A Canadian Staggerwing: Then & Now

A Canadian Staggerwing: Then & Now

The classic Beechcraft D17S Staggerwing first appeared in 1937 and was a follow-on design for Walter Beech of the original fixed gear Model 17 of the early 1930s. It was considered to be one of the finest and fastest aircraft of the time. It was expensive with prices quoted between $14,000 and $17,000 US dollars depending upon the engine selected. A complex aircraft with retracting gear and a comfortable cabin large enough for five adults and some baggage, it had a top speed near 200 mph and that appealed to the wealthy business man in need of fast, efficient transportation.

This Canadian registered Staggerwing, CF-BJD, was manufactured by Beech in the spring of 1938 for the Imperial Oil Company in Quebec. Imperial ordered the seaplane version as indicated by the model # SD17S. Two major differences in the seaplane version are the fuel system and the addition of a right side cabin door. There were three fuel tanks instead of the four normally found in the landplane configuration. There was a tank in the lower wing right and two belly tanks making it easy to fuel from a dock without the need to climb ladders to fill upper wing tanks.

The airplane was delivered to Canada from the factory in Wichita, Kansas to Fairchild Aircraft in Longueil, PQ where it had a set of Canadian made EDO WA-4665 floats installed. Six weeks later, the wheels were reinstalled but brake problems caused an unfortunate incident. On August 12, 1938 the airplane overshot the runway and collected the airport boundary fence in the process. The damage included a bent propeller and also required the replacement of the front spars and a number of nose ribs in both lower wings. The airplane was back in service by Oct 7, some 7 weeks later.

Imperial operated the plane as an executive transport for the next ten years. For nine of those years the primary pilot was a well-known Canadian bush pilot, T.M. (Pat) Reid DFM.

Born in Ireland in August of 1895 and educated there, Reid served in WW1 with the Royal Naval Air Service. He learned to fly with the RAF and in 1918 was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal[1]. Moving to Canada after a brief career with Handley-Page in England and Zurich, Switzerland he had a long and distinguished career in Canadian aviation. He began with the Ontario Provincial Air Service in 1924 and four years later in 1928 went on to join Northern Aerial Mineral Exploration Co. (NAME).  There, he flew extensively in the north, opening up new routes as well as participating in a number of searches for lost aircraft both in Alaska and northern Canada. With his wide-ranging knowledge of flying and the north, he joined Imperial in 1931 as aviation manager for their western division and was soon promoted to aviation sales manager, a position that he held until his death in 1954. In 1944 he was awarded the TransCanada Trophy (McKee Trophy) for the combined years of 43/44 for “outstanding pioneer flights which greatly helped to promote aviation in Canada”.

According to the logs, it appears that BJD was Pat’s personal airplane as he flew it 417 times for an estimated 600 hours between August of 1938 and September of 1947. The logs show flights from Halifax on the east coast to Vancouver on the west and north to Fort Smith and Norman Wells on the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories.

In 1954, Pat and his wife Marjorie were travelling to Victoria when they were killed in a tragic mid-air collision over Moose Jaw. They were passengers in a Trans-Canada Air Line’s Northstar when their aircraft was struck by a locally based RCAF Harvard. Thirty seven lives were lost that day including one on the ground.

Imperial Oil declared BJD surplus in 1948 and sold it to Northern Wings in Sept Iles in eastern Quebec in 1948, after purchasing two DC-3’s for their expanding aviation department.

Northern Wings operated the Staggerwing until late in 1955. During that time, the aircraft appears to have led a difficult life, as letters between the owners and the Department of Transport attest.

They took BJD out of service in 1955 and stored the disassembled airframe in hanger at Sept Iles for the next 14 years. If you are following the chronology, this airplane saw approximately 16 years of service and had accumulated a total of just 2761 hours in that time.

In 1969, the remains of BJD were sold and flown as cargo in a Curtis Commando (C46) to Montreal where it was picked up by the new owner, Ron Uloth. More about Ron later.

