Living with the legendary 450hp radial-engined biplane cruiser, which delivers great performance but demands to be flown hands-on. Words: Paul McConnel | Photos Peter R March
I always knew I would learn to fly someday. My Dad was a B-17 Flying Fortress navigator during WWII, and what was a grim and serious experience for him seemed exciting and glamorous to the youthful me. After the war he left flying for a life in business and I stuck to model building until embarking on my own career.
When my wife and I moved from California to England in 1972 I was determined to get into gliding, having seen these graceful machines in action during a visit to Austria. I joined the London Gliding Club at Dunstable. Learning was a slow process but I loved flying even more than I had imagined. Once I soloed, I delighted in riding the hill lift over Whipsnade Zoo, the low moaning sound of the airflow punctuated occasionally by the whistle of a steam locomotive in the park below. It was wonderful but the requirement to accumulate 100 hours before carrying a passenger seemed daunting, and I wanted to try going from A to B.
On a visit to the Shuttleworth Collection I saw a poster advertising flying training on Tiger Moths at the Cambridge Flying Group. This was the summer of 1976. A trial flight in the Tiger was a revelation – you went off at a specified time, unlike gliding, and it was like riding in a sports car with the top down, except in the air above lovely countryside. I was hooked and signed up immediately.
The instructors at CFG were great and I was taught in the classic pre-war RAF manner. I eventually went solo and then gained my PPL on the Tiger Moth. (Both G-AOEI and G-AHIZ are still active at the CFG.) This really was my kind of flying.
When circumstances allowed, I bought my own aircraft?a 1938 VL Viima II, a rare Finnish tandem open cockpit biplane trainer powered by a 160hp Siemens radial. This was proper flying but I came to realise that the lack of brakes and a starter limited the practical use of such a machine. When I saw a 1935 Waco UKC-S which had been imported by Cliff Lovell, who had been servicing the Viima, the appeal was immediate.
With this enclosed four seat biplane, again with a radial engine?this time a 220hp Continental which allowed a cruising speed of 100mph?I discovered the joys of travel over the Channel and to nearby European countries. By 1989 I had done 225 hours on the Viima and over 400 on the Waco, and on a trip back to California a visit to the Watsonville Air Show brought me face-to-face with the next step.
My first sight of a Staggerwing impressed me considerably. It was a shiny yellow D17S, a handsome and powerful radial-engined biplane cruiser?surely the logical extension of the way my flying was going. Back home I did my research and resolved to go to the upcoming Staggerwing Convention held annually in Tullahoma, Tennessee. No fewer than thirty Staggerwings arrived, along with one or two Spartans and Howard DGAs, so I had lots to look at and learn.
The Beech Staggerwing has always enjoyed special status in the aircraft world. The design was certainly a head-turner but it was an odd mix of old and new, combining a biplane configuration with retractable undercarriage?then a rarity even in military aircraft. There were never that many Staggerwings made yet they have always had a certain something about them. The combination of charisma and raw power makes it an apt embodiment of the golden age of aviation.
The Staggerwing Club members I had contacted in advance of my trip turned out to be an excellent source of advice and I was steered to an aircraft which ‘might’ be available. The pilot of this aircraft, who had restored it only a few years previously, gave me a ride to a neighbouring airfield and allowed me to do a bit of the flying. My initial impression was of the nonexistent forward view on the ground but I loved the power and the look of this classic biplane.
To cut a long story short, when I returned to England I was able to sell the Viima to a purchaser in Belgium and made a successful offer on 1937 Staggerwing D17S NC18028.
I considered shipping my new aircraft over by sea but it emerged that, with the wings off and the gear down, the Staggerwing is four inches wider than a standard container. This would mean shipping it with the gear partially or fully retracted and I was concerned about the risk of damage.
The alternative of ferrying arose when I was introduced to a professional, John Powell. With the addition of a 55 US gallon steel drum on the back seat, the Staggerwing would have a range of some 1,500nm without exceeding its standard maximum weight. This was my first indication of the amazingly practical side to this elegant biplane.
The ferry trip was done over nine days in April 1990 ending at John’s base at Cardiff, where I made my first clumsy attempts to master what turned out to be a handful of a machine?very different from the superficially similar Waco I was used to. My learning process was interrupted when, on a positioning flight by John to Exeter to have an intercom installed, the undercarriage failed to extend fully and poor NC18028 made a very undignified (and headline-grabbing) arrival, which kept her grounded until November.
