In 1932 Walter Beech formed the Beech Aircraft Company. With fewer than twenty employees, Beech set out to design a luxury executive aircraft. The project was considered foolhardy by many, building a large, powerful, fast biplane built specifically for business travel at a time (during the Great Depression) when businesses were going out of business. It was the first designed-for-the-purpose corporate transport.
First flown on November 4, 1932, the airplane became popularly known as the “Staggerwing” due to its design in which the top wing was staggered behind the bottom wing, as opposed to the more normal stagger which was the opposite arrangement. The reason for the unusual design was that staggering the wings in this manner maximized the pilot’s visibility while minimizing the tendency to stall, since the angle of incidence was such that the upper wing stalled first. The Staggerwing’s use of then-uncommon retractable landing gear, combined with streamlining and weight reduction, gave the Model 17 a higher top speed and lower landing speed which allowed the airplane to operate from almost any airfield.
Each Staggerwing was custom built. A luxurious cabin trimmed in leather and mohair, carrying up to five passengers in comfort, quickly won over the customers. The Model 17’s impressive performance also made it a favorite among pilots – with radial engines of up to 710 horsepower; it was faster than many military aircraft of the era.
In 1937, Beech began a major redesign, which resulted in the Model D17, considered by many to be the “classic” Staggerwing. It featured a lengthened fuselage that improved the landing characteristics, a shorter landing gear that improved vision on the ground, while the ailerons were relocated on the upper wings, eliminating interference with the air flow over the flaps. A foot‑operated brake synchronized with the rudder pedals was introduced. With a 450 h.p. Pratt and Whitney R‑985 engine, the Model D17S had a remarkable top speed of 212 m.p.h. and a cruise speed of 202 m.p.h.
The aircraft on display was manufactured in July, 1943 and immediately procured by the U.S.Navy as a GB-2. She served throughout WWII operating from bases in New York, California and Ohio, returning ferry pilots to aircraft manufacturing plants after the pilots had delivered new aircraft to their assigned Naval station. Following the war, this aircraft was sold at a San Francisco, CA, aircraft disposal for only $3,500.
Jim Smith acquired this Staggerwing in 1989.