One historically remarkable 1939 Beechcraft F17D was nestled among its brethren Staggerwings, quietly soaking up the sunshine on a lovely autumn day during Beech Party 2018.
The arrival of NC2663 (Serial Number 330) at Tullahoma, Tennessee, heralded this singular survivor’s debut back into the fold of flying Staggerwings.
Owner and pilot Jon Berndsen of Stoney Point Airfield (6GA0) north of Atlanta, who good-naturedly admits that he has more airplanes than sense, thinks NC2663 is a terrific addition to his fleet, which includes an RV-7, turbo Cirrus, Great Lakes biplane, and his current project, a Lancair Legacy.
Jon bought the Staggerwing as a mostly-finished project from his A&P/IA friend Steve McDonald, who had agonizingly-yet-lovingly resurrected it from myriad boxes of parts over the course of 15 years.
“Steve is close to 80 now, and he just got to the point of being burned out after spending many thousands of man hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Jon said. “It was completely restored from the ground up and covered and painted with the AirTech system. The 330-hp Jacobs had been overhauled by Radial Engines LTD, so I mainly just worked on hooking up the engine and control systems, and finishing the wiring and avionics, and the all new interior.”
“I’m glad to get it back flying. Until now, the last time it flew was in 1973,” he continued. “After that, the airplane was disassembled and put into storage, during which time it passed through several different owners until Steve McDonald finally undertook the complete restoration.”
Unbeknownst to many, the Staggerwing breed is indebted to this particular F17D for their airworthy longevity. Serial Number 330 is a unique survivor — it was one among at least seven Staggerwings to experience egregious inflight structural failure disasters eight decades ago.
Unlike the other events that resulted in midair breakups and resultant fatalities, NC2663’s pilot was able to land safely despite considerable structural damage. The five souls aboard 330 survived to tell the tale and that, along with the evidence of its wing and aileron damage, helped solve the lingering mystery of the previous Staggerwing crashes.
Jon proudly elaborated on his aerial steed’s unusual history.
“This particular airplane is a very famous one. The Staggerwings that had broken up in flight and crashed left no clues or witnesses as to what caused the structural failures,” he began. “As a result, Staggerwings were starting to get a bad reputation, which was starting to hurt sales, because Beechcraft couldn’t explain what was happening, and the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) was getting ready to ground the fleet. So when Number 330 survived the flutter event, they had eyewitness reports of what had happened and an airplane that they could analyze. Beech sent their engineers up to the airplane in New York, and they took the wings off and shipped them back to Wichita. That allowed Beech and the CAA to determine the cause and design two fixes that resolved the flutter problem. So this is a famous airplane: It saved the fleet and kept Beech from going out of business.”
There were six Model 17 fatal accidents from April 1936 through May 1940 that were attributed to weather conditions and structural failures.
NC2663, owned by John H. Wright of Wright Motion Pictures in Jamestown, New York, was being flown on a local flight on May 19, 1940.
On that fateful day, pilot Frederick C. Larson approached Jamestown Airport at an indicated airspeed between 170 and 180 mph and turned on the downwind leg at about a 20° bank with the wheels still retracted and the throttle back against the stop. In a written account of the flight, Larson said “there was a violent noise that sounded like a machine gun or about 100 men suddenly beating on the plane with sledge hammers. This lasted for 10 to 15 seconds. The bank increased and the nose dropped.”
Larson raised the nose to slow the biplane, but was unable to decrease the angle of bank. Fortunately, the vibration had stopped and, despite the difficulty in controlling the airplane, he was able to land safely. Upon rolling to a stop, he and his passengers weren’t able to exit the biplane due to the damaged upper wing impinging on the cabin door.
“After considerable outside help, we unloaded and, to our amazement, found the damage to be unbelievable,” he wrote. “Ribs and spars were so badly broken that if it hadn’t been for the multilayered hand-rubbed finish, plus the excellent covering job, the whole wing structure would have left the aircraft. As an example of the forces the aircraft was subjected to, the ‘I’ strut balsa wood fairings were cracked at intervals of an inch or so throughout their length as if sliced by a large knife.”
Another descriptive account of NC2663’s flutter event is presented in the Flutter Report Beechcraft Model 17: “The ailerons and wings began to flutter. The ailerons appeared to move throughout their full travel, while the wings vibrated vertically, at the tips with an amplitude of approximately six inches. This wing motion was also combined with a fore and aft motion.”
Sounding the Alarm
Less than a week later, the CAA Bureau of Safety Regulation issued an edict to Staggerwing owners requiring them to “Post following information in a prominent location on instrument panel in full view of pilot: ‘Never Exceed 160 mph, reduce to 140 mph in rough air, and instrument flying prohibited.’ Airworthiness certificate not valid unless instrument panel suitably marked as specified.”
In June 1940, J. T. Gray, chief of the CAA’s Aircraft Airworthiness Section, sent out the following Airworthiness Maintenance Bulletin No. 26 for Beechcraft B17, C17, D17, E17 and F17 Series Airplanes:
The Authority wishes to bring to the attention of all owners of the above model airplanes the necessity of observing the tentative operation instructions. Recent accidents involving certain airplanes of the Beechcraft model 17 series have been analyzed as probably due to flutter. In one case the speed involved was only slightly above 180 mph, whereas in the other cases the speeds were above 200 mph. As you may know, flutter is an excessively violent form of vibration, liable to cause structural failures. It typically occurs only above a certain critical speed, varying with the type of airplane and is generally started under relatively unusual atmospheric conditions. The above noted incidents appear to indicate that the critical flutter speed for the subject aircraft may not appreciably exceed 180 mph. Therefore, if the operational limits…are adhered to, the probability of encountering flutter is believed to be eliminated.”
After extensive vibration and flight tests were completed at Dayton, Ohio, Airworthiness Maintenance Bulletin No. 35 was issued in September 1940 advising that the Model 17 series be modified with specific remedial measures to prevent flutter. For the F17, lead balance weights were to be added to its ailerons and flaps, and plywood panels to the outboard portion of the wings to increase torsional stiffness of the wing tip section in accordance with Beech Service Bulletin No. 74. A corresponding increase in standard weight of 40 pounds was allowed.
Savior of the Fleet
While the testing was being performed in 1940, Serial Number 330’s two undamaged lower panels were sent to the factory for inspection, after which they were returned along with two new upper panels to Jamestown, New York, and installed. The Staggerwing was then flown to the Beech Aircraft Factory in Wichita where the wings, flaps, and ailerons were modified.
NC2663 continued flying for many years, and Beechcraft continued manufacturing the stately Staggerwings. All told, around 780 Model 17s were built during a 16-year period.
Today, an estimated 50 are in airworthy condition. Had it not been for Serial Number 330’s spectacular survival with eyewitness accounts of the flutter event it suffered on May 19, 1940, the much-beloved Staggerwings may never have existed in great numbers, much less enjoyed an ongoing popularity for 80-plus years (and counting).
Jon intends to keep his Staggerwing in tiptop shape, flying it as frequently as possible and sharing its extraordinary history with fellow fliers he meets along the way.