It’s 1940 and scrawny young Sergeant Pilot Nick Carter can be seen in the rear cockpit of an open biplane. He is huddled down against the bitterly cold wind as he flies at 100’ over the freezing surface of the North Sea. He skims the bottom of the wispy clouds and has to turn frequently to avoid flying into tendrils of drizzle that reach down to the black and choppy waters.
NICK IS EXTREMELY BUSY, both inside the cockpit and outside. Inside he tries to keep a running track of his lat and long on a damp chart which wants to blow away. Outside, he must avoid flying into either the sea or the cloud while searching for signs of submarines or periscopes.
Desperate measures for desperate times. In January alone 42 Allied ships have been sent to the bottom by German U-boats. Six Tiger Moths scour the waters of the English Chanel and the North Atlantic. They patrol in pairs. If they spot a sub one will stay in the area to mark its position, and the other heads for the nearest RAF base and alerts the heavies to come out deal with it. In addition, one pilot will scratch the sub’s coordinates on a bit of paper attached to the leg of a homing pigeon. The bird is then shoved into a cone of newspaper to protect it from the initial rush of wind and bunged over the side.
It seems that at least one sub was ventilated in this way.
On one of these missions Nick spotted a massive grey shape emerging through the gloom. He initially thought his navigation was at fault, and that the shape was a coastal cliff, but seconds later he realised it was the biggest ship he had ever seen. It turned out to be the Queen Elizabeth on her maiden voyage.
This 85,000 ton ship, which was more than 1,000ft long and had accommodation for 6,000, men was doing over 30 knots. Nick flew slowly alongside and saluted as he passed the bridge.
‘Tiger Moths were for people who couldn’t afford Tri-pacers’
Why am I telling you this? Well, 30 years later, in 1970, Nick (now Captain Carter, and one of the founders of the Algoa Flying Club) was reminded of that special day. He was watching the majestic QE2 steam past his Port Elizabeth, beachfront flat, while another Tiger Moth flew alongside her and dipped its wings in salute.
That was my special day.
And a couple of days later I had another very special flight. I took my father Tigering. He was 60 at the time and it was something of a highlight of his busy life.
Our family struggled financially – my folks lived through World War I followed by the great depression and then World War II and the shortages of everything including food. Dad had wanted to fly, but the RAF wouldn’t have him because of his terrible eyesight, so he became one of those sailing the North Atlantic.
After the war Dad worked as a farm labourer in England and then returned to Kenya where he took whatever jobs he could find. So us kids, myself and three younger siblings, got used to moving house – sometimes we lived on farms that he managed, and at other times at schools where he taught, and finally in Mombasa where Dad managed a housing estate.
He had a needle sharp brain and was a gifted teacher. He was fascinated by everything from termites to space travel. He somehow found time to teach himself to play the piano, with a wonderfully delicate touch, write several books and paint outstanding pictures – my walls are covered in them.
‘The Staggerwing was the first aircraft made by Beechcraft ‘.
I must have been a disappointment to him. I hated school. I found it boring and senseless when there was so much else that needed doing – smoking, motorcycling and stealing boats were all things that had me caned. The latter earned me a school record of 18 strokes in one day – six each from Barnes, the head of house, Monkey May my housemaster, and Pansy James the headmaster. In class I was bored and lazy, and on the sports field I was not to be found, I managed to avoid all sports except swimming, horse riding and polo.
When I left school I redeemed myself for a short while in my parents’ eyes by being accepted into the RAF College, Cranwell in Lincolnshire, but I was not cut out for a military life and got hoofed out of there after about a year for again displaying a lack of respect for authority and no interest in being a team player.
My career with the RAF was pretty much sealed when I rode my motorbike up the college steps, through the sacred main entrance hall, and down a passage where I crashed into an man-sized globe of the world.
This was somewhat ironic because some 40 years later, I found myself a sort of low grade VIP at the very same place. Briefly this is what happened. The Douglas Bader Benevolent Fund awarded flying training bursaries to about half a dozen disabled people every year. They had been sending them to a school in Canada, but for some reason the RAF became unhappy with that school and started searching the world for a school that was more to their liking.
I am sure the organisers didn’t realise that the school they chose was founded and run by the very man they had bunged out forty years earlier with a note in his Certificate of Service saying, Reason for Discharge ‘Unlikely to make an efficient pilot’.
It turned out to be a wonderfully rewarding arrangement. My CFI, Steve Goodrick, and I would visit Cranwell once a year to help make the final selection of the six applicants from a short-list of about twenty. These were people who were all seriously disabled – some in wheelchairs. We helped select those we felt were both deserving and able to be trained to at least solo standard – even if, for medical reasons, they would never actually fly solo.
We all enjoyed having them on the base for a few weeks and watching their progress and seeing their delight in being able to achieve something they never thought was within their reach.
