A staggering accomplishment

Restorers bring a Beech Staggerwing back to life

December 1, 2008

Walter Beech must have been well pleased as he sat in his office on August 23, 1938, catching up on paperwork. The tremendous risk he’d taken back in 1932—starting his own aircraft company in the deepening worldwide economic depression—was paying off. Here he was, signing the invoice for order number 100, one of three Staggerwing E17Bs ordered by Indian National Airways, Ltd. The Beech Aircraft Corporation had come a long way in just six years—from a bare shop floor to equipping airlines on the far side of the world.

He could be proud of the workers in his shop, too. The order had been accepted on July 19, and he’d promised delivery by September 12. Two months certainly wasn’t long to build an airplane as complex and labor intensive as a Staggerwing, especially when the engineering department had to come up with details for a special baggage compartment and provide the instrument shop with specs for the odd British instruments that the Indians had specified—what the heck was a Reid & Sigrist turn coordinator, anyway? The paint shop had risen to the challenge, too. The Indian National Airlines logo had been accurately painted on the forward fuselage, and registration letters VT-AKK, outlined in the specified Consolidated Blue, stood out nicely on the silver wings and aft fuselage. The requested blueprints, detailing the airframe and the installation of the 285-horsepower Jacobs L-5 engine and Curtis Reed propeller, were complete. The lengthy list of spare parts had been assembled and was ready to ship. The airplane was crated and sent to New York, where it was scheduled to ship aboard the SS City of Perth, destination Bombay.

When Beech capped his pen, a total of $10,131.75 was due—all in all, it was good business, well done.

Encased in a huge wooden box, VT-AKK survived the voyage and, upon arrival in Bombay, was shipped on to New Delhi, making at least part of the journey via ox cart. It was reassembled, and after a flurry of telegrams and cables Walter Beech shook loose the certification documents from a tardy American Civil Aeronautics Authority and had them forwarded to India. (“We wish to assure you that in the future we will maintain a constant check on the CAA to be sure they do not again…forget about sending out the certificates,” Beech wrote INA directors.) The aircraft began its career in the heat and humidity of the Indian subcontinent.

Exactly what it did there, where it flew, and whom it carried, is unknown. Indian National Airways operated throughout the war years, serving smaller communities on the subcontinent and connecting them with the giant Imperial Airways that webbed throughout the British Empire in Africa, the Middle East, and Far East. VT-AKK no doubt carried mail and passengers wealthy or important enough to fly, but no logs or corporate records can be found. Sometime after the end of World War II, the once-pristine Staggerwing ended up at the INA mechanics’ school as an educational airframe. After an unknown period, it was simply pushed outside to rot—another used-up and useless airplane.

Form follows function

Somehow, it didn’t die. The Staggerwing is one of those particularly happy combinations in which a lovely shape performs a useful function well. Even during its early days, it was recognized as a classic. As years went by and Staggerwing numbers dwindled (Beech built fewer than 800), the value and cachet of the airplane rose accordingly. That mystique no doubt contributed to the survival of VT-AKK. Two brothers from Washington state paid $1,200 for the complete hulk and arranged its return to the United States in the late 1970s. In 1983, the project was acquired by Chuck Hamilton of Portland, Oregon. He registered the airplane for the first time in the United States, choosing the N-number N233EB (Beech serial number of 233, E model, and B—the Beech designator for the Jacobs engine).

For almost 20 years Hamilton plodded away on repairs, but it must have seemed like climbing one of the Himalayas the Beech had flown around. Restoring any old airplane is enough work to outlast a person working alone, but a Staggerwing is exceptionally tough. The real wonder is that Beech managed to build them even with the full resources of a factory. Structurally, there’s a steel tube-and-wood fuselage with four wood wings, all of it covered with complex sheet metal, formed plywood, and seemingly acres of cotton fabric. Throw in a retractable landing gear that would have delighted Rube Goldberg and a round engine that’s been out of production for decades, and the variety of skills needed to build, or restore, a Staggerwing is, well, staggering.

Enter Jim Parish of Vancouver, Washington. A successful businessman and investor, Parish had both the financial means and the commitment to see the project through. He bought the project, formed a limited liability corporation called Phoenix Restorations to handle the job, and hired John Pike to rebuild the airplane to flying status.

He could scarcely have made a more appropriate choice. Hidden in the woods above the small Oregon town of Carver, Pike’s Big Sky Stearman has restored everything from basket-case Cubs to the one and only Fairchild 46. Bread-and-butter work has been Stearman biplanes, and more than 20 of them have passed through the shop since Pike and his father founded the business in 1978.

In 2005 the Staggerwing project was trucked up the steep dirt road to Pike’s shop where he and Parish surveyed the mess. “It wasn’t so much an airplane as a debris field,” Pike recalls. Together, they agreed on a restoration philosophy. They would return the airplane to flying condition, keeping it as original as possible but making any changes necessary to operate safely under twenty-first-century conditions.

“Part of the joy of an airplane like this,” says Parish, “is letting people at airshows and pancake breakfasts get a close look at a piece of history. We want them to feel the aura of a 1938 airplane. If a real Staggerwing expert notices that we’ve installed modern brakes or a GPS—well, they’ll know why we did what we did and won’t spear us for less than perfect authenticity.” Toward that end, they decided on modern avionics (although the new radios are hidden behind original faceplates), modern Cleveland wheels and brakes, upgraded wiring (especially in the gear retraction system), and modern covering material. Eventually, 12 major Form 337s and STCs were documented and signed off by the FAA.

