Tag Archives: Beechcraft Staggerwing

4 September 1936

Louis Thaden and Blanche Noyes are greeted by Vincent Bendix at Los Angeles, 4 September 1936. (Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum NASM-SI-83-2088)

4 September 1936: Louise Thaden was the first woman to win the Bendix Trophy Race when she and her co-pilot, Blanche Noyes, flew a Beechcraft C17R “Staggerwing,” NR15835, from Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn, New York to Mines Field, Los Angeles, California, in 14 hours, 55 minutes, 1.0 seconds. With one fuel stop at Wichita, Kansas, Thaden and Noyes had averaged 165.35 miles per hour (266.11 kilometers per hour).

In addition to the trophy, Mrs. Thaden won a prize of $2,500.

Louise Thaden with the Bendix Trophy. (Tom Sande, AP)
Louise McPhetridge, 1926. (The Razorback)

Iris Louise McPhetridge was born 12 November 1905 at Bentonville, Arkansas. She was the first of three daughters of Roy Fry McPhetridge, owner of a foundry, and Edna Hobbs McPhetridge. She was educated at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, a member of the Class of 1927. She was president of the Delta Delta Delta (ΔΔΔ) Sorority, Delta Iota (ΔΙ) Chapter, head sports for basketball and president of The Panhellenic.

Louise McPhetridge had been employed by Walter Beech as a sales representative at Wichita, Kansas, and he included flying lessons with her employment. She received her pilot’s license from the National Aeronautic Association, signed by Orville Wright, 16 May 1928.

Mrs Thaden set an FAI World Record for Altitude of 6,178 meters (20,269 feet) over Oakland, California, 7 December 1928.¹  On 17 March 1929, she set an FAI record for duration of 22 hours, 3 minutes.²

In 1929, she was issued Transport Pilot License number 1943 by the Department of Commerce. Mrs. Thaden was the fourth woman to receive an Airline Transport Pilot rating.

Louise Thaden’s original pilot license, No. 6850, issued by the National Aeronautic Association and signed by Orville Wright. (The Central Arkansas Library System)

Miss McPhetridge married Mr. Herbert von Thaden at San Francisco, California, 21 July 1928. Thaden was a former military pilot and an engineer. They would have two children, William and Patricia.

Thaden had founded the Thaden Metal Aircraft Company, builder of the all-metal Thaden T-1, T-2, and T-4 Argonaut. Thaden went on to design molded plywood furniture for the Thaden-Jordan Furniture Corporation. His designs are considered to be works of art, and individual pieces sell for as much as $30,000 today.

Iris Louise McPhetridge Thaden with her husband, Herbert von Thaden, in front of the Beech C17R Staggerwing, NR15385. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)

Louise Thaden served as secretary of the National Aeronautic Association, and was a co-founder of The Ninety-Nines. She served as that organization’s vice president and treasurer. She set several world and national records and was awarded the national Harmon Trophy as Champion Aviatrix of the United States in 1936.

Louise Thaden stopped flying in 1938. She died at High Point, North Carolina, 9 November 1979.

Louise Thaden with her 1936 Vincent Bendix Trophy, circa 1975. (NASM)

The Beechcraft Staggerwing got its name because its lower wing was placed ahead of the upper wing (negative stagger). It was a fast airplane for its time and set several speed and altitude records.

Louise Thaden in the cockpit of Beechcraft C-17R NR15385 at the start of the Bendix Air Race. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)
Louise Thaden in the cockpit of Beechcraft C17R NR15835 at the start of the Bendix Air Race. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)

The Beechcraft C17R was single-engine biplane operated by one pilot and could carry up to three passengers in its enclosed cabin. The basic structure was a welded tubular steel frame with wood formers and stringers. The wings and tail surfaces were built of wood spars and ribs. The airplane was covered with doped fabric, except the cabin and engine, which were covered in sheet metal. It was equipped with retractable landing gear.

The Beech 17 was  26 feet, 10 inches (8.179 meters) long with a wingspan of 32 feet, 0 inches (9.75 meters) and overall height of 8 feet, 0 inches (2.438 meters). It had an empty weight of 2,540 pounds (1,152.1 kilograms) and gross weight of 4,250 pounds (1,927.8 kilograms).

