The Model 17, the first aircraft produced by the Beech Aircraft Company of Wichita, Kansas, was a gamble for Walter Beech, president of the company, and Ted Wells, vice-president and chief designer of the aircraft. Produced during the depths of the Great Depression, this expensive aircraft was designed as a high-speed, comfortable business airplane. The gamble was successful, and 781 Beech 17s were produced in eight different series.
The first series of Beech Staggerwings, of which only two were built, was known as the Model 17R. The aircraft had a fixed landing gear that was well faired with wheel pants and powered by a 420-hp Wright R-760 engine. It had a steel-tube fuselage and wing spar structure. The upper wing was inversely staggered behind the lower wing, and this design gave the Model 17 its unique shape and name. The fuselage was faired with wood formers and stringers and was covered with fabric. Top speed of the aircraft was more than 200 mph and yet the landing speed was only 60-65 mph. Such performance was remarkable for the time. But despite its promise, the aircraft was difficult to sell, largely because of its high cost. Clearly, some compromises in performance had to be made if it was to be more competitive.
By 1934, Beech introduced the Model B17L, a new series retaining the general design of the earlier airplanes. The major modifications were the installation of a retractable landing gear, wings of a different airfoil, the use of wood wing spars instead of steel ones, and a 225-hp Jacobs L-4 power plant. The use of retractable gear, which was not common at the time, as well as parallel improvements in streamlining and weight reduction, gave the aircraft a maximum speed of 175 mph and a landing speed of 45 mph. The Beech Company advertised the performance and economy of the new series and emphasized the pilot's visibility from the aircraft and the airplane's gentle stall characteristics, both the result of the staggered wing arrangement. The redesigned aircraft had hit the target, and sales improved significantly.
The company also built two Model Al7s with a fixed landing gear and Wright R-1820 Cyclone engines. The engine on the second of these two powerful aircraft developed 710 hp. The aircraft had a maximum speed of 250 mph, making it the fastest commercial aircraft of its time and the fastest Model 17 ever built. Although the performance of the early Model 17s was impressive, the aircraft did not have desirable landing characteristics. The tall landing gear increased the chances of ground loops and the nose-heavy condition made three-point landings difficult. The Model C17 introduced in 1936 corrected these problems. It had a shorter landing gear, and the angle of incidence of the horizontal stabilizer was changed to keep the tail down while landing.
With the Staggerwing, the Beech Corporation not only had a successful corporate aircraft, but a winner in racing circles too. NC15835, a Model C17R, piloted by Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes, won the 1936 Bendix Trophy Race, marking the first time that a woman had won that prestigous race. Other stock Beechcraft Staggerwings won two major air races in Miami in 1936. In 1937, Jacqueline Cochran set a 1,000-kilometer speed record averaging more than 320 kph (200 mph). Staggerwings also did well in the 1937 and 1938 Bendix Races.
The Model Dl7 Staggerwing was the first major design change since the Model B17. The fuselage was lengthened. This change improved the landing characteristics by giving more leverage to the elevator. The ailerons were moved to the upper wings to prevent interference with the air flow over the flaps. The hand-operated brake, which was coordinated with the rudder pedals, was replaced with foot-operated brakes, which simplified braking considerably. These and other airframe modifications improved the design of the Staggerwing. The Model D17S Staggerwing, equipped with a 450-hp Pratt and Whitney R-985 engine, was produced in larger numbers than any other model During World War II, the U.S. Army Air Forces and the U.S. Navy purchased all the Model D17S aircraft for transporting personnel.
The Beechcraft Staggerwing in the National Air and Space Museum, serial number 93, was manufactured on July 3, 1936, and registered as NC15840. It was a Model C17B powered with a 285-hp Jacobs L-5M engine. The original owner of the aircraft was E.E. Aldrin (father of astronaut Edwin 'Buzz" Aldrin), who was with the Standard Oil Development Company in New York City. The list price of the aircraft was $10,260. The aircraft was equipped with numerous extras, including expensive instrumentation, electrical bonding, rear seat parachutes, a magneto-equipped engine, and a custom paint scheme, using the colors and logo of Standard Oil. The company installed a radio transmitter and receiver for communication and a radio compass for navigation, equipment essential for a corporate aircraft.
NC15840 was damaged and repaired many times throughout its flying career. Several repairs to the wings of the aircraft reflect the problem of ground looping. Eventually the hand-operated brake was removed and replaced with toe-operated brakes. Shortly after World War II, the aircraft was changed to a Model C17L, with the installation of a 225-hp Jacobs L4-MB engine. The new engine allowed the use of a controllable pitch propeller, the efficiency of which offset the lower horsepower of the new engine. From 1936 to 1980, NC 15840 had nineteen different owners. It was operated by several oil companies as well as by charter and sightseeing businesses. During World War II, it flew coastal patrol duties with the Civil Air Patrol. Between 1961 and 1980 the aircraft was inactive. In 1981, it was donated to the National Air and Space Museum by Desert Air Parts of Tucson, Arizona. The fact that NC 15840 survived so long is a testimony to the masterful design of Walter Beech, Ted Wells, and their associates. The aircraft was technologically advanced for its time, and it will always remain a classic beauty.