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An inspired design

Some airplanes possess a certain kind of magic that’s as real as it is undefinable.
Photography by Chris Rose.
Photography by Chris Rose.

A Beech Staggerwing, for example, is an art deco masterpiece that captures the imaginations of pilots and nonpilots alike. It just speaks to the human soul in a way that other aircraft don’t.

I recently had the opportunity to fly one of these rare vintage works of art, and seeing the airplane captivate, inspire, and instill wonder was the best part of it. Whether they flew the airplane, went for rides, ran their hands over the fabric-covered wood in the hangar, or watched it fly overhead, visitors were transfixed by the airplane’s boldness and beauty. And the more they knew about aviation history, the more they seemed to appreciate the iconic airplane. That raises the question: If the Staggerwing’s appeal is so universal, why can’t designers replicate some of its sublime qualities in other designs?

A clear-eyed look at the Staggerwing—and particularly its economics—give some strong hints about why it wasn’t copied, or even imitated, in later designs.

First, materials. The Staggerwing is mostly wood, and its intricate center section, delicate formers, precisely fashioned ribs, and reinforced plywood wing tips require exceptional skill and craftsmanship to build and then cover with fabric. Each airplane required many thousands of hours of painstaking labor to produce. Underneath its lustrous skin, the Staggerwing’s retractable landing gear system is complex and failure prone. Looking at the long series of bicycle chains, sprockets, and electrical relays and connections, it’s somewhat miraculous it works at all. Then there’s the fuel system, which contains two fuel selectors and five fuel tanks.

From a pilot’s perspective, visibility is extremely limited. Taxiing requires exaggerated S-turns to clear the path ahead, and takeoffs and landings can be tricky, especially at narrow runways. The airplane handles beautifully, and its wide stance allows it to track straight ahead on the ground once the main wheels touch down. But the pilot’s only view of the runway during the landing flare is out the left-front quarter of the windshield, and that feels a bit like touching down with a patch over your right eye.

Finally, there are pesky and pitiless operational costs and efficiency measures. The Staggerwing cruises at about 145 knots while consuming about 25 gallons of avgas an hour (and about a quart of engine oil). It was among the fastest airplanes in its category during its heyday, but times have changed and many four-seat, single-engine airplanes that followed are quicker, more fuel efficient, or both.

Why don’t designers simply bottle the Staggerwing mystique and pour it into their new designs? Sadly, the conclusion is that other factors are more important than aesthetics, and they trump beauty and visceral appeal every time.

Beech’s own Bonanza put a nail in the Staggerwing’s coffin in the late 1940s when both were produced side by side. Both were single-engine, four-seat airplanes that flew at similar speeds, but the retail price for a Bonanza was about one-fourth that of a Staggerwing. And Bonanza operating costs were lower, too. Cessna faced a similar dynamic as its classy, radial-engine Cessna 195 Businessliner was made obsolete by newer, more efficient, less costly models.

Does this mean we’re doomed to ever-more-drab and utilitarian designs in the future? Of course not. Just as it’s long been said that “An airplane that looks good, flies good,” there’s still a place for symmetry and aesthetics. And new materials and manufacturing processes can make such qualities more commercially viable.

The European Elixir aircraft is using a new form of carbon-fiber construction to radically reduce the parts count in its two-seat aircraft. Kit manufacturer ScaleWings is producing smaller, two-seat P–51 Mustang replicas with astonishing fidelity. And European “ultralights” made of carbon fiber are fast, efficient, and attractive.

Personally, I’m less enamored with a mini-Mustang than, say, a carbon-fiber Polen Special. If you’re going to reproduce a unique airplane, why not aim for one of the fastest, most efficient, and stunningly gorgeous of all time?

The magic of inspired design lives on.

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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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