moldering bits of former and stringer, homeless hardware and, in the midst of everything, a great naked frame seemingly unable to pull the pieces together. The two partners gathered up their basket case, trucked it back to Batavia, Illinois, and set about the business of resurrecting a bit of aviation history. Beneath the mess, they saw a Beech B17L Stagger wing. It was NC270Y, serial number three, the oldest Beech craft in existence.

Hansen and Perry became the fifteenth owners to take possession of 270 Yankee since it was built in the spring of 1934. Walter Beech had sold the Travel Air Company to Curtiss-Wright in 1932 and began plans to build his own cabin biplane after a plan by Ted Wells. Model 17R was constructed in part of Clyde Cessna's (along with Lloyd Stearman, Beech's old partner in Travel Air) temporarily closed factory. The Depression was in full swing.

With a pair of 17Rs built, Wells decided on some changes for the third airplane. Instead of the traditional fixed gear, serial number three would have retractable gear, something previously unheard of in general aviation airplanes. In place of the 420-hp Wright Whirlwind engine, a 225-hp Jacobs was installed. Designed as a lighter, less expensive and less intimidating airplane, the B17L was the first real production Stagger wing. It cruised at 150 mph, had a gross weight of about 3,100 pounds and carried 50 gallons of fuel in wing tanks. For $8,000 and change, a pilot could become a real traveling man-or woman.

After a year as a factory demonstrator, NC270Y was purchased by one Chariotte Fry, of Griffin, Georgia, for about $5,000. She kept it for seven years, and survived three or four moderate crunches. It wasn't that Fry was a bad pilot; it's just that the B17L was an angel in the air, but a devil on the ground.

Sitting high on narrow gear, the Stagger wing was none too stable. Executing a landing was a straightforward matter with full aft elevator and a direct head-on wind. But without them a landing was anyone's guess. A Johnson bar braking system, in which a stick in the cockpit actuated braking to either or both wheels depending on rudder pedal position, compounded the problem. One repair bill, dated September 17,1935, lists charges for a left and right lower wing, a pair of flaps, a pair of ailerons, a Hartzell Blackwood prop, wheel fairings, incidentals and 667.51 hours of labor. Even though labor cost only $1.50 per hour, the bill came to $2,585.93, a hefty sum in those days.

On another occasion, Fry rode 270 Yankee into a Miami swamp after an engine failure. Later, while having some groundloop repairs done, she also had an electrical system installed.

The move to the electrical system was probably prompted by the irascible Heywood air starter that had been installed in the first seven or eight B17Ls. Consisting of a small engine-driven compressor and a pressure storage tank, the starter was actuated by the pilot's throwing a combination start and gear handle on the front control panel. If all went well, compressed air would be released into a distributor-like, cam-operated air valve, which sent a blast of air and fuel to the cylinder on the power stroke. If the engine started, the airplane was off and running. Air would be pumped back into the tank to operate the gear, and the tank would be repressurized for the next start. Although an apparently sound concept, it seldom worked. At best, the pilot had two chances to get the engine running. If they didn't work, some other source of compressed air had to be found. (Hand propping the airplane, with the engine over most people's heads, was a risky proposition.)

As for the landing gear, the compressed air would drive a long piston that would in turn retract the gear in two seconds. Next to the pilot, a small dowel-like post that looked like a door lock in a car would be forced up to indicate that the gear was up. It was an effective gear-retraction system backed up by a crank on the left sidewall.

As a starter, the Heywood system left a great deal to be desired, and when Fry decided that the added weight of a generator, a lead-acid battery and a starter was not too great a price to pay for the convenience, she had them installed. She also left the air system to operate the gear. Records show that nav lights, landing lights and a turn and bank indicator were also installed as part of the new electrical system.

Charlotte Fry sold NC270Y in 1942, and the airplane began a long string of sales and purchases that punctuate the careers of most old airplanes. Stevens College owned the airplane for two years and sold it, and in 1948 Keith Flying Service, of Russell, Kansas, bought the airplane, flew it until 1951 and sold it in 1958. Keith was the last owner to fly the airplane before Hansen and Perry. The seven intervening owners had intended to restore the airplane, but for whatever reasons (probably money and time), never did. NC270Y sat, a basket case, from 1958 until 1981.

When Hanson and Perry committed themselves to restoring serial number three, they had some foreknowledge of what to expect. Each owned a D17S Stagger wing, Perry having restored his himself. But serial number three was different: it was the first of a line of airplanes that revolutionized aviation and the way people perceived flying. And the restoration was to be entirely authentic.

