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Cadillac in cruise

Quality, craftsmanship, and dedication

I’d been tracking the Staggerwing on FlightAware, yet when the cream-colored Beech Model D17S appeared overhead at Winter Haven Regional Airport, its shift from a green blip on an iPhone screen to magnificent, full-throated presence felt surprising.

Photography by Chris Rose and David Tulis
Photography by Chris Rose and David Tulis

Mike Toman, a professional pilot and Staggerwing expert from Ohio, had ferried this restored 1944 aircraft to Florida where he was set to deliver it to its new owner, AOPA President Mark Baker, during the Sun ’n Fun Aerospace Expo. For Baker, a vintage aircraft fanatic, owning and flying a Staggerwing was almost inevitable. His purchase of this one ended a years-long, slow-motion battle between his innate Midwestern pragmatism and boundless enthusiasm for landmark airplanes. Pragmatism was destined to lose that siege, but it held out a long time.

Being of two minds about Staggerwing ownership is understandable. These airplanes are expensive, impractical, mechanically complex, and require dedication to fly and maintain. Yet they’re also alluring, iconic, the epitome of Golden Age grace and power, and generations of Beech pilots rave about their sublime flying qualities. Of 785 Staggerwings produced at the Beech factory in Wichita from 1933 to 1949, about 200 still exist, and roughly half of those are airworthy.

“The Staggerwing is the airplane I always wanted more than any other,” says Baker, a former executive in the retail industry who has owned a wide variety of vintage, utility, warbird, and traveling airplanes during more than 40 years of flying. “I tried to avoid actually buying one, but when the opportunity presented itself recently, I knew I’d deeply regret passing it up. It was finally time to take the plunge.”

This is a precarious economic moment for Staggerwings. They were premium-priced, luxury aircraft—the Gulfstreams of their day—when introduced at the depths of the Great Depression. They won popularity through performance, prestige, and air racing crowns. Then the military took them for VIP transport during World War II, and they stayed in production with more highly refined “G” models until 1949.

In the Baker family, nostalgia for vintage vehicles runs deep. Mark and his dad, Ralph, with the 1940 Ford Coupe he restored.

Many were artfully restored during the 1990s and early 2000s for pilots who felt nostalgic ties to their airplanes’ storied past. But vintage aircraft, and particularly mechanically complex ones like Staggerwings, have largely been left out of the recent surge in aircraft values. A pristine Staggerwing that would have sold for $500,000 a decade ago is likely about 25 percent less today.

Other factors include the fact that fewer pilots today have enough tailwheel experience to meet rising insurance requirements; parts can be unobtainable, and mechanics who know how to maintain them are an endangered species (see “Staggerwing Restorer,” below).

Personally, I’d long admired Staggerwings. What pilot hasn’t? But I never thought too much about them because they were simply out of reach. At sun-splashed Winter Haven, however, with the unmistakable outline of the retractable-gear biplane overhead, and the stirring, baritone rumble of its Pratt & Whitney R-985 radial engine reverberating across the ramp, it was finally time to stop suppressing hope. The Staggerwing’s main wheels touched down on Runway 5 and I marveled at the gleaming airplane’s art-deco proportions: A bulldog face, jaunty stance, corset-thin waist, and a round tail.

Baker was tending to responsibilities at the airshow, and I sent him a video text of his Staggerwing’s arrival. He answered back right away: “Get checked out ASAP.”

Non-checkout

Toman is a veteran corporate pilot with vast experience in airplanes ranging from Pitts Specials to LearJets. He had just finished a three-hour cross-country in the Staggerwing, but he said he was ready to fly some more after a snack and a drink. Energetic, compact, and wearing the universal off-duty pilot uniform of jeans and a polo shirt, Toman sipped from a water bottle as I pressed him for Staggerwing tips.

“The first thing you should know about this checkout is that it’s not a checkout,” he said. “I’ve got no controls on the right side, so you’re pilot in command. Whatever happens is on you. I’ll coach you, encourage you, and give you all the advice you want. But this is not a checkout. You’re PIC.”

A Staggerwing preflight involves crawling under the airplane to inspect the landing gear mechanisms in the wheel wells, pulling the propeller through by hand to clear the lower cylinders of residual oil, and making sure the oil cooler door is fully open. Climbing aboard takes place through the lone door aft of the left wing. Grab the leather strap on the door frame, pull yourself into the plush leather and wood-trimmed cabin, step forward, and slide into the left seat. It’s a steep incline of about 15 degrees.

Cockpit width is barely adequate in the two front seats, yet it’s spacious in the rear where up to three passengers can spread out on what feels like an overstuffed sofa. 