Pike asked employee Jeremy Harris to act as lead technician on the project, and for the next two full years Staggerwing parts—buckets, bushel baskets, and crates of Staggerwing parts—ruled Harris’ every waking moment and some of his dreams as well. Once he had the pieces sorted into manageable piles, Harris took a deep breath and dove into the wings. Surprisingly, most of the original metal fittings were useable. “We were able to track the serial numbers on the metal parts through Beech records on file at the Staggerwing museum in Tullahoma, Tennessee,” he explains. “We found that some of the serial numbers matched other airplanes that had been shipped to India. They had probably been cannibalized to keep VT-AKK flying.”

The wooden parts were another story. Sitting outside for 30 monsoon seasons is not good for a wood airplane. Some of the original parts were good enough to serve as patterns for new ones, but deterioration was so extensive that even this left question marks. No factory drawings specific to E-model wings, which are quite different than the more common D model, could be located. After a long search, another set of E wings was found and used as an example. Fortunately, woodwork is the specialty of Big Sky—and they’re pretty good at puzzles, too. When the wings were finally ready to cover, virtually every wood piece was new.

As work progressed on the wings and fuselage woodwork, Pike turned his attention to the original 285-horsepower Jacobs L-5 engine. It was a mess, and Pike’s research indicated that even if it could be restored, it probably shouldn’t be. “The L-5 was a limited-production engine with a poor dependability record. We elected to install a later model Jacobs R755B2 of 275 horsepower. Radial Engines Inc. of Guthrie, Oklahoma, provided us a beautiful engine—better than new. Of course, the Staggerwing is a certified airplane and we couldn’t just stick another engine in like you could if it were an Experimental. We jumped through all the hoops and got an official STC to allow the installation.”

The new engine could run a constant-speed prop, so now a newly overhauled Hamilton Standard thrusts its counterweights forward from the crankshaft, replacing the original fixed-pitch Curtiss-Reed metal prop.

To Pike’s pleasant surprise, the steel-tube fuselage was in relatively good shape. He was especially pleased to find that the original hand-painted Indian Airways logo beneath the cabin window was still legible and could easily be re-created. A careful inspection, media-blast, and repaint had the tubular structure ready to go. The sheet metal pieces that cover the front third of the fuselage were all still there, but they’d taken a beating. Repairing the existing pieces proved easier than fabricating new ones—barely. “Other than the wings, sheet metal consumed the most time and required the most skill in the entire project,” Pike said. “Jeremy used all his skill to recondition and re-use about 90 percent of the original sheet metal parts.”

The project eventually took more than 6,000 man hours spread over more than two and one-half years. Finally, the wings and fuselage were loaded on large trailers and gingerly driven down the rutted dirt road from Pike’s meadow-side facility to the Country Squire Airport near Sandy, Oregon. It went together quickly, and one sunny day there was nothing left to do but roll the airplane out of the hangar and start the engine. After the usual clouds of white smoke that let the world know a radial is about to go to work, the Jacobs settled into a smooth idle.

Pike estimates he has about 8,000 hours in old airplanes with round engines, so he was the obvious choice to take the Staggerwing for its first flight in at least 60 years. On September 16, 2007, he lifted off on the first test flight. Right away, the Beech reminded him that it was from a different era.

“Although the airplane was rigged correctly and flew quite well, we’ve been kept busy debugging it,” Pike says. “Even when it was new, the Staggerwing was a high-maintenance airplane. We’ve had a steep climb up the learning curve with everything from oil temperatures to the flap motor. One exciting moment came when we learned about mystery bungee. There’s a small cable that runs from the gear-retraction system under the cabin to the tailwheel and retracts it. When the tailwheel is up, the cable just lies slack in the belly. One day it managed to loop itself around a fuel tank vent and tear it off when the gear went down. Eventually, an old Beech hand told us about the bungee cord the factory used to keep tension on the cable and prevent it from causing problems—we call it the mystery bungee because it’s never mentioned in any drawing or maintenance document we’ve found.”

As the problems were overcome, Pike, an experienced instructor, has been working to teach Parish the skills necessary to keep his new mount intact. Parish, whose day-to-day airplane is a Cirrus, has learned that airplanes have changed since 1938. “The ailerons (on the top wing only) are heavy and slow, but the elevator is light. Seating is cramped and the ergonomics of the panel are—well, there aren’t any. Visibility over the nose is almost nonexistent on the ground. All of that is just the opposite of the Cirrus. My big challenge has been landings and ground handling. It’s a taildragger, and not an easy one. On landing, it’s best to set it on the wheels and keep the tail up as long as possible. Once it comes down, those beautiful wings blank out the rudder, and keeping it straight with stirrup heel brakes takes concentration.”

And as the summer flying season approached, both men were pleased. “Not many people would have put out the amount of money and dedication Jim Parish has,” says Pike. “Old airplanes like VT-AKK are getting more difficult and expensive to restore, and I’m afraid that a lot of them will never be. This airplane embodies so much history, particularly for the people of India, it would have been a terrible shame to lose it.”

For his part, Parish is just as complimentary: “It’s been a privilege to provide the means for craftsmen like John and Jeremy to use their skills and knowledge. When I see the airplane sitting out in front of the hangar, with Mt. Hood in the background and the sunset shining on that silver fabric, I hope people can appreciate what they’ve accomplished.”

Somewhere, Walter Beech must be one of those people.

Editor’s note: In August, Jim Parish and John Pike landed the Staggerwing on a local strip but, after applying the left brake, something went wrong on rollout and the airplane flipped on its back. The aircraft sustained extensive damage, particularly to the top wing. Insurance agents are still assessing the damage. No one was hurt in the incident.

Ken Scott is a freelance writer who has worked for Van’s Aircraft for the past 20 years. He owns an RV-6.