Repairs completed, and me finally checked out, I flew the Staggerwing to its new home at White Waltham in January 1991. I have been operating it happily ever since, moving to North Weald for a short period in 1994/5 and basing it at Popham since 1995.
Operating the Staggerwing
The Staggerwing is compact compared with some of its contemporaries. Parked next to a Stinson Reliant, for example, it seems quite small but the dedication of its design to speed is evident wherever you look. Walter Beech and his colleagues realised that appearance mattered almost as much as performance in marketing an expensive business transport and it was fortunate that in the Art Deco era one tended naturally to lead to the other.
The two large carburettor air inlets are tucked inside the cowling for minimum drag, as is the air duct for the oil cooler. The steel interplane struts are beautifully shaped and faired, and the streamlined bracing wires enter the wings through elegant little alloy covers so the bulky part of the hardware is concealed inside. The three exhaust stacks are teardrop-shaped and furnished with their own fairings. The retractable tailwheel introduced considerable complexity and expense to the design at a time when even retractable main wheels were a novelty and underscores the absolute priority of speed in the design of the Staggerwing.
Walking around the aircraft you can see that this is a solidly-built machine. The wing ribs are only six inches apart and the wooden tail is a rigid cantilever. From the undercarriage legs to the ball-bearing hinges for the control surfaces, everything is as substantial as you would expect for a machine capable of over 200mph. External checks complete, you enter through the single door on the left side which opens on to the back seat.
The pilot enters first and, with a few twists and turns, arrives in the left front seat. Next comes the right front passenger, whose seat then slides forward to give plenty of legroom for the back seat passengers. There is room for three but it is most comfortable with two. Up to 125 lb of baggage can be carried in a separate compartment behind the cabin, accessible through its own door. Each seat has a fresh air vent, the rear ones being the swivelling nozzle type found on airliners.
The small windows next to the two front seats can be wound down with little chrome handles – a very handy feature on warm days or just for waving to people.
Front seat occupants new to the Staggerwing will notice two steel tubular frame members running diagonally from the centre of the roof down to the sides of the instrument panel. At first intrusive, you learn to ignore them in your visual scan. The cabin of NC18028 is upholstered in leather to the original design with varnished wood trim around the windows. The instrument panel, however, has been altered considerably from its 1930s configuration to accommodate modern instruments and avionics?as still very capable travelling machines, here utility takes precedence over authenticity.
Two more chrome handles are mounted overhead: one is for the highly sensitive elevator trim (this control was relocated to a knurled wheel on the control column on later military versions) and the other is the rudder trim, a control so useless I rarely if ever need to touch it. The central chrome-plated control column mounts a bow tie-shaped yoke and features a throw-over facility to allow either pilot to fly.
There are rudder pedals on both sides but the only brakes are on the left, so this is the seat from which all takeoffs and landings must be flown. External checks include pulling the propeller through enough compressions to make sure there is no hydraulic locking?good exercise with a sixteen litre engine?now to start.
Master switch on, mixture to rich, select main fuel tank, operate the wobble pump to raise fuel pressure before priming – there is no electric pump on this aircraft. The amount of prime needed varies with the temperature. On a warm day, just a few strokes, when it’s cold more are required and it may take a few starts before the engine gets going properly.
There is a fine balance between providing sufficient fuel and opening the throttle just enough to keep the engine running. Opening the throttle too far sometimes elicits an encouraging initial response followed by an almighty backfire, which does not do the supercharger any good. It is better to bring the engine to life slowly, also allowing the oil pressure to come up well before there is any serious load on the engine.
During the warm-up you can work through the seventeen items on the pre-flight checklist. In 1937 most aircraft did not come with check-lists, including the Staggerwing. I made up my own, which includes old favourites like full and free control movement but also the position of the two oil temperature controls. Nothing on the Staggerwing is automatic and oil temperature is regulated by a variable position door on the duct which directs blast air to the oil radiator as well as a valve which blocks oil flow to the radiator altogether.
In UK conditions it is rarely necessary to use the bypass valve but the oil cooler door is very important. You want it closed, or nearly so as the engine warms up, but open at least somewhat before takeoff, or the 24 litres of oil get very hot very quickly. These adjustments get easier with practice but still bear watching.
