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 U.S. 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, which appealed to the wealthy business man in need of fast, efficient transportation.
Pictured above: The Staggerwing is right at home among the beauty of British Columbia’s Coastal Mountains. (Photo by Mike Luedey)
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 number, 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 right wing 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, Quebec where it had a set of Canadian made EDO WA-4665 floats installed. Six weeks later, the wheels were reinstalled but in August 1938, brake problems caused the plane to overshoot the runway and collect 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 seven weeks later.
Imperial operated the plane as an executive transport for the next 10 years. For nine of those years the primary pilot was a well-known Canadian bush pilot, T.M. “Pat” Reid. 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 1938 and September 1947.
In 1954, Pat and his wife Marjorie were passengers in a Trans-Canada Air Line’s Northstar when their aircraft was struck by a locally based RCAF Harvard. Thirty seven lives, including Pat and Marjorie, were lost that day.
Imperial Oil declared the BJD surplus in 1948 and sold it to Northern Wings in eastern Quebec in 1948. 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 a hangar at Sept Iles for the next 14 years. The airplane saw approximately 16 years of service and had accumulated a total of just 2,761 hours.
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. 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.
In the fall of 2002, Jim Britton of West Vancouver, British Columbia purchased the airframe from Ron. Jim had recently retired after a long career as a geological engineer in the petroleum industry and was looking for a project.
Jim has been exposed to aviation since he was four years old when his father Russell, an aircraft engineer, would take him to work with him and “Jimmy” would play in the hangar surrounded by Fleet Finches, Dragon Rapides, and other biplanes of the era. While working at Avro Canada in Malton, Ontario Jim met and became best friends with Ron. Together, they built and flew model airplanes, and 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 five-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 four 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. He used G2 adhesives and sealers throughout.
He brought the steel tube fuselage, motor mount, and all of the metal fittings to Lindair Services Ltd., a maintenance facility at the Vancouver airport, where they were x-rayed, 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 and the fairings that give the Staggerwing its distinctive art-deco shape. The quality of the wood work is so high that it seems a shame to cover it with fabric.
Next up was 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 volts, completing work begun by Northern Wings way back in 1960. Jim bought a run-out 450 hp P&W R985 and sent it to Aero-Engines Inc. in Los Angeles for overhaul. Jim also obtained and overhauled a Hamilton Standard two-blade propeller complete with an impressive chromed spinner.
He ordered and installed new stream-lined flying and landing wires from Brunton’s in Scotland.
Walter Kaiser’s Custom Furnishings Ltd. completed the leather-upholstered interior, at a somewhat higher price than the $60.00 quoted by Beech in 1939.
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 week the first test flight was scheduled, I dropped in at the hangar in Langley to see how things were going. As I turned the corner, Werner Griesbeck’s truck was parked in front of the doors. Werner was uniquely qualified to do this covering work, having restored at least five J-3 Cubs and covered any number of others. 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. “What are you up to today?” Werner 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, Werner had replaced the manifold pressure gauge, the prop control, the primer, the prop governor, and the clock—all items installed as working by a prior engineer. Each of these tasks was made more difficult due to the almost complete lack of room to work in and on a D17.A.
Murphy, as in Murphy’s Law, was also on site as minor problems, one after the other, continued to present themselves. Even the javelins for the flying wires and the placards for the instrument panel were late in arriving.
At this point, Werner had two 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.
“Just fabric” on a large fast biplane like the Staggerwing is a major project in itself. 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. When that’s 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 color coats are applied.
The aircraft, sans fabric, had arrived from Richmond to a hangar in Langley 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, but this was clearly the largest job either of us had ever tackled.
With the control panel covering and rib-stitching complete, Werner applied all of the tapes and sprayed the silver, two intermediate coats of white, and five color coats of yellow.
By this time the weather had turned cold, so a deal was made to use a heated hangar 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, Werner painted the fuselage and most of the smaller parts. Each required the same coats of primer, white, and yellow as per the wings and control surfaces.
Now, in late spring and back in the unheated hangar, Werner began the assembly of all these pieces, a complex job on any light aircraft 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 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, 58 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 his engineer Ron Helgeson, to do the initial test flight and to check out Brad Jorgenson of Delta, British Columbia.
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 would not be wasted though, there was still the headliner to install as well as the carpet for the floor and then the scuff plates to protect the carpet, touch ups on any paint chips and, and, and …
Test Flight & Check Ride
After many delays due to weather, finding and fixing snags, vacation time and work scheduling, the stars finally aligned and the time had arrived to see if all the work done to date would be validated.. In short, would this thing actually fly? These may have been some of the thoughts going through Jim Britton’s mind on February 22, 2015. 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 a.m. 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 liftoff from 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 to make this next flight his check ride. However, Murphy had one last problem: During the flight, the airspeed indicator was erratic and needed to be tended to. Back at the hangar, we 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 before dark, everyone decided to postpone the air to air photos and concentrate on George’s check ride.
The second flight lasted about 15 minutes and was flown over 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 two happy pilots and one very happy owner. Congratulations to all involved.
By Mike Davenport