"Fuel management is a full-time job in a Staggerwing, and it's the thing that's most likely to get you in trouble."

This airplane has a traditional six-pack instrument panel, a couple of Garmin nav/coms, and analog engine gauges. Two crossbars directly in front of the pilot and co-pilot seats are handy for pulling on while sliding the seats forward. They’re also an obvious danger in case of a sudden stop, and a reminder that aviation safety regulations barely existed in the 1930s when the Staggerwing was approved.

Once inside, Toman directed my attention to the fuel system. It’s a bewildering arrangement that includes two fuel selectors and five fuel tanks.

“Fuel management is a full-time job in a Staggerwing, and it’s the thing that’s most likely to get you in trouble,” he said. “Learn the fuel system. Understand it. Don’t let it bite you.”

Takeoffs and landings are done on the 29-gallon main tank that resides in the fuselage. Don’t fill the two upper wing tanks unless you intend to use them because they raise the airplane’s center of gravity. If you do fill them, use them first. Then switch to the lower wing tanks—and when you’re ready to land, go back to the main tank.

“Keep plenty of fuel in the main tank,” Toman said, “because you’ll need it for approach and landing.”

Starting the carbureted, 450-horsepower Pratt & Whitney radial engine is simple and satisfying. Pressurize the fuel system with the mechanical wobble pump on the right side of the cockpit, prime it, press the starter button, and turn on the magneto switch. A few puffs of white smoke and the two-blade, Hartzell propeller spins about 600 rpm at idle power.

Forward visibility on the ground is pathetic, and wide S-turns are required to visually clear the path ahead. Some Staggerwing owners have installed forward-looking video cameras to aid with taxiing, and that seems like a grand idea. Taxiing is scary, but less so with a fellow pilot or passenger who can see out the right side.

The supercharged engine registers 37 inches of manifold pressure at full power at sea level, and Toman counsels pushing the throttle all the way forward at a somewhat leisurely, four-second rate. Noise canceling headsets are overmatched by the all-encompassing, percussive sound and the headphones crackle and squeal as the airplane accelerates.

Pushing the yoke forward at about 30 knots raises the tail, and the rudder is effective immediately. Holding a tail-low attitude gets the Staggerwing airborne in 12 seconds and 900 feet of runway, and Toman signals for me to raise the landing gear almost immediately.

“Do it at 80 knots or less so there’s not too much drag,” he said. “It’s easier on the gear motor that way.”

There are two landing gear position lights on the instrument panel: green for down and red for up. It takes about eight seconds, a seeming eternity, for the electric motor to turn the bicycle chains that raise all three gear. Then the red light goes on (the lone sensor is in the right wheel well) and the airplane accelerates to 110 knots while climbing about 800 feet per minute.

Power is reduced to 30 inches of manifold pressure as the prop gets dialed back to 2,000 rpm for climb. Once we reach 4,500-foot cruise altitude, power is set to 26 inches and 1,900 rpm, and leaning puts the fuel flow at 25 gallons an hour.

Forward visibility is limited, even in level flight, and I’m glad to have an ADS-B traffic display on the Garmin GTN 650. The pilot seating position is well forward of the wings, so looking down or out the side windows provides excellent up-and-down visibility. And the mere sight of those elliptical, wire-braced wings slicing through the air is captivating.

The roll rate is sedate with just two ailerons (on the top wings) and control forces are moderate and well balanced. Minor adverse yaw while rolling in and out of steep turns is easily managed with light rudder pressure, and elevator forces are moderate.

All controls are cable actuated and the elevator has external counterweights, yet there’s no discernable slop or friction. The Staggerwing is a tight ship that handles with elegant ease.

Slow flight with flaps down requires at least 22 inches of manifold pressure to maintain altitude in 30-degree-banked turns. Power-off stalls are benign and gentle, with one caveat.

“Don’t let the airplane’s excellent slow-flight characteristics lull you into complacency on final approach,” Toman said. “Carry power and maintain 80 knots on final or you’ll develop a high sink rate that you can’t arrest with elevator alone. You’ll be able to raise the nose, but the airplane’s trajectory won’t change. It’ll still be coming down.”

Emergency procedures are mostly standard for single-engine airplanes except for landing gear extension. A hand crank on the left side of the cockpit is for manually raising or lowering the gear if the electric motor fails or binds.

“Sometimes, the electric motor gets the wheels most of most of the way up or down, and turning the crank brings them up that last little bit,” Toman said. “Usually, if the gear motor doesn’t finish the job, all it needs is a little help from the hand crank.”

