Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing

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 many considered foolhardy—a large, powerful, and fast biplane built specifically for the business executive. The Beech Model 17, popularly known as the “Staggerwing” (the name comes from the top wing being set, or staggered, behind the bottom wing) was first flown on November 4, 1932, setting the standard for private passenger airplanes for many years to come.

The Model 17's 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 minimizing the aircraft's tendency to stall. The fabric-covered fuselage was faired (joined so that the external surfaces blended smoothly) with wood formers (a frame attached to the truss of the fuselage in order to provide the required aerodynamic shape) and stringers (longitudinal members of the frame of the fuselage, usually continuous across a number of bulkheads or other points of support; also known as “longerons”). The Staggerwing's use of retractable landing gear, uncommon at that time, combined with streamlining and reducing the weight of the materials, produced an aircraft that could achieve a top speed of 201 miles per hour (323 kilometres per hour) (but with a landing speed of a stall-proof 45 miles per hour [72 kilometres per hour]), and able to climb at 1,600 feet per minute (488 meters per minute) to a maximum altitude of 21,500 feet (6,553 meters).

Sales started slowly at first; the first Staggerwings' high price tag (between $14,000 and $17,000, depending on the size of the engine) scared off potential buyers in an already depressed market for civil aircraft. Only 18 Model 17s were sold during 1933, the first year of production, but sales steadily increased.

Each Staggerwing was custom-built by hand. A luxurious cabin trimmed in leather and mohair, carrying up to five passengers in comfort, quickly won over the flying public. The Model 17's impressive performance also made it a favourite among pilots—its use of powerful radial engines (ranging from 225 to 710 horsepower [168 to 529 kilowatts]) made it faster than most military aircraft of the era. This reputation soon translated into sales; before long, the Staggerwing captured a substantial share of the passenger aircraft market. By the start of World War II, more than 424 Model 17s had been sold.

The Staggerwing's speed also made it the darling of the air racers of the 1930s. An early version of Model 17 won the 1933 Texaco Trophy Race. In 1935, a British diplomat, Capt. H.L Farquhar, successfully flew around the world in a Model B17R, travelling 21,332 miles (34,331 kilometres) from New York to London, by way of Siberia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and back across Europe. Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes, piloting a Beechcraft Model C17R, together won the prestigious Bendix Trophy Race in 1936, marking the first time that women had won that celebrated race. Famed aviatrix Jacqueline Cochran set several women's speed records, established an altitude record of over 30,000 feet (9.144 meters), and finished third in the 1937 Bendix Trophy Race, all while flying a Staggerwing. The aircraft made an impressive showing in the 1938 Bendix race as well.

As World War II loomed on the horizon, a number of Model B17Ls were pressed into service by the Republican forces as bombers during the Spanish Civil War. China ordered a number of Staggerwings to use as ambulance planes in its fight against Imperial Japan.

Beech, meanwhile, embarked upon a major redesign of the aircraft, to be known officially as the Model D17 Staggerwing. The D17 featured a lengthened fuselage that improved the aircraft's landing characteristics by increasing the leverage generated by the elevator. Ailerons were relocated on the upper wings, eliminating any interference with the air flow over the flaps. Braking was improved by the introduction of a foot-operated brake that was synchronized with the rudder pedals. All of these modifications enhanced the Staggerwing's performance, which would soon be put to the test under wartime conditions.

Powered by a 450-horsepower (336-kilowatt) Pratt and Whitney R-985 engine, more than 260 Model D17S Staggerwings were mass-produced during World War II, designated as the UC-43. The U.S. Navy and Army Air Corps used the versatile aircraft as a personnel transport; the British Royal Air Force also received 106 “Travellers” to fill its own critical need for light personnel transports. As the military versions differed only slightly from commercial models, the Army procured an additional 118 civilian Staggerwings from private owners to meet its requirements as well as those of the U.S. Navy.

After the war's end, Beech immediately converted its manufacturing capabilities back to the production of civil aircraft with one final modification of the Staggerwing, the Model G17S, building 16 of the powerful aircraft that sold at a price of $29,000 apiece. The lightweight V-Tail Beechcraft Bonanza, a high-powered four-passenger luxury aircraft, soon replaced the venerable Staggerwing in the Beech product line, at about one-third the price. The Staggerwing production line was shut down in 1948, and the final aircraft was sold the following year.

In all, 781 Beech Model 17 Staggerwings were manufactured in eight different series during 16 years of production. Hundreds of Staggerwings are still flying today, six decades after its introduction, still compared favourably to modern private aircraft. Technologically advanced for its time, the Staggerwing's timeless aesthetics place it in a class by itself.


Length: 26' 2"
10' 3"
 32' 0"
Empty Weight:
3085 lbs.
Gross Weight:
4700 lbs.


Horsepower:  450 hp
Power plant: 
Pratt & Whitney R-985-AN-1 Wasp Junior


Range:  500 miles
Speed (max):
 198 mph