Sweet 17

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

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

“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!’ ”

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