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Every October, the Beechcraft Heritage Museum in Tullahoma, Tennessee, calls Staggerwings back; in their D17F, Alan and Patty Russell heed the call. (Arnold Greenwell)

Sweet 17

When a Staggerwing casts its spell, it can surprise even Olive Ann Beech.

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.

Early one morning he and I prepare for a flight. “I grew up in the back seat of this airplane,” he tells me, “and now my wife and three kids fly all over the country in this.”

After making a preflight inspection  and then priming the engine, Parish engages the starter. The prop begins turning, and the radial engine catches with a belch of smoke. I’m reminded of something Michael Greenblatt said: “When you get in the cockpit and you fire it up, and you smell the smoke and the oil, and it’s rattling and popping and screaming while the mist is hanging out over the runway, and finally things warm up as the sun breaks across the horizon, and you light off into the sky…it is just nostalgic beyond belief.”
On the last morning of the 2008 fly-in, the Parish clan gathers for a photo, squeezed together around the tail of N44G. The youngsters are impatient at the imposed moment of inactivity.

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