The rebirth of the oldest
surviving Beechcraft Staggerwing
Serial No. 3-NC270Y
Serial #3 rolls out for its initial test flight in early 1934. 48 years later, fully restored #3 rolls out for its first flight in 31 years
Birth of the Beechcraft Staggerwing Model 17
April, 1932. The Great Depression gripped our nation with the worst economic slump in U.S. history. It was a time for businessmen to hold tightly to whatever money they had, not a time to start a new company.
But for Walter Beech, an independent thinker with a dream to build the fastest private airplane in the world, 1932 was a year for new beginnings. Just a few years earlier, he had jointly founded the well known Travel Air Company with Clyde Cessna and Lloyd Stearman. In 1929, the Travel Air Company was sold to Curtiss Wright, after achieving significant records in both racing and sales. The funds from the sale of his holdings were to provide for Walter Beech a sound foundation for the pursuit of his dream.
From the personal drawing board of Ted Wells, an engineer who worked with Walter in the Travel Air Company, came the outline for such a plane. Just what business would need when the recession ended. A fast, strong, large cabin biplane that looked as though it was going 60 just sitting on the ramp and held the promise of exceeding 200 miles per hour in flight. This advanced, rakish plane incorporated the ideas of several men, but its design was dominated by the farsighted commercial sixth sense of Walter Beech supported by the sound aeronautical engineering of Ted Wells. Thus, an ageless classic was born!
Travel Air was uninterested because of the depression. But Walter Beech could see further than that, and organized the Beech Aircraft Company of Wichita, Kansas in April, 1932 in the depths of the depression. Together with many of the people who had worked with him at Travel Air, Beech went to work on his first Beechcraft.
The new company's chief designer was Ted Wells, the young engineer who in 1931, at home in his kitchen, had drawn sketches of a fourplace, cabin biplane with staggered wings. By locating the upper wing to the rear of the lower wing, Well's design gave pilots greater visibility in flight than other biplanes of the era. Moving the lower wing forward also made it possible to later design the biplane with retractable landing gear, a revolutionary feature for the business pilot in 1934. Well's carefully streamlined the entire airplane to achieve a fast cruise speed while, at the same time, he designed it for a slow landing speed and short landing roll.
Just eight months after Beech started his new company, the first Beechcraft Staggerwing made its maiden flight. The remarkable new biplane achieved performance specifications which were unheard of at the time, a top speed of 200 mph and a landing speed of 60 mph or less. It was truly a pilot's plane in the air, but on the ground it left something to be desired due to its narrow fixed gear. But, a more serious problem for Beech was that nobody wanted to buy the expensive new machine. During the first two years of his company's existence, only one sale was made, Serial No. 2, NC58Y to Loffland Brothers Company, a Tulsa oil drilling firm owner by a personal friend of Walter Beech.
An illustrious history for Serial No. 3
During 1933Ted Wells and his design staff reworked the original design, changing to a smaller engine, a much lighter airframe, and a major innovation for the private pilot, a landing gear fully retractable, truly a first for general aviation aircraft. Other changes were made to make the airplane less expensive, but the basic streamlined shape was retained. It listed in 1934 for $8,000 instead of $12,000 for the 200 mph fixed gear 17R model. The new design was called the Model B17L, and carried serial #3. It was completed in early 1934, and became the first real production aircraft for the 2 year old company. On February 2, 1934 it made its first flight, marking the beginning of a successful year for Beech in which 19 of these advanced aircraft were built. The B17L Staggerwing was truly an innovative airplane with enviable performance for its time. With a 225 hp Jacobs L4 engine, it achieved a top speed of 175 mph, cruised at 150 mph—fully 20-30 mph faster than its competitors—and landed at 45 mph. The aircraft's landing gear not only fully retracted, but completely closed up into the wing to present a highly efficient aerodynamic profile. Ailerons were located in the lower wings with deceleration flaps just ahead of them to provide an increase in decent angle for short field approaches.
Serial No. 3 had a Haywood air injection system for automatic engine starting and pneumatic retraction omounted reserve tank contained 300-500 psi of compressed air—enough air to turn the propeller 2 or 3 times for starting and provide a quick "squirt" of air to retract the gear after takeoff. While the system required "hope and a prayer" that there was enough air pressure in the tank to start the engine, it worked quite well for "now you see it, now you don't" gear retraction.
Retracting the gear took no more than 1 1/2 seconds, sometimes startling the pilot with the suddenness of the gear closing into the wings. The pilot had to "catch" the gear with a handle used to crank the doors all the way closed or, if he missed and didn't have enough air for another try, crank the gear all the way up manually. The "gear up" latch was cleverly positioined so the throttle could not be pulled back very far, therby preventing pilots from landing with the wheels up.
Pilots found the B17L a real pleasure in the air, easy to fly, fast, and nicely balanced. A Civil Aeronautics Board test report written in June 1934 said that "this ship will not spin from a stall, but must be snapped in, and will not stay in more than four turns under the worst conditions." Unfortunately, like its two predecessors, the aircraft was a real feat to control on the ground with its high landing gear, short fuselage, heavy nose, and sensitive Johnson bar mechanical brakes. Even so, the aircraft represented a significant advancement in aviation technology and was well-received by enthusiasts. With the B17L, Beech Aircraft Company became a full-fledged airplane manufacturer.
During the Spring and Summer of 1934, Serial No. 3 was used for certification flights to obtain ATC type certificate #560 from the Civil Aeronautics Board. It also served Beech's sales efforts for a full year as demonstration flights were flown by many famous aviators all around the country before the aircraft was sold in February, 1935 to Charlotte Frye of Griffin, Ga. Frye was a wellknown racing pilot of the '30s who flew Serial No. 3 for seven years, both for air races and for delivering mail in the state of Georgia.