According to Perry, "Most Staggerwings are contemporary airplanes with modern instruments and radios. Our Stagger wing is all original." Authenticity does not come cheaply, though, and Hansen estimates that at least 30 percent of the total cost was accrued to keep the restoration faithful to the original. Even improvements made by Charlotte Fry or added to later models by Beech were eschewed in the name of authenticity; the demands in time and effort were nothing short of Herculean.

Restoration of B17L number three began from scratch. After hauling the carcass to Batavia, Hansen and Perry hired two fulltime employees to keep work going while they paid the bills. (Perry is an airline pilot; Hansen runs an electrical manufacturing company.) Step number one was to find out what they had, and where it ail went. Laying out and labeling the pieces, the crew discovered that their supposedly complete airplane included only about 20 percent of the wood they needed to construct the patterns from which new pieces could be made. Thankfully, nearly all of the hardware was included, and the frame is within a hair of being completely true.

But the main task, that of reconstructing the fuselage from scant evidence, remained. "We reconstructed the Stagger wing from small, insignificant, almost overlooked clues," said Hansen. "With a little evidence you can sniff and hunt and put together a story." Photographs and a magnifying glass were their most valuable tools in sorting out the puzzle. With them, they uncovered the clues that enabled them to reconstruct the shape and operation of the landing-gear struts and door-closing mechanism. Looking at other B17Ls would not have been helpful in this case. Not only was 270 Yankee one of only about seven with the air-retraction mechanism, but as the first, its gear doors were unlike any other's.

NC270Y was the first of 20 B17Ls built with wooden wing-root fairings. In 1934, the tapered curve of the wing root was constructed entirely of spruce. In successive years, however, the fairing was constructed of sheet aluminum-much simpler, much cheaper. Luckily, the owner of B17L serial number 12 had put new covering on his Stagger wing some years earlier, and had the foresight to photograph the frame, providing Perry and Hansen with invaluable information about their own airplane.

After about six months of research, the Stagger wing crew connected the first piece of wood to the metal frame. Formers were attached with nuts, bolts and lock washers instead of bolts and lock nuts. It was done that way in 1934, and that's the way it was done in Perry and Hansen's shop.

As the formers and stringers were cut, varnished and mated with the frame, the wings were being constructed from scratch in Ocala, Florida, using drawings available from Beech. Concurrently, a 225-hp Jacobs engine equipped with fittings for the Heywood air-start system was located at the Stagger wing Museum and was shipped to California, to be overhauled. All new engine parts were plated with cadmium, as was the practice when the engine was made.

By the spring of 1982, the airplane was ready to be covered. In the tradition of the Old West, Hansen and Perry threw a Stagger wing covering party. With 111 yards of Grade-A cotton, and 13 experts and enthusiasts associated with the Tullahoma, Tennessee, Stagger wing Museum, it took just one weekend to tailor a new suit for 270 Yankee. But as anyone who has ever covered an airplane knows, that was the easy part.

With the cotton fitted and shrunk onto the airplane's fuselage, the dope had to be applied. It took between 25 and 30 coats, with hand-rubbing between every three or four to achieve the desired effect. It was that glasslike finish that characterized every Stagger wing Model 17 that left the Beech factory. Silver paint was applied to protect the cotton from the effects of ultra-violet rays and, after that, the original red, maroon and gold pinstripe paint scheme was reproduced.

All upholstery was done in the standard whipcord cotton offered in the 1930s. Style of the time had the control panel in metal with a special wood panel paint. The panel was original, and from a small corner with paint still intact it was possible to reproduce the entire pattern. Since the airplane was not equipped with an electrical system, there are no radios, just gyro and vacuum instruments. On the floor beneath instrument panel lie two chrome bars, one for flaps and the other for the Johnson braking system. A double control wheel, in chrome and wood, balances above the pressure and fuel gauges.

Next to each front seat is an automobile like window that can be opened in flight. Fixtures were taken from Model A Fords of the day, and topped off the sense of simple elegance and concern for comfort. With the wood grain and the chrome and the high windows, entering the cabin was like stepping into a yacht.

Dick Perry flew NC270Y for the first time on August 27, 1982. After high-speed taxiing and the usual ground checks, the oldest Beech craft took to the air for the first time in 31 years. Except for one slight problem when the gear/starter switch interfered with the throttle, the airplane flew flawlessly. Perry commented that the airplane did not handle as well as his own D17S, mainly because of design advances in the intervening period, but that everything operated perfectly.

Restored NC270Y's first cross-country flight was back to the Beech factory. Seeing the airplane, smelling it and touching it is nothing short of exhilarating. Although the only original wooden piece in the airplane is the rear bulkhead support member, one feels closer to a different time and a different world. Most of us like to think that it was a time when people thought and acted differently. It is perhaps that magic that drives men like Hansen and Perry to great sacrifice and even greater accomplishments.