When a Staggerwing casts its spell, it can surprise even Olive Ann Beech.
- By James Wynbrandt
- Air & Space magazine, November 2009
(Page 2 of 3)
“That came out of the hippie, ’60s generation,” says Schulz, who, with his wife, Mattie, was among the museum’s first officers. “That was sort of a saying at the time.”
“It really became a very popular, really big fly-in,” Parish adds. “Everybody would fly in to Tullahoma for the Happening. Everybody made chili and dumped it in a 55-gallon drum.”
Meanwhile, through Dub Yarbrough, the Tullahoma Bunch became well acquainted with Staggerwings and offered to host the club’s annual conventions. At the time, Staggerwings were regarded as curiosities more than classics. But the Tullahoma crew, appreciative of all the aircraft it represented, began to take a proprietary interest in the airplane. The fly-in would draw some 40 Staggerwings. By that time, Parish owned a Staggerwing too (“I went to the Antique Aircraft Association fly-in in Ottumwa, Iowa, and I saw this biplane and I fell in love with it immediately, and I said, ‘I’ve got to have one of those!’ ”).
By the early 1970s, the Happenings were on the OUT list, and the Staggerwings were IN.
Christine St. Onge, a nurse from Wexford, Pennsylvania, was a brand-new pilot when she came to her first fly-in, in 1974, eager to see the aircraft whose appearance in photographs had so captivated her. “The airplane had a charisma or aura about it that I just couldn’t shake,” she says. “I met Louise Thaden. She wanted to know how I got into aviation. She said, ‘I have a feeling you’re going to be just like me: get married, have kids, but still fly a Staggerwing.’ And I thought, Nah, there’s no way I’m ever going to find a guy that’s going to let me do all this.”
“All this” refers in part to her 1936 C17B Staggerwing. Her son, Joseph, now 27 and assisting with a preflight inspection, has been accompanying his mother here since he was a baby. (Husband Paul, who is not a pilot, encouraged her to buy the airplane, which she displays at airshows.)
“I don’t see the Staggerwing leaving the family any time soon,” Joseph says. “I’m aware of its heritage and history. We’re pretty much the only touring Staggerwing on the airshow circuit in the Northeast, and it’s great to be able to share it with people that have never seen one before, and have people come up and say, ‘Oh, I haven’t seen one of these since 1940-something!’ ”
The year of St. Onge’s first visit was also the year the Beechcraft Staggerwing Museum opened, on land donated by the Parish family. As an incentive to create the museum, Louise Thaden had promised to donate her papers and memorabilia, and a small log cabin had been built to house the material. By then an even younger generation of Staggerwing enthusiasts was coming along. From the first Staggerwing fly-in, John Parish’s three boys—Charles, Robert, and John Jr.—and Wade McNabb, son of the museum’s first curator, Glen McNabb, served as greeters, wiping down each aircraft when it arrived and keeping the grounds spotless. “The pilots started giving us tips,” McNabb says, “so we would donate our tips to the museum at the end of the week.”
The years passed and the museum expanded—more buildings, more Staggerwings, more exhibits. Early on, the progress was noted back at Beech headquarters in Wichita. Olive Ann Beech, whose attitude toward the museum had mellowed, sent crates of documents, including original blueprints vital to rebuilding and restoring the aircraft. In 1975, Beech made her first visit to Tullahoma for the dedication of the Walter H. Beech Hangar, housing airworthy Staggerwings and Travel Airs, along with the original Staggerwing wind tunnel model and the prototype for the landing gear retraction mechanism. (She retired in 1982, two years after Raytheon bought her company.)
Youngsters grew and earned pilot’s licenses, and some graduated to the left seat of the family Model 17.
“I learned to fly a Staggerwing by watching my dad: I remember watching everything he did,” Wade McNabb says. “And finally I talked him out of the keys to it. I was 22 and it was during a convention. The airplane hadn’t flown in two years because my dad was ill, so I took a vacation, came here, annualed the airplane with a local mechanic, and one of dad’s friends came here and checked me out in the airplane.”
In the mid-1990s, members of the museum’s board realized a focus on Staggerwings alone could not sustain the fly-in or the institution that hosted it. Owners were getting older and fewer airplanes were making the annual migration to Tullahoma. Members of a society devoted to the Beech Model 18, and later, of the American Bonanza Society (Bonanza, Baron, Debonair, T-34, and Travel Air), were invited to display their aircraft at the fly-in.
“It was a little stressful,” Parish admits. “Some members felt we should stay focused just on the Staggerwing. But we found Twin Beech people were just like us, all part of the same family, and the same thing happened with the Bonanza [and] Baron.”
In 2007, the institution changed its name to the Beechcraft Heritage Museum, dedicated to “preserving the heritage nurtured by generations of enthusiasts of all Beechcraft models.” “If you don’t change, you die,” says museum president Michael Greenblatt, one of the institution’s new generation of leaders. “What we’re doing is promoting the Beechcraft heritage, but also promoting the love of aviation.” Today, counting the nine Staggerwings (including serial no. 1, a 1932 17R that was destroyed in a crash in 1935 and returned to airworthiness in the late 1980s), the museum has some two dozen Beech aircraft, ranging from a 1925 Travel Air Model 1000 (serial no. 1) to a Model 2000A Starship.
Wade McNabb, who had become an engineer and worked at Pratt & Whitney, serves as the museum’s curator and chief executive officer. Robert Parish—whom many attendees still remember as one of the kids welcoming them to the fly-ins years ago—is on the cover of the museum’s brochure, in a photograph that shows him at the controls of Big Red, the family’s 1946 G17S Staggerwing, N44G.