A Beechcraft Staggerwing flying over Monument Valley in the USA

01

March

2022

Famous Flyer I: Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing

A Beechcraft Staggerwing seen from below

There’s flying, and then there’s flying with style.

The Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing, the first release in our Famous Flyers series of aircraft, earned a reputation for being one of the most luxurious and comfortable planes of its era. This beautiful art deco-inspired biplane sports an upper wing offset further to the rear than the lower wing, an unusual design feature that gives the Staggerwing both its name and much better forward visibility compared to most other biplanes.

While it is certainly a great looker, the Staggerwing is no slouch in the performance category either. Boasting a cruise speed of 202 mph (341 km/h, 184 kts), the Model 17 was faster than almost every other comparable civilian plane from the 1930s.

Background and Design

Decades before private jets like the Cessna Citation took to the skies, Beechcraft’s founder Walter H. Beech set an ambitious goal for his chief aeronautical engineer Ted Wells: design a large, fast, and comfortable plane for wealthy executives to zip around the country on business trips. The resulting aircraft was the Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing.

The Staggerwing had its first flight in 1932. Sales were initially slow, in large part due to the comparatively higher price tag relative to other competing aircraft at a time when most Americans were pinching pennies during the Great Depression. Additionally, each Model 17 was made to order and assembled by hand in a bespoke manner, driving up the construction costs. After its first year on the market, only 18 Staggerwings had been sold, and the plane was on track to become little more than a minor footnote and curiosity in the annals of aviation history. Thankfully for all who would go on to adore this beautiful bird, sales would pick up significantly in the following years.

An infographic showing the flight performance of the Beechcraft Staggerwing

Operational History

Although the Staggerwing never quite caught on with its intended clientele of business executives, it soon found another niche and became popular among race pilots during the golden age of air racing. An all-women team consisting of pilots Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes in a Beechcraft Staggerwing beat the rest of the field to capture the 1936 Bendix Trophy, at the time one of most prestigious air races in the world. Though that was the plane’s only Bendix win, it also had strong finishes in the 1937 and 1938 races. Jackie Cochrane, a titanic figure among female pilots, used a Staggerwing to set women’s speed and altitude world records in 1938. Decades later, the Beechcraft Staggerwing made a return to competition at the Reno Air Races, with four of them contending against each other in a special one-off event at the National Championship Air Races in 1970.

A close-up of the Staggerwing's engine

Though it was developed first and foremost as a civilian plane for the general aviation market, the Beechcraft Staggerwing also saw service as a military aircraft. During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, several Staggerwings were modified for use as light bombers by the antifascist Republican forces. In the Second Sino-Japanese War, China used the Beech Model 17 as an air ambulance to evacuate wounded troops away from the front lines. The United States Army Air Force and Royal Air Force also employed Staggerwings (designated the “UC-43” by the USAAF and “Traveller Mk. I” by the RAF) for use as light transport and utility planes during World War II.

A red Staggerwing

In total, 785 Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwings were built between 1933 and 1949. Though it didn’t achieve the same level of commercial success as its more well-known Beechcraft stablemate, the ever-popular Bonanza, over the years the Staggerwing developed a cult following among aficionados of vintage aircraft.

Reginald J. Mitchell, the legendary designer of the Supermarine Spitfire, famously remarked that if a plane looks beautiful, then it will fly beautiful too. The Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing puts Mitchell’s design philosophy into practice. Not only is it a great plane to look at, but it’s also a great plane to fly. In 2006, Plane & Pilot magazine placed the Staggerwing in the #5 spot on the list of their top 10 favorite planes of all time, writing, “Nothing before or since has offered quite the cabin comfort, remarkable speed, and pure flying pleasure, all in a single package. Period.”

An interior photo of the Staggerwing's cockpit

We have partnered with Carenado to develop this wonderful plane and bring it to Microsoft Flight Simulator. The Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing is available now for both PC and Xbox from the Marketplace for USD $14.99.

A close-up of the Staggerwing's retractable landing gear