When a Staggerwing casts its spell, it can surprise even Olive Ann Beech.
- By James Wynbrandt
- Air & Space magazine, November 2009
In 1973, representatives of the staggerwing club approached Beech Aircraft chairwoman Olive Ann Beech with a plan: They wanted to create a museum dedicated to her company’s Model 17 Staggerwing, an iconic 1930s high-end biplane. But the reception they got was barely cordial.
“Mrs. Beech said, ‘I don’t like museums, number one, and number two, museums like this are started by people with big ideas and small pocketbooks without management skills, and a few years after they start, they run out of enthusiasm,’ ” recalls John Parish Sr.
“We said, ‘Mrs. Beech, we’re not asking for anything except your blessing, because we have such high respect for the standards that Beechcraft represents. And hopefully one day we’ll prove to you that we’re going to do this right.’ ”
Mrs. Beech might have been more receptive had she known that the idea had come from a pilot who flew a C17R Staggerwing to victory in the 1936 Bendix race—Louise Thaden, the race’s first female winner and one of Mrs. Beech’s acquaintances.
In 1973, the Staggerwing Club had held an event at which Thaden was the guest speaker. “She said the airplane was ahead of its time and that something ought to be done to commemorate it,” recalls antique aircraft enthusiast George Schulz. “The club sat up and said, ‘Yeah, let’s start a museum!’ ”
It’s early afternoon on day two of the four-day Beech Party, held each October at the Beechcraft Heritage Museum, located at Tennessee’s Tullahoma Regional Airport. Pilots are preparing to fly their Staggerwings around the pattern in formations of twos and threes and make low passes down the runway—preferably carrying visitors who have only dreamed of flying in a Staggerwing. A chorus of Jacobs and Wright radial engines rises in the background as Bud Fuchs, a Staggerwing check pilot from Cape Coral, Florida, preflights a yellow 1938 F17D and recounts his introduction to the fraternity 25 years ago.
“I owned a Beech Travel Air twin”—a predecessor of the Beech Baron—“and we heard there was some kind of fly-in here,” Fuchs says. “We flew over and saw all these Staggerwings lined up on the field, and we landed….” He fast-forwards the story: “I sold the Travel Air and bought a Staggerwing in pieces.”
Among biplane aficionados, the Staggerwing Swoon is fairly common, and nearly every Model 17 fan can tell a Staggerwing-in-pieces story. Several aircraft in the museum and on the flightline were resurrected from derelicts, wrecks, and collections of parts. Ron and Mark Morrison, now from the Chicago area, spent years as teenagers rebuilding a silver 1938 F17D Staggerwing with their father. Shortly after their father’s death, the aircraft was badly burned in a hangar fire, and they spent years rebuilding it again.
The Staggerwing is not just a pretty face, Fuchs notes. “It’s an antique, it’s a classic, it’s a warbird—some of them were military—it’s a tailwheel, it’s a round engine, it’s a biplane, and they’ll also fly five people three miles a minute.”
Les Grotpeter of Creve Coeur, Missouri, had to sell his Staggerwing in the 1970s, leaving him with only a photograph to remember it by. “For the next 18 years I looked at the picture every morning when I got up and said, ‘Someday I’ll have another one.’ ”
The opportunity came after a bout of cancer 15 years ago. “The minister came to see me in the hospital and said, ‘You know, the cancer might come back, so when you get out of here, buy something that you’ve always wanted.’ And that’s what I did.” He bought a 1943 Staggerwing D17S.
In the early 1930s, Walter Beech decided the world needed an executive aircraft with exceptional performance. At the time, he was working for Curtiss-Wright; when the company passed on the project, he quit to found Beech Aircraft Company in Wichita, Kansas, with his wife, Olive Ann, and an engineer/designer, Ted Wells, in 1932. The Model 17, the company’s first product, introduced to general aviation such innovations as retractable landing gear, seats with built-in parachutes, and, most distinctively, the negative stagger—the upper wing set aft of the lower wing, the opposite of the standard biplane configuration. The design offered outstanding visibility through the unobstructed windscreen, and gentler stalls: the lower wing stalls first, while the ailerons on the unstalled top wing remain effective; the nose drops, and airspeed increases. Staggerwings were works of art, custom-made with interiors of polished woods and rich leathers, and were priced accordingly: $18,000 at a time when Stinsons and Wacos were fetching a third of that. According to lore, its original name, the Stagger Beech, was overwritten when admirers chose to call it Staggerwing.
In 1951, the U.S. Air Force established the Arnold Engineering Development Center at Arnold Air Force Base in Tullahoma. Still the world’s largest complex of flight simulation test facilities, the center drew civilian engineers and technicians to the bucolic area, some with an interest in aviation beyond career motivations. By the mid-1960s, the Tullahoma airport had become a second home to several of them.
“We had about a dozen people, and just some old airplanes,” says George Schulz, then a propulsion engineer at the Arnold Center.
They flew Meyers OTW biplanes, Fairchild PT-19s and -23s, Cessnas, and Pipers. John Parish’s family owned former dairy farm property adjacent to the airport, and Parish invited friends to keep their airplanes in his hangars, dubbed the Parish Aerodrome. The group began traveling en masse to regional fly-ins.
“There’d be eight or nine different aircraft flying down together,” recalls Gene Hood, who worked at Arnold as an associate engineer—specifically, a scientific glass blower (“The mad scientist with all the racks of glass? That’s what I made for a living,” he explains). “We went to a fly-in at Rome, Georgia, and we came in formation with [Piper] Twin Comanches, Cubs, PA-12s, and [Cessna] 172s, 182s, all flying in a gaggle. Old Curly Broyles, one of our staunch supporters, was running around the airport hollering, ‘Here they come! Here comes that Tullahoma bunch!’ And that’s the way it started. We decided we ought to organize.”
“We picked the banana kind of as a trademark,” Schulz says. “I had a guy ask me, ‘Other things come in bunches—how about a grape?’ And I said, ‘There’s nothing funny about a grape.’ ”
Soon the Tullahoma Bunch were wearing banana lapel pins, name tags, and jackets with banana patches. The group founded an Experimental Aircraft Association chapter, no. 458, and the president was Top Banana. Another member was Rotten Banana. Staggerwing Club president Dub Yarbrough’s wife was a Green Banana “because she didn’t like to fly.”
Hosting their own fly-in was the next step. “Somebody said, ‘Well, what are we going to do?’ ” Hood recalls. “And I said, ‘Just do nothing. Let’s just let it happen.’ And that became the name: The Happening.”