Once settled in the cruise things should stabilise, but any change in altitude or power setting will probably necessitate a tweak to keep the temperature in the middle of the gauge’s green sector. A pre-landing check is to open the oil cooler door fully as the temperature always goes up as the aircraft slows in the circuit.
Each of the Staggerwing’s three wheels is softly sprung and the main wheels especially have a long suspension travel. Oil-filled shock dampers are installed but are completely ineffective?just one of Staggerwings’ idiosyncracies. Taxying over bumpy grass surfaces may initiate a nodding motion which can escalate to the point where you must brake sharply to stop the oscillation. On the plus side, the suspension can deliver a very smooth landing if conditions permit.
After lining up, roll forward a few feet to centre the tailwheel and press in the plunger which locks it into position. Open the throttle smoothly, checking the oil pressure is okay, and using right rudder to keep the aircraft running straight. The tail will lighten and come up as you gather speed. Time to liftoff varies with load and air temperature but with 450hp up front it doesn’t take long.
Coarsening the pitch control slightly after power checks spares any spectators the unpleasant rasping sound of the propeller tips going supersonic, plus more of your fuel will turn into thrust rather than noise.
Lift off at 60-65mph and hold the Staggerwing down for a few moments to allow speed to build up. Pulling up into the climb the gear can be selected up and power brought back to thirty inches/2,000rpm, and select one of the four wing tanks for the cruise. Takeoffs and landings must be done on the main tank as it has sufficient venting to cope with the 45gph fuel flow at full power but, although this is the largest of the five tanks, it is fiddly to fill and I treat it as a reserve.
The wing tanks each hold 87 litres, good for 1hr 10-15min of cruising flight. The fuel gauge on NC18028 has never worked but timing each tank is very reliable. However, sometimes a pilot can be distracted and, on a long trip involving one or more tank changes, can experience another Staggerwing idiosyncrasy?running a tank dry. This always gets the passengers’ attention but with a bit of quick action (nose up, throttle closed, fuel selector to a full tank, wobble pump, slow opening of throttle as power returns) all is well in a few moments. There must be few Staggerwing pilots who have never run one dry.
A retractable undercarriage made the Staggerwing unique among small civil aircraft in the early 1930s. It is an electrically driven system comprising shafts, sprockets, chains, cables and bungees?impressively complex. Even at takeoff power you hear a lot going on down below, and as the main gear doors close behind the retracted wheels there’s a definite lift as the drag of the gaping wheel wells is replaced by a smooth underwing surface.
Wheels up the Staggerwing will climb at well over 1,000fpm. With a light load on a cold day I have seen the needle at the instrument’s maximum 2,000fpm. The engine is supercharged so a strong climb can be maintained right up to 7-8,000ft if you are setting off on a long trip. I use a cruise power setting of 25 inches/1,900rpm, conservative by US standards but which gives an indicated 145-150mph for an average consumption of 68 lph/15 Imperial gph, i.e. ten mpg, the same as the much slower Waco I owned before.
Although the cabin is very comfortable, the combination of the bellowing radial and the sound of the airflow means that headsets are a good idea; if passengers take theirs off they won’t hear anything you say. When I am alone I usually fly with my side window rolled down. It’s almost as good as an open cockpit…
Forward view is pretty acceptable in flight. The horizon sits a couple of inches above the cowling and you can see down to the left very well. That big nose still blocks a lot of the forward view downward so if you are looking for a landmark it is best to aim off to the right to have a chance of spotting it.
The flight controls are all very light, although in a tight turn the force you need to exert on the elevator to keep the nose up can increase to the point where you may need two hands and a re-trim. In cruise mode, however, she’s very docile. A hangar mate who was a BA captain told me he thought the Staggerwing had the roll response of a Boeing 747. If you want to do loops and bore holes through the sky, this is the wrong aeroplane.
Another thing the Staggerwing does not do well is hands-off flying. It is not stable in yaw and requires constant attention to keep the slip ball in the middle. Pitch trim also requires frequent adjustment. There is no dihedral on the upper wing and only one degree on the lower one.
With the tanks arranged the way they are you almost always have an asymmetric fuel load and therefore a tendency to turn toward the heavier side. With no aileron trim you have to keep pressure on the control yoke to counter this.
This may be slight but over several hours this takes a distinct effort. If you let go to re-fold your map you will quickly find yourself in a turn so it is best to do all the map arranging before you depart. I have flown NC18028 on instruments but this aircraft is far from being an ideal instrument platform. When you are flying the Staggerwing you are really flying it?all the time.