Sadly, my Dad didn’t live to see the birth of 43 Air School, he died a year before we opened. I think he would have been proud. But he did live to fly with me in my Tiger Moth and couldn’t stop grinning for a week.
It was an emotional event. A few years ago the whole thing was moved on a generation when my son, Mark, took me flying in his Zlin. I had flown with him before in Airbusses, but I am far more impressed by pilots who can do gentle three-point landings in fore-and-aft two seaters. And it was wonderful to see him applying airline safety culture and procedures to flying this beautiful little aerobatic machine.
And now for something completely different. The Gleitch lives about a thousand kilometres away, but I can still hear him grinding his teeth. He’s fed up with stories about old open cockpit biplanes. He is muttering, ‘Bye-bye biplanes’. He wants something newer, faster, sleeker and more comfortable, perhaps a 5-seater that bats along at 200 mph. Okay you’re the boss, so if it’s only one year newer than a Tiger and still has two sets of wings – is that okay?
How about Beech’s magnificent Staggerwing? And it really is only one year younger than the Tiger. The DH82A first flew 90 years ago – in 1931 and the Staggerwing first flew on 4 November 1932. Unbelievable.
The Beech 17 Staggerwing.
The first Staggerwing I met was called ZS-BBZ. She taxied up to our hangar at Wonderboom, trailing a stream of red dust.
The big round engine clattered to a halt and Victor Smith of ‘Open Cockpit Over Africa’ fame sprang out. After a short chat with my boss, Zingi Harrison,Victor boarded his brand new 400 Comanche, ZS-DZZ, and was soon a speck heading for his home in Wilderness, on the south coast.
I was able to inspect the brute at leisure because it lived in our hangar for a while. I was not impressed – it was old and grumpy and dribbled oil on the hangar floor. Rubbish compared with Victor’s sleek young Comanche. But I have to admit that at the time I was also unimpressed by Tiger Moths – they were tatty aeroplanes for people who couldn’t afford Tri-pacers. Same with MG TCs – they were for folks who couldn’t afford Cortinas.
The next Staggerwing, ZS-PWD, barged into my life by landing at the old George airport, and parking slap in front of my little one-man-one-aeroplane flying school. A family of four oozed out and unpacked a massive pile of luggage. I was slightly more impressed.
The family consisted of Peter and Laura Dahl and their sub-teen kids Edward and Bobby. They owned Peter’s Motel at Beit Bridge, a thousand miles away in Zimbabwe, and came to the coast a couple of times a year on holiday. Peter and I quickly developed a friendship, initially based on our common interests in biplanes, motorbikes and old machinery. You don’t get to fly a Staggerwing unless you are buddies with the guy who owns it.
Peter’s and Victor’s were the only two Staggerwings in Southern Africa then, and I don’t think there are any left now. Peter’s was sold to the States and Victor’s was burned to death in a Cape Town hangar one night by a bunch of idiots who were stealing fuel and using matches to see what they were doing.
The Staggerwing was designed by Ted Wells in 1932 and was the first aircraft made by Beechcraft. Ironically they rented the factory buildings from Cessna, who obviously didn’t consider them serious competition.
The project nearly broke Beech. Building a luxury aircraft with a walnut and leather interior in the heart of the depression was an audacious and foolhardy thing to do.
Fortunately an oil magnate, Tom Loffland, liked the prototype. He gave Beech a hefty deposit and financed his payrolls while the factory made a new aircraft for him. This was delivered in July 1933 at a price of $17,000. Could that be why it was designated the Beech 17?
But there were no more customers like Loffland, and Beech soon realized he would need to do some drastic cost cutting to stay in business. With a smaller engine and a bunch of mods he managed to get the base model down to only $8,000. This was a good move because it started a trickle of sales which slowly increased as the economy improved. But it was still a hell of a lot of money – in 1936 you could get a new SS100 Jaguar for £400 (about $800). This means you could buy ten of these magnificent cars for the price of one bottom-of-the-range Staggerwing.
Another difficulty with sales was that the aircraft was, and still is, a brute to land – or rather to handle after touchdown. There are two problems – poor directional stability and a tendency to be nose-heavy on the ground. Many mods were tried including a fancy differential braking system, a lockable tailwheel, and lengthening the fuselage by 18 inches, but none made any real difference. As long as you keep it straight all is well, but if it starts to swing and you need to use the brakes to keep straight you are in danger of sticking the nose in and going on to your back.
I remember one going on its back in Port Elizabeth because the pilot held the stick right back while taxiing with a strong tailwind.
‘Come back on the volume and tell Donald Duck you are ready’
There were a number of model changes, and you could choose from a huge selection of engines, the most modest being a little 225 hp 7-cylinder Jacobs L4 (R-755D) which gave you a top speed of 175 mph and it would touch down at 45 mph. In contrast, the FS model had more than three times as much power. It used a 9-cylinder Wright SR-1820-F3, a supercharged monster that put out 710 hp giving you a top speed of 250mph – faster than any military fighter at that time.
