Airplanology: Beech17 Staggerwing

Today’s airplane:

Beech Staggerwing in flight. Photo courtesy of Ryan Apem.

Today’s photo comes courtesy of Ryan Apem. Why not go look at his other awesome airplane photographs?

The Beech Staggerwing!

Instantly recognizable, strikingly beautiful, and still one-of-a-kind eighty years after its first production, the Staggerwing is a rare and eye-catching bird. With it’s negative-stagger wings, round engine, retractable wheels and enclosed cabin, the Staggerwing was steampunk before steampunk was even a word.


Developed in the throes of the Great Depression by Walter Beech and Ted Wells, the Staggerwing was the first commercial success for Beech since the Travel Air. Production began in 1932, and the BE-17 was a hit with the few fat cats who had yet to become thin. The business jet of it’s day, the Staggerwing was small by modern standards, just under 27 feet long with a 32-foot wingspan. Early models had fixed landing gear with big beefy struts sticking out from the bottom, but before long Beech developed an electrically powered set of retractable wheels, making the BE-17 the only biplane that I know of that has retractable gear.

Production of the BE-17 was a laborious process, requiring a lot of manpower and making the -17 more expensive than other aircraft at the time. Early models had the flaps and the ailerons both on the lower wing, which apparently led to some issues during approach and landing. Beech fixed this with the BE-17D model by moving the ailerons onto the top wing, re-tooling to reduce man-hours during production, and adding some other nice features such as more cabin space. The cabin became plusher as production went on, peaking in luxury towards the end production in 1948.

During World War II, the Be-17 saw service in the military in a variety of roles. The Army designated her as a C-43 and used her as a courier aircraft; the Navy called it a GB-1 and used it in a similar role. Some countries ordered the Staggerwing and converted them for use as aerial ambulances or light cargo haulers.

The BE-17 was produced with a variety of engines, but the most awesome was surely the Pratt & Whitney R-985. The R-985 puts out a whopping 450 horsepower and can drive the Beech at speeds up to almost 210 mph(323 knots.) Wow.


Beech produced just under 800 Staggerwings. The Staggerwing’s production was followed by production of the famous and infamous Beech Bonanza, which was a stellar success for general aviation.

About 200 BE-17’s are still in the air. That number might shrink as the cost of fuel and oil to power those radial engines goes up, though I hope it doesn’t.


The BE-17 has won a number of accolades. In 1933, a BE-17 took first in the Texaco Trophy Air Race. In 1935 the British diplomat H.L. Faruqhar flew a Staggerwing around the world, a feat that has since been replicated by Bill Charney, A.K.A. Captain Biff Windsock. In 1936 Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes won the Bendix Trophy Race in a BE-17C. In 1937, pioneering aviatrix Jacqueline Cochran set altitude and speed records and took third in the Bendix trophy air race.

What’s with that stagger?

So why did the BE-17 have that unique staggered wing? There must be a reason other than that it looks bad-ass. Common themes seem to be that is maximized forward visibility while minimizing tendency to stall, and that it helped keep the center of gravity within acceptable limits.  As a nice side effect, it made the plane look fast. Also, badass.

Multimedia Stuff

First, go check out Staggerwing Restoration, a photo blog detailing the hard work and dedication that goes into restoring an airplane of this caliber.

Second, be sure to pop by and thank Ryan Apem for his great photos of classic airplanes.

Finally, some neat videos under the cut.



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