Approaching your destination it is time to think about descent. On local flights this is not such a problem but if you are in France at 8,000ft and forty miles from the airfield you have to do some planning. As you lower the nose there is no immediate need to reduce power but you will have to compensate later as the air pressure increases. I find 500fpm a comfortable descent rate and the Staggerwing will do this at 165mph or so.
Thus you will cover 5.5 miles for every 1,000ft you descend. If you start at 8,000ft and wish to end up at 1,000ft over or near your destination, you should commence your descent about 39 miles out, fourteen minutes before you expect to arrive overhead. It is very satisfying to do this right but you do have to think ahead.
You will also have to think about slowing down as you conclude your descent. Big radials do not like abrupt power changes so everything has to be gradual. Below cruise power the carb heat should be on and the mixture set to rich. You may have to do some turns to scrub off speed as the Staggerwing is heavy and slippery.
The limiting speed for the undercarriage, flaps and retractable landing lights is 110mph so I use 100 to be conservative. Once you are this slow you can push the prop control to fine pitch in case you need to go around. Staggerwings will stall power-off at 60mph, either clean or with everything down. (Most Staggerwings, but not mine, have a safety feature which prevents the throttle being fully closed with the undercarriage retracted. In this case the indicated stall speed can be as low as 53mph.) I use a minimum speed of 80mph for the approach which maintains a safe margin with adequate control.
A word about stalls: this is a 1930s aircraft which was expected to be able to land on short, rough dirt strips, and ads of the day emphasise a low ‘landing speed’ nearly as much as the top speed. The Staggerwing has 296sq ft of wing area so is actually not that heavily loaded. You may read elsewhere that the idea of the back-staggered wing configuration was that the lower wing was set at a higher incidence and would thus stall first, naturally pitching the aircraft down to a recovery attitude.
It is a nice story but in fact both wings have the same incidence. The Staggerwing relies for its docile stall behaviour simply on the fact that it has a lot of wing. (By comparison, the contemporary Spartan Executive and Howard DGA, both using the same P&W R985 engine and with similar gross weights, have 250 and 210sq ft of wing area respectively.)
Anyway, you fly the approach at 80mph, reducing somewhat as you cross the threshold but carrying a bit of power all the way down. If you have enough runway the best way to arrive is a smooth tail-low wheel landing, closing the throttle fully only once you feel the main wheels touch the ground. Then keep it running straight with rudder until the tail comes down and you can use the brakes.
I retract the flaps at this stage because they hang quite close to the ground when extended. Remember to return the switch to neutral once they are up?again, nothing is automatic on a Staggerwing. The manual lists a crosswind limit of only ten miles per hour but in practice what you can get away with depends a lot on the specific conditions and the surface. I would much rather attempt a landing with a strong crosswind on grass than pavement, and wind from the right is preferable.
Now you taxi in, the engine popping away, followed by a short period of idling to let it cool a bit and the selection of coarse pitch. This gets the oil out of the prop hub so you can check the level accurately before your next flight. Finally, it’s time to hop out and wipe off the oil…
When I started to fly the Staggerwing I knew it was a classic but what has really impressed me over the years is what a practical travelling machine it is.
Yes, it was built for a different world and a different time and it has its foibles and shortcomings, for which the pilot has to compensate, sometimes not easily. However, it offers a standard of speed, comfort, load-carrying capability and range to rival any modern equivalent and is very flexible about where it can land.
It looks pretty good as well. Flying this magnificent artefact of history and sharing the experience with many others has been immensely satisfying.
For me, the Staggerwing is an aviation ultimate.
Beech D17s Staggerwing Nc18028 (1937)
Approx 2018 value £300,000
Wing span: 9.75m
Wing area: 27.5sq m
Weights and loadings
Empty weight: 1,270kg
Max takeoff weight: 1,930kg
Useful load: 658kg
Wing loading: 70.2kg/sq m
Power loading: 5.8kg/kW
Fuel capacity: 460 lit
Climb rate: 1,200fpm
Service ceiling: 25,000ft
Take off to 50ft: 325m
Land over 50 ft: 370m
Engine and propeller
Pratt & Whitney R985 Wasp Junior supercharged radial developing 450hp (336kW) at 36.5in/2,300rpm driving an 8ft 6in diameter Hamilton Standard constant-speed propeller
Beech Aircraft Company, Wichita, Kansas, USA
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Peter R March