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 Beechcraft Model 17, popularly known as the “Staggerwing” was first flown on November 4, 1932, setting the standard for private passenger airplanes for many years to come. It was considered, during its time, to be the premier executive aircraft flying, much as the Gulfstream executive jets are considered in contemporary times.
The Model 17’s unusual negative stagger wing configuration (the upper wing staggered behind the lower) and unique shape maximized pilot visibility while minimizing the tendency to stall. The fabric-covered fuselage was faired with wood formers and stringers over a welded, steel tube frame. Construction was complex and took many man-hours to complete. The Staggerwing’s retractable conventional landing gear, uncommon at that time, combined with streamlining, light weight, and powerful radial engines helped it perform significantly better than other biplane designs.
In the mid-1930s, Beech began a major redesign of the aircraft, to create 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. They relocated the Ailerons to the upper wings, eliminating any interference with the air flow over the flaps. Braking was improved with a foot-operated brake synchronized to the rudder pedals. These modifications enhanced the Staggerwing’s performance, which was soon put to the test under wartime conditions.
The Staggerwing’s speed made it popular with 1930s air racers. An early version of the 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, traveling 21,332 miles (34,331 kilometers) from New York to London, by way of Siberia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and back across Europe.