The floats arrived in Montreal later in 1970 by barge. The fuselage was stored at a technical college and the remaining parts were stored in various garages in the Montreal area.All were eventually moved to Kemptville near Ottawa 21 years later in 1990.

RESTORATION 2003 – 2014

In the fall of 2002, Jim Britton of West Vancouver, BC was looking for a retirement project and purchased the airframe from Ron Uloth. Jim had recently retired after a long career in the petroleum industry and was looking for a project to prevent physical and mental atrophy in his “golden years”.

Jim was born in Woodstock, NB in 1934 and was educated in Ontario obtaining a degree in geological engineering from the University of Toronto. For the next 45 years, Jim, worked for a variety of oil companies in Calgary and Vancouver drilling wells in Alberta and the NWT. In 1957 he married Silvija and her name is highlighted on the right side of the cabin celebrating over 57 years of marriage to date.  Along the way, Jim also found time to get a glider licence and spent hours soaring in Alberta.

I asked Jim, why he had bought a Staggerwing to restore as it is hard to comprehend why anyone would undertake such a complex task as a first time project. He replied simply that he wanted something to keep him active in retirement. He certainly has achieved that goal.

Jim has been exposed to aviation since he was 4 years old when his father, Russell (Jim) Britton, an aircraft engineer would take him to work with him and “Jimmy” would play in the hanger surrounded by Fleet Finches, Dragon Rapides (or should that be Dragons Rapide?) and other biplanes of the era. His first ride came later in a J-3 Piper Cub.

While working at AVRO CANADA in Malton, Ontario Jim met and became best friends with Ron Uloth. Together, they built and flew model airplanes. Ron was Jim’s best man at Jim and Silvija’s wedding in 1957. Ron went on to a career with Air Canada as an aeronautical engineer and in retirement bought a Staggerwing (CF-EKA) to restore. Along the way, he also acquired CF-BJD and ultimately sold it to Jim.

With Ron’s help and in a 5 day driving marathon, they moved BJD from Kemptville to West Vancouver in a rental truck.

The restoration work has taken 12 years to complete and included replacing all of the woodwork with the original parts serving only as patterns. There were times when the wood was in such bad shape that Jim had to obtain copies of the original factory drawings to ensure that the parts were made correctly. Over a period of 4 years, from 2003 to 2007 he built all new wing panels, flaps and ailerons, vertical fin, rudder, horizontal stabilizer and the elevators.He used Sitka spruce for the spars and ribs and Finnish Birch plywood for gussets and skins where appropriate. G2 adhesives and sealers were used throughout.

The steel tube fuselage, motor mount and all of the metal fittings taken to Lindair Services Ltd, a maintenance facility in Richmond at the Vancouver airport. There they were x-rayed and magnafluxed and coated with epoxy. Lindair was charged with assembling the airplane and rigging all of the controls and providing the necessary signatures. Then Jim fitted the fuselage with the all new formers and stringers; the fairings that give the Staggerwing its distinctive art-deco shape. Like so many first time projects, the quality of the wood work is so high that it seems a shame to cover it with fabric. I asked Jim if he had a background in carpentry or cabinet making and his reply was “no but my grandpa did”. I guess that it must be in the genes.

Next came the restoration of the instrument panel back to its original layout complete with freshly overhauled old style instruments. The radios are Garmin, including dual GNC250XL GPS/coms, a GTX transponder and a 340 audio panel. The electrical system was updated to 24 from 12 volt, completing work begun by Northern Wings in 1960. A run-out 450 hp P&W R985 was obtained and sent to Aero-Engines Inc.[2] in Los Angeles for overhaul. Jim also obtained and overhauled a Hamilton Standard two blade propeller complete with a huge and impressive chromed spinner.

New streamlined flying and landing wires were ordered from Bruntons in Scotland and were installed.

All leather upholstery fabricated by Walter Kaiser’s Custom Furnishings Ltd of Richmond completed the interior, at a somewhat higher price than that quoted by Beech in 1939. Beech’s price list then showed a price of $60.00 for a leather interior.