This photograph of Beechcraft Model 17s under construction at Wichita, Kansas, reveals the structure of the airplane. (Beech Aircraft Corporation)

While most biplanes had staggered wings, the Staggerwing was unusual in having negative stagger. This not only increased the pilot’s field of vision, but improved the airplane’s stability in a stall. The leading edge of the Model 17 upper wing was 2 feet, 1–19/32 inches (0.65008 meters) aft of the lower wing. The leading edges had 0° 0′ sweep. Both wings had an angle of incidence of 5° 5′. The upper wing had no dihedral, but the lower wing had +1°. The mean vertical gap between the wings was 5 feet (1.52 meters), and the chord of both wings was 5 feet, 0 inches (1.524 meters). The total wing area was 269.5 square feet (25.04 square meters). The horizontal stabilizer had 0° incidence, while the vertical fin was offset 0° 43′ to the left of the airplane’s centerline.

The Staggerwing was offered with a selection of engines of different displacements and horsepower ratings. The C17R was powered by an air-cooled, supercharged, 971.930-cubic-inch-displacement (15.927 liter) Wright Whirlwind 440 (R-975E3) 9-cylinder direct-drive radial engine with a compression ratio of 6.3:1. The R-975E3 was rated at 420 horsepower at 2,200 r.p.m., and 440 horsepower at 2,250 r.p.m. for takeoff, burning 92-octane gasoline. The engine was 43.00 inches (1.092 meters) long and 45.25 inches (1.149 meters) in diameter. It weighed 700 pounds (318 kilograms).

This engine gave the C17R Staggerwing a cruise speed of 185 miles per hour (298 kilometers per hour) and maximum speed of 211 miles per hour (340 kilometers per hour). The service ceiling was 25,000 feet (7,620 meters) and its range was 800 miles (1,287.5 kilometers).

Beechcraft C17R NC15835 at the finish of the Bendix Trophy Race, Mines Field, Los Angeles, 4 September 1936. (National Air and Space Museum, Archives Division)

The Beechcraft C17R flown by Louise Thaden to win the Bendix Trophy, serial number 77, had already been sold, but Walter Beech let Thaden use it for the race before delivering to the owner. It was painted in Sherwin Williams blue with white stripes. The rear passenger seats were removed and a 56 gallon (212 liter) auxiliary fuel tank installed in their place.

After the race, the owner took his airplane to South America. Several Staggerwings have been registered as N15835, including s/n 74 and s/n 81. The status of the actual Bendix winner is unknown.

¹ FAI Record File Number 12221

² FAI Record File Number 12223

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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24 March 1939

Jackie Cochran with her Beechcraft D17W, NR18562. (FAI)
Jackie Cochran with her Beechcraft D17W, NR18562. (FAI)

24 March 1939: During a 2 hour, 26 minute flight over southern California, Jacqueline Cochran established a U.S. National Altitude Record for Women of 9,160 meters (30,052 feet). She flew a Beechcraft D17W “Staggerwing,” serial number 164, registered NR18562.

A National Aeronautic Association official, Larry Therkelson, took the recording barograph from the airplane and sent it to the N.A.A. headquarters in Washington, D.C., for certification. The record had previously been held by Ruth Rowland Nichols.¹

“Were I to make the simple statement that I climbed to an altitude of thirty-three thousand feet, that statement in and of itself would mean nothing because I have often gone higher than that. But when I add that I did this in 1937 in a fabric-covered biplane without heating, without pressurization and without an oxygen mask, the elements of an accomplishment are added. I nearly froze; the pipestem between my teeth through which I tried to get an oxygen supply from a tank and connecting tube was inadequate for the purpose, and I became so disoriented through lack of oxygen that it took over an hour to get my bearings and make a landing. The difference between the pressure my body was accustomed to on the ground and the atmospheric pressure at 33,000 feet was such that a blood vessel in my sinus ruptured. All this was a part of the cumulative evidence that led up to cabin pressurization and and mandatory use of the oxygen mask above certain altitudes.”

The Stars at Noon, by Jacqueline Cochran, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1954, Chapter IV at Pages 61–62.

According to the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission, Jackie Cochran “. . . set more speed and altitude records than any other pilot.”