During the time Charlotte Frye owned the aircraft, Serial No. 3 had an active life. However, its early life was not without incident. In September, 1935, it suffered a landing incident, so common to these early tall Staggerwings. It ground looped, requiring a replacement of the two lower wings and one landing gear. But it was a very strong aircraft and was soon repaired and flying again. Then upon starting home victorious from the 1936 Miami Air Races, the engine quit on her three miles from the Miami Airport and Frye pancaked it into a swamp with relatively minor damage. These instances aside, No. 3 was well liked by its first owner.
Serial No. 3 had a series of owners over the next 15 years—one was Stephens College in Missouri—and the craft flew actively until 1951, mostly in charter and private use. The aircraft then passed through several hands and eventually was disassembled in the 1960's. After a total of 957 hours of flight, the first production model airplane on which Walter Beech's company was built in the 1930's was left to decay outside a garage in the San Francisco Bay area.
From basket case to rebirth
February, 1980. Two enthusiastic owners of vintage Beechcraft Model D17S Staggerwings—Dick Hansen of Batavia, IL and Dick Perry of Hampshire, IL—had decided that they wanted to restore an early Model 17 of historic significance. Shortly after the time they began looking for an aircraft, Serial No. 3, which had been rumored to still exist, became available. The excited pair found the oldest Staggerwing in existence and purchased it literally in baskets and boxes of unrecognizable pieces.
Hansen and Perry, recognizing the significance of1982 as the 50th anniversary of Beechcraft, decided to target the completion of their restoration project for May of that year. They also decided to restore the aircraft to its original configuration as flown in the Summer of 1934 as a demonstrator for Walter Beech's new company. Their quest for authenticity and accuracy, coupled with fanatic attention to detail, made the project more time-consuming than they ever imagined, but well worth their efforts as the aircraft returned from the past over the next two years.
Since no production drawings and few patterns for Serial No. 3.existed, reconstruction was a painstaking process. The owners spent months pouring over old photographs and books to discover how to very accurately reconstruct the classic Staggerwing exactly as it was during its debut in the Spring and Summer of 1934. Much needed information also came from members of the Staggerwing Club, the Staggerwing Museum, and from individual owners of earlier version Model 17's.
Serial No. 3 and several of the very first production Beechcrafts differed from later models in that they were constructed of wood and fabric from firewall to tail cone. When the bits and pieces of the airplane were first laid out on the floor of the hanger, the new owners found that much of the original woodwork had been lost or otherwise destroyed over the years. But enough pieces were still available to figure out from photographs how they fit together. Amazingly, the airframe was found to be within original specifications, even though Serial No. 3 had four recorded accidents during its flight history.
An original 1933 Jacobs L4 engine obtained from the museum was fortunately rebuildable but the Haywood air starter was missing along with other parts and instruments. Hansen and Perry decided that, if a component had not been invented or was in commerical use in 1934, they would not put it on the restored aircraft. They went to the extra expense of plain cadmium plated hardware and hand-braided control cables, plus they did not use any elastic stop nuts because they weren't available when Serial No. 3 was built.
All attach points for the woodwork to the airframe were made with clamps as done on the original instead of welded tabs used in later aircraft. Instruments from the 1933-34 period were donated or found as well as other authentic parts of the era. The landing gear doors, rectangular in shape rather than rounded like on subsequent models, were reconstructed by Dr. Berne Yocke of Aurora, III. using only early photographs to guide him in reengineering the first system of fully faired rectractable wheel doors in general aviation. As they were quite different from the production system, this was a real feat of reconstruction.
After over two years of tenacious and relentless pursuit of authenticity by the restoration crew, countless hours of work by many skilled craftsmen, and tremendous help from enthusiastic volunteers, the Staggerwing's classic profile took shape. From its graceful curves and intricate woodwork, the Beechcraft B17L began to look like the pinnacle of wood and fabric aerodynamic forms. In just one weekend, a fantastic work party from Tullahoma, Tenn., Mansfield, Ohio and the home base covered all surfaces, making completion of the restoration project in 1982 now a real possibility. After additional setbacks, that possibility became a reality on Aug. 27th as Serial No. 3 rolled out of the hangar for its first flight after being grounded for 31 years. The restorers had missed their major objective of flight by the Beech Aircraft official 50th anniversary celebration, but at least it was going to take place in the same year!
August, 1982. Two and one-half years after being purchased as a basket case, the oldest Beechcraft—Serial No. 3, NC270Y—rolled out of a hangar in Hampshire, Illinois, ready for its first flight as it had done over 48 years earlier at Walter Beech's factory in Kansas. But this time the test pilot was Dick Perry and the excited crowd assembled for the event included many friends who made the rebirth of this famous Staggerwing possible.
After making several fast and slow taxi tests on the ground on the afternoon of August 27th, Dick Perry was ready to take the restored B17L into the air. In the words of Dick Hansen "without hesitation, Dick climbed aboard this tall, intimidating airplane, pulled the air injection starter and the old 'Jake' came to life with a snort and belch of smoke. Eight minutes later, Dick was at takeoff position on the grassy area of the airport as all spectators watched with sweaty palms and bated breath. The takoff roll was smooth and straight as an arrow and at 6:15 p.m. Serial No. 3 was in the air once again. Several flybys were made, both in clean and dirty configuration. A 170 mph pass was made to test WalterBeech's avertising claim. He was right!"
After a half hour of successful flight, Dick Perry landed to the resounding applause of everyone on the ground. Like the many pilots before him who flew B17L's in the '30s, he had found the uneven, mechanical brakes difficult to use "without three arms". In Perry's words, Serial No. 3 "flew light as a feather, but it's a bear to land and bring to a straight stop".