Modern Cleveland wheels and brakes were installed in place of the original factory installed Goodyear’s.

Jim has also added a fourth fuel tank in the lower left wing, increasing the total capacity to 124 US gallons and the range to four hours with good reserves.

The pressure was on as this was the week when the first test flight was scheduled. It was time to fly this thing and I dropped in at the hangar in Langley to see how things were going. As I turned the corner, his truck was parked in front of the doors, a sure sign that Werner Griesbeck was there. I slid the door open enough to slide through and said, “Good morning, you in here, Werner?” A grunt from the cabin of the yellow biplane indicated that he indeed was inside and doing some mysterious thing. “What are you up to today?” he replied, “trying to hook up this damned turn and bank” It seems that the turn and bank was the latest breakdown of note on this project. Previously, he had replaced the manifold pressure gauge, the prop control, the primer, the prop governor, and the clock. All things installed as working by a prior engineer. Each of these of these tasks was made more difficult due to the almost complete lack of room to work in and on a D17.A

Jim had arranged to have an experienced Staggerwing pilot and his engineer come to Langley from Salmon Arm, BC and Edmonton, Alberta to examine and then not only test fly the aircraft but check out at least one local pilot in the complex and very fast antique. That was not to be as snowy weather in the mountains prevented the pilot and engineer from driving through to the Fraser Valley.

Murphy – as in Murphy’s Law – was also on site as minor problems, one after the other continued to need to be addressed. Detail items such as the javelins for the flying wires and the placards for the instrument panel, all were needed to complete the restoration and were late in arriving.

At this point, Werner had 2 years into the project which started out be just fabric and paint work but morphed over time into final assembly and all the other assorted things that needed doing.

Werner Griesbeck (EAA 108746 & VAA 4344) is uniquely qualified to do this covering work, having restored at least 5 J-3 Cubs and covered any number of others. His personal Fairchild 24 restored in 1991 and Porterfield CP65 restored earlier in 1981 are examples of his dedication to detail as they both are consistent trophy winners at airshows and flyins each year.

He was born in Bavaria in 1943 and he and his family immigrated to Canada in 1950. He learned to fly at the Abbotsford airport in 1964 worked as a flight instructor in Powell River BC for 4 years. He joined Transport Canada in 1970 and worked as an air traffic controller in Langley and Abbotsford, BC until retiring in 2000. Utilizing his AME certificate he began his next career doing fabric work on such diverse aircraft as an Antonov AN2 biplane, and my Stinson108.

“Just fabric” on a large fast biplane like the Staggerwing is a major project in itself that can only be done the same way that you eat the proverbial elephant, one bite at a time. Many hours are required to prep the parts for the fabric, more to glue and shrink it in place and many, many more to rib stitch four wing panels, all the control surfaces, and the fuselage, all using the special ‘staggerwing knot’. Once that is done, then it is time to apply all of the tapes and then to plan the paint process. Numerous coats of silver were applied and sanded, taking care not to cut through the cloth or to hide the tapes as they were planned to be still visible even after all of the colour coats are applied.

The aircraft had arrived from Richmond to a hanger in Langley, sans fabric in January of 2013. All of the smaller parts, four wing panels two flap panels, elevators, ailerons and rudder went out to Werner’s shop in Aldergrove where he, Dan Holliday and I covered and rib-stitched the lot. Dan and I each had some experience covering aircraft: While Dan had covered a Marquart Charger and his own PA14 and I had covered a Wittman Tailwind, Pober Pixie and a Piper J5, this was clearly the largest job either of us had ever been involved in.

Werner then applied all of the tapes and sprayed the silver, two intermediate coats of white[3] and five colour coats of yellow.

By this time the weather had turned cold so a deal was made to use a heated hanger for the winter. Werner then applied the fabric on the fuselage and Dan and I finished the required stitching around the cabin.

During the winter, the fuselage and most of the multitude of small parts were painted. Each requiring the same coats of primer, white and yellow as per the wings and control surfaces.

