At the height of the Great Depression, aircraft executive Walter H. Beech and airplane designer Ted A. Wells joined forces to collaborate on a project to produce a large, powerful, and fast cabin biplane built specifically for the business executive. The Beechcraft Model 17, popularly known as the “Staggerwing”, was first flown on November 4, 1932. During its heyday, it was used much as private jets are now, and its primary competition were the Waco Custom Cabin and Waco Standard Cabin series of biplanes.
Sales began slowly and the first Staggerwings’ high price tag (between US$14,000 and $17,000, depending on engine size), scared off potential buyers in an already depressed civil aircraft market. Only 18 Model 17s were sold in 1933, the first year of production, but sales steadily increased. Each Staggerwing was custom-built by hand. The luxurious cabin, trimmed in leather and mohair, held up to five passengers. Eventually, the Staggerwing captured a substantial share of the passenger aircraft market. By the start of World War II, Beechcraft had sold more than 424 Model 17s.
The Model 17’s unusual negative stagger wing configuration (the upper wing staggered behind the lower) and unique shape maximized pilot visibility and was intended to reduce drag between the wings (although it was later found to have negligible effect). The fabric-covered fuselage was faired with wood formers and stringers over a welded, steel tube frame. Construction was complex and took many man-hours to complete. The Staggerwing’s retractable main landing gear, uncommon at that time, combined with careful streamlining, light weight, and a powerful radial engine, helped it perform well.