Approaching the airport traffic pattern for landing, the Staggerwing’s split personality is on full display. Descending in a clean configuration, the airplane is slick and relatively quiet. It handles crisply and resists slowing down.

“Get down to pattern altitude and slow down early,” Toman said. “The landing gear takes a long time to go down, so don’t wait until the last minute. And lower the gear and flaps at a slow airspeed so you don’t put too much strain on the electric motor.”

I lower the landing gear at 90 knots, then the flaps, and the airplane’s behavior in the dirty configuration is barely recognizable. Control forces get heavy, roll rates are slow, wind noise increases, and despite the airplane’s relatively light weight with a partial fuel load and just two occupants, it takes about 20 inches of manifold pressure to maintain the desired 80-knot airspeed while descending on final approach.

“Keep the power in or it’ll drop like a rock,” Toman says. “Fly it all the way into ground effect before wiping off the power.”

Dialing the engine power back via the Vernier-style throttle while increasing elevator back pressure to maintain a nose-up pitch attitude results in the main wheels touching down at 62 KIAS. The steel spring shock absorbers are firm, and light forward pressure on the yoke pins the main wheels on. When the tailwheel settles to the ground, the airplane tracks straight ahead with light use of the hydraulic toe brakes.

The pilot’s only view ahead is out the left side of the windshield, and I’m grateful for the freshly painted runway edge lines and locking tailwheel. Landing a Staggerwing feels like touching down in a North American T–6 with a patch covering your right eye. The Staggerwing pilot’s view is that restricted.

Several more takeoffs and landings help refine that process, and we taxi to the ramp and shut down. There, the Staggerwing has another oddity in store. After the electrical master is off, move the landing gear handle to the Up position.

“I know it goes against all your instincts, but there’s a reason for it,” Toman says.

I swallow hard, raise the landing gear handle, and hear and feel the sprockets disengage from the landing gear chain.

“That relieves tension and prevents the chain from getting stretched or elongated,” Toman says. “Now, put the landing gear handle back to the Down position.”

After we secure the Staggerwing, Toman checks the oil level and makes a note. If the oil level drops while the engine is at rest, it means that oil has pooled in the lower cylinders, and they’ll have to be drained before the next engine start.

“The oil level at shutdown is critically important to know,” he says, “because even pulling the propeller through by hand can damage the engine if the lower cylinders are full of oil.”

Even though this checkout wasn’t officially a checkout by Toman’s definition, it feels quite thorough. And Toman’s lessons will get reinforced when I stow away on Baker’s non-checkout/checkout the next day.

I do my best to soak it in because my next Staggerwing flight is a solo trip to Summerland Key, a private airport about 90 minutes south where the runway is only 20 feet wide. Just thinking of it makes my mouth dry.

The keys, please

Seeing the Everglades through the roll-down windows of a Staggerwing is like riding in a tactile time-machine.

After passing Everglades City, I turn toward Key West and cross a 25-mile expanse of shallow saltwater dotted with lobster traps. I snap a few iPhone photos and try to relax, but the wind conditions have me on edge.

There are wind streaks and whitecaps on the water below, and ATIS at Key West reports an east wind gusting to 25 knots. The wind is well aligned with the runway at Key West, but it’s a quartering headwind at my destination.

I remind myself that I can divert to Key West if Summerland is too dicey, and I jot down the Key West radio frequencies on a knee board just in case I decide to go there.

I spot Summerland, make one lap around it at pattern altitude, then lower the landing gear and flaps and set up for a long, two-mile final. The air is smooth over the water, but the bumps and jolts begin at the coastline. There’s a highway to cross, then a set of power lines, but it looks and feels doable as I descend toward the narrow strip at 85 knots.

I drop below the tree line and expect smoother air, but mechanical turbulence from nearby structures makes it rough. I start to flare and reduce engine power, and the main wheels touch down a couple seconds before I expect them to. They stick, however, and I pin them on with forward yoke pressure while tracking the left edge of the blacktop. The Staggerwing decelerates quickly and stops at midfield. I’m drenched in sweat from the stressful landing as well as the Florida heat (but mostly the landing).

This Staggerwing is scheduled to attend aviation events around the country, and it will represent AOPA during next year’s eighty-fifth anniversary celebrations. It’s a nostalgic touchstone of the past, yet its aesthetic appeal is timeless.

Despite the economic adversity that has lowered Staggerwing values in recent years, these airplanes retain their mystique. As long as people are passionate about aviation, and appreciate history, craftsmanship, and the spirit of adventure, the Staggerwing’s future is secure.    

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Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.

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