Now, in late spring and back in the unheated hanger on the west side, he began the assembly of all these pieces, a complex job on any light aircraft whether a J3 Cub or a Cherokee but particularly difficult on a Staggerwing. Think about the complexity of the gear retraction system with its multitude of doors, springs, motors, brackets, cables, chains, gears, cranks and back-up systems and you begin to get the idea. Several days were consumed in designing and fabricating the jacks required just to lift the airplane in order to “swing” the gear.

The first engine run was also problematic. It wouldn’t start. No fuel was getting to the engine. It seems that the fuel selector (indicator) was in error, pointing to a tank that was believed to contain fuel, but was in fact a different, empty one.  One more snag for the list.

After a number of delays due to weather and pilot schedules, the first flight of the restored aircraft was rescheduled for December 7, 2014, fifty eight years after the last flight in 1956. The weather was forecast to be flyable, the first in weeks. An experienced Staggerwing pilot and owner, Mark Hyderman came over from Edmonton, Alberta along with Ron Helgeson, his engineer from Salmon Arm, to do the initial test flight and to check out Brad Jorgenson of Delta, BC.

A number of snags prevented flight but did allow some engine runs and a brief taxi test. Some adjustment to oil pressure was required and significant work to pin the cables to the aileron pulleys also would need to be done before flight. Because these concerns needed to be addressed and planned vacations were scheduled for January, the plans to fly were delayed until early February.

This time will not be wasted though, there is still the headliner to install as well as the carpet for the floor and then the scuff plates to protect the carpet, touch up any paint chips and, and, and……

Test flight & check ride – Feb 22, 2015

After many delays due to weather, finding and fixing snags, vacation time and work scheduling, the stars were finally aligned and the time had arrived to see if all the work done to date had validity.  In short, would this thing actually fly? These may have been some of the thoughts going through Jim Britton’s mind on Feb 22. Actually, I don’t think he had any doubts.

The weather was good, the pilots were on hand, and the aircraft was checked and checked again. There was gas in the tanks. A chase plane was organized. Camera batteries were charged. All was ready. Mark Hyderman was back, arriving around 10 AM in his red Staggerwing CF-GKY, along with his engineer, Ron Helgeson. They gave BJD a thorough pre-flight and then Mark with George Kirbyson* as co-pilot took to the Staggerwing into the air for the first time in over 50 years. The first flight was brief and as planned, a lift off runway 07 and a dumbbell turn back to land on 25. At that point, they had planned to switch seats putting George in the left in order to make this next flight his check ride. However, Murphy had one last problem to be solved. During the flight, the airspeed indicator was erratic and that needed to be tended to. They went back to the hanger where it was found that a fitting in the pitot head needed to be replaced. Problem solved.

The day quickly went by and as Mark needed to get home to Salmon Arm before dark, it was decided to postpone the air to air photos to another day and concentrate on George’s check ride.

The second flight lasted about 15 minutes and was flown overhead the airport to check temperatures and to cycle the landing gear. This time all went well with no further snags and we ended the day with 2 happy pilots and one very happy owner. Congratulations to all involved.–By Mike Davenport

*George’s thousands of hours in such as a Pitts Specials,  B737’s and CF104’s obviated any concerns about his ability to handle the Staggerwing.

[1] From 1918 until 1933, the DFM award was made to non-commissioned officers and men for an act or acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty performed whilst flying in active operations against the enemy. Officers received the DFC. After 1933, the DFM was discontinued and all ranks received the DFC

[2] Aero-Engines Inc. closed in August 2014 after 59 years overhauling Prat and Whitney R985’s

[3] The finish colour on this aircraft is orange-yellow Federal 140 and like most yellows, is very transparent. Yellows often require many coats to provide coverage and hiding. On BJD, several colours of primer are used in the finishing process; silver on the fabric as well as grey, green and beige on the metal. (Green for the zinc chromate, grey for the primer surfacers and yellow for the fillers.) To reduce the number of colour coats and to provide an even base, all of the parts had to first be painted white.

Updated: May 20, 2020 — 11:41 AM

1 Comment

  1. Beautiful!!!

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