Thursday, May 1, 2008
Resurrecting A Dream
A restored Staggerwing fulfills a father’s wish
|Bill Morrison, a pilot with now-defunct Western Airlines, was perusing the classified ads in the Los Angeles Times, back in 1974, when he erupted in a shout. “Oh my God, there’s a Staggerwing for sale!” his sons heard him exclaim.|
Mark, then 17, and Ron, then 14, both wondered the same thing: “What the heck is a Staggerwing?”
| The relatively modern, refurbished panel still shows signs of period design in the yoke and fuel selector.|
The Model 17, as it was originally known, was designed by T.A. “Ted” Wells when he worked for Walter Beech at Travel Air Manufacturing Company. Beech believed customers wanted a fast, long-range aerial limousine. Extensive wind-tunnel tests told him the Model 17 could meet the design criteria. Curtiss-Wright bought Travel Air, and Beech tried to convince the new owners to build the Model 17. With the nation gripped by the Great Depression, Curtiss-Wright execs didn’t share Beech’s rosy view of the market. So Beech quit and founded the Beechcraft Aircraft Company in April of 1932. That November, the Model 17 had its maiden flight. Initially priced at $14,000 to $17,000, Beechcraft would build 785 of them in several models and with a variety of powerplant options over the next decade and a half.
The Staggerwing had been out of production for more than 25 years when Bill saw that classified ad. They were actually rarer at that time than today; a number of the Staggerwings now flying were in pieces back then, victims of accidents or terminal neglect. That was the condition of the Staggerwing that Bill saw for sale by an aircraft restorer in Lawndale, Calif., just down the road from the Morrison home in Hawthorne.
“[The restorer] finally decided it was too much work to rebuild it,” Mark said. “We rented a flatbed truck and started collecting old milk crates full of parts from Lawndale.” Bill rented a hangar at Torrance Airport (KTOA), and he and the boys spent the next six years rebuilding the airplane. They got help from Mike Garnreiter, who joined the family when he married girlfriend Debbie Morrison during the project. It was a magical time for the family.
“We’d work all day, then go out and sit at the end of the hangar and watch airplanes,” Mark remembers.
According to aviation lore, the Beechcraft Model 17 got its more popular name during an air race in 1933 when an announcer said, “Look at that negative staggerwing Beechcraft go.” Go indeed: With a top speed of almost 200 mph, it outperformed not only any light aircraft of the era, but also many American fighter aircraft, making it popular on the air-racing circuit. The negative or inverse stagger offered several advantages. Having the upper wing set back improved pilot visibility. Also, the lower wing stalled first, giving the aircraft gentle stall characteristics. A negative stagger also improved maneuverability and longitudinal stability. And in the Staggerwing’s case, it allowed for optimal placement of the landing gear relative to the aircraft’s center of gravity.
The Morrisons finished rebuilding their Staggerwing, NC18781, in 1980. It was powered by a 915-cubic-inch, 330 hp Jacobs L6MB radial engine. Bill and the boys flew it all over California, to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh one year and to Wichita for a Beechcraft homecoming another. Bill’s dream was finally realized. And the Staggerwing lived up to its reputation for comfort and speed.
To fly a Staggerwing is to step into the Golden Age of Aviation. Entry is from the port side, aft of the wings, and with the plane’s nose-high ground stance, requires pulling oneself up into the cabin using a leather hand strap. Each Staggerwing was custom built and interiors rivaled those of luxury automobiles: supple leather, accents of fine wood and side windows that rolled up and down with hand cranks.
With a radial-powered taildragger, you’ll spend more time warming up the engine and more taxi time S-turning your way to the runway. But in the air, the reasons for Walter Beech’s confidence in the aircraft and its success quickly become obvious. The control feel is solid, the aircraft is nimble in response to inputs and it’s a very comfortable ride. Once airborne, you want to keep going. And the Morrisons’ Staggerwing has the added benefit of an updated panel with digital avionics and a Century 2000 autopilot.
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