Beechcraft D17W Staggerwing NR18562, c/n 164, which Jackie Cochran used to set an altitude record, 24 March 1939. (Unattributed)
Beechcraft D17W Staggerwing NR18562, c/n 164, which Jackie Cochran used to set an altitude record, 24 March 1939, at the Beechcraft factory, Wichita, Kansas, 1937. (Beech Aircraft Corporation)

The Beechcraft Staggerwing got its name because its lower wing was placed ahead of the upper wing (negative stagger). It was a fast airplane for its time and set several speed and altitude records. The Beechcraft D17W was a special version of the D17 production model. Only two were built. Jackie Cochran purchased it from Beech for $20,145, and it had been delivered to her by famed aviator Frank Hawks.

The “Staggerwing” was a single-engine, four-place biplane with an enclosed cabin and retractable landing gear, flown by a single pilot. The basic structure was a welded tubular steel framework, with wood formers and stringers. The wings and tail surfaces were built of wood spars and ribs. The airplane was covered with doped fabric, except the cabin and engine, which were covered in sheet metal.

Beech Aircraft Corporation Model 17 “Staggerwings” under construction. (Beech B-111/U.S. Air Force)

The airplane was 26 feet, 10 inches (8.179 meters) long with a wingspan of 32 feet, 0 inches (9.754 meters) and overall height of 8 feet, 0 inches (2.438 meters). It had an empty weight of 2,540 pounds (1,152.1 kilograms) and loaded weight of 4,250 pounds (1,927.8 kilograms).

While most biplanes had staggered wings, the Staggerwing was unusual in having negative stagger. This not only increased the pilot’s field of vision, but improved the airplane’s stability in a stall. The leading edge of the Model 17 upper wing was 2 feet, 1–19/32 inches (0.65008 meters) aft of the lower wing. The leading edges had 0° 0′ sweep. Both wings had an angle of incidence of 5° 5′. The upper wing had no dihedral, but the lower wing had +1°. The mean vertical gap between the wings was 5 feet (1.52 meters), and the chord of both wings was 5 feet, 0 inches (1.524 meters). The total wing area was 269.5 square feet (25.04 square meters). The horizontal stabilizer had 0° incidence, while the vertical fin was offset 0° 43′ to the left of the airplane’s centerline.

Beech D17W NR18562. (Beechcraft)
Beechcraft D17W NR18562, c/n 164, carrying race number “13.” (Beech Aircraft Corporation)

The Staggerwing was offered with a selection of engines of different displacements and horsepower ratings. The standard Beechcraft D17S was equipped with an air-cooled, supercharged, 986.749-cubic-inch-displacement (16.170 liters) Pratt & Whitney Wasp Jr. A, a nine-cylinder radial engine producing 300 horsepower at 2,000 r.p.m at Sea Level. It had a maximum speed of 212 miles per hour (341 kilometers per hour), 670 mile (1,078 kilometer) range and service ceiling of 25,000 feet (7,620 meters).

The 1,343.804-cubic-inch-displacement (22.021 liter) Pratt & Whitney Wasp SC-G engine installed in Jackie Cochran’s D17W was an experimental version of the Wasp C with 5:4 propeller reduction gearing. It produced 600 horsepower at 2,850 r.p.m. for takeoff, and 525 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m., up to 9,500 feet (2,896 meters). The SC-G never entered production.

Beechcraft D17W c/n 164, was impressed into military service at Tarrant Field, Texas, 12 March 1943. Assigned to the United States Army Air Corps, it was given the designation UC-43K Traveler and Air Corps serial number 42-107277. It was turned over to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, 22 November 1944, for sale to the civil market. The airplane was now powered by a 971.930-cubic-inch displacement (15.927 liter) Wright R-975-5 Whirlwind nine-cylinder radial and was redesignated Beechcraft D17R. The Staggerwing was sold to the Carver Pump Company, Muscatine, Iowa, and registered NC50958.

The record-setting Beechcraft Staggerwing crashed at Avenger Field, Sweetwater, Texas, 15 December 1945.

Jackie Cochran's beechcraft D17W, NV18562, c/n 164, carrying the race number "33" circa 1937. (Unattributed)
Jackie Cochran’s Beechcraft D17W, NX18562, c/n 164, carrying the race number “33” circa 1937. (Unattributed)

¹ FAI Record File Number 12228: 8,761 meters (28,743 feet), 6 March 1931.

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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