Restoration: Beech Staggerwing
A true story with an O.Henry ending.
- By Mark Huber
- Air & Space magazine, May 2009
NASM (SI 75-5010)
Lloyd Cizek points at his chest. "I had a little electrical problem, so they had to install an auxiliary power unit," he says, joking about his cardiac pacemaker. Cizek retired as a Northwest Airlines 747 captain in 1990, and since then has been in an on-again, off-again battle with the Federal Aviation Administration over his pilot's medical certificate. Now the only way he can get it back is to run nine minutes on a treadmill while hooked up to a heart monitor. "I just can't do that," he says.
Behind Cizek, in his hangar in Amery, Wisconsin, sits his 1940 Beechcraft D17S Staggerwing, serial number 398, which he has owned since 1979. Its nine-cylinder, 450-horsepower Pratt & Whitney Wasp Junior radial engine slowly leaks oil into a drip pan on the floor.
Cizek calls his Staggerwing Lais, after the fourth century B.C. courtesan from the Greek city-state Corinth. A plaque inside the door notes that she was "known for her beauty and fine lines and also had a reputation for being somewhat fast." "Can you think of a better name for a
Staggerwing?" Cizek says with a grin.
The aircraft type was called Staggerwing because its top wing is set slightly aft of the bottom one. Aimed at the corporate market, it debuted in 1932 for $14,000 and up. During the aircraft's 15-year production run, Beechcraft built 785.
Construction was largely spruce and fabric; interiors offered leather, mohair, and mahogany. The 200-mph biplane also served as a racer, a bomber for Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War, and a VIP transport for the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II. The Army and the Navy bought 260 and commandeered as many as they could find from private owners. Such was the case with Cizek's airplane, which flew courier duty for the Navy along the U.S. East Coast and later was sold as surplus.
Today, the 200 or so Staggerwings that remain are regarded as flying works of art. A rare G model in mint condition can fetch perhaps $525,000.
Cizek became enamored with Staggerwings as a boy when he saw a model in a hobby shop. In 1979, he read an ad for one in Trade-A-Plane and called the seller, Tom Todd, a cotton broker and World War II PBY pilot. Todd explained that the airplane "was a basket case," in pieces in a barn on his Mississippi farm. Undeterred, Cizek lashed the Staggerwing's remains to a borrowed trailer and headed home.