Ultimately most of the Staggerwings produced were the model D17S. The suffix ‘S’ indicating they had a 9-cylinder Pratt & Whitney R-985- AN-1 (or AN-3) pushing out 450hp and giving you a cruise speed of just over 200mph.
Peter Dahl’s was a D17S, let me tell you about it.
She was delivered to the USAF in June 1939. In May 1941 she went to England and was used by the US Air Attaché in London to help win the war. She returned to the USA in July 1945 and was put on the civil register as NC91397. In 1947 they dropped the ‘C’ (which I suspect was for Civilian) in 1948. Two years later, in May 1950, the Pomms got hold of her and she became G-AMBY. Then, in January 1951 she emigrated to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) under the name of VP-YIV. My mate Peter Dahl bought her and did a complete rebuild and registered her as ZS-PWD in August 1972.
I first flew her in 1976. In 1986 she went back to the USA and was called N295BS. She was again rebuilt and painted in the distinctive blue and yellow colour scheme of the wartime Air Attaché. I understand that she is now in Holland and retains the same colours and logo. Very pretty.
As you walk towards a Staggerwing you are hit by the sheer size of the engine – it dominates the aeroplane. That and the curious negative stagger. Biplanes always have the top wing ahead of the lower one. But Mr Beech didn’t like that, largely because it seriously restricts your view from the cockpit, so he did it the other way round – the leading edge of the top wing is behind the windscreen. It looks very odd until you get used to it. Perhaps like a horse with its ears back.
The preflight is pretty standard if you are used to radial engines and fabric airframes. As you go round you realize that Mr Beech intended this to be a fast aeroplane. When you go to the length of making the tailwheel retract you are serious about speed. Everything is beautifully faired, and the interplane struts, which are works of art, emphasize the negative stagger.
You climb aboard through a door at the back and are instantly cocooned in luxury. There is a smell of leather and avgas. The heavy walnut panelling and chrome ashtrays are hugely incongruous in a machine that is built for lightness and speed.
You pull your way up the steep slope to the front, like in a Dak, and plonk yourself down in the left hand seat. If it’s a warm day you wind the window down, like a car. The cockpit is a mess. There is stuff scattered all over the place. There are copper pipes and valves that make you think of a steam engine.
The electrical stuff reminds you of those yellowing ivory switches from rent-controlled houses. All the levers, knobs and handles seem to have been salvaged from a defunct steam-ship company. There is no sequence or logic in the layout.
The fuel system is a nightmare. You are surrounded by fuel tanks. Six of them. One in each of the upper wings, one in each of the lower wings, one behind the cabin and one in the front. This gives you an uneasy feeling about what might happen if you bump into anything solid.
Start-up needs your full attention. After a good deal of switching, priming and wobble-pumping, you prod a switch which winds up the inertia-starting flywheel. You can hear it whining as it spins up. When you feel that it is about to fling itself apart, you change hands, drop one toggle and hit the other.
If you have done everything right according to the temperature and disposition of that particular engine, the rewards are immediate. There is a chuffing and clattering as the cabin fills with choking blue smoke. There is the odd bloop, bloop, and the engine rumbles into life. If these noises are not right, there is a danger you are on fire.
The prudent Staggerwing pilot will always have one of his pax with a hand-held fire extinguisher standing to the left of the nose – where the pilot can see him. He must either give you the thumbs-up if there is no fire, or, avoiding the prop, leap in and extinguish the conflagration.
If the engine keeps running this probably means you are not on fire. Ignore the smoke and concentrate on the gauges – particularly the revs, oil pressure and amps. If all is well, you can find your way through the rest of the cockpit formalities.
On the other hand, if there is a slowing down of the prop and a sort of whoooof noise followed by a reversal of the prop’s rotation, now is the time to peer out of the side-window, and study the look on the face of the fire-extinguishing person. It’s important that you have briefed him properly. We don’t want him dashing into the fray just as you attempt at re-start.
The wireless, (they didn’t have radios or avionics in those days) will take time to warm up, and you have to tune the receiving part with a coffee-grinder handle and a whistle stop device for maximum reception. At best the guy in the tower sounds like Donald Duck.
Taxiing is standard taildragger – stick fully back and much zig-zagging to clear the blind spot ahead of the big round nose.
The engine run-up produces a lot of noise and the smell of hot oil. There is no key for the mag check. You do this by operating a lever which would give good service in a medium-sized power station. The engine instruments have precise graduations and ornate curly pointers similar to those found on better quality grandfather clocks. Having established that they are all quivering in the right areas, you come back on the volume control, and tell Donald Duck that you are ready to go. This is not always strictly true, because after lining up, you sometimes need to get one of your pax to spring out and do battle with the tailwheel in order to lock it.
The take-off itself is straightforward as long as you do everything gently and keep an eye on the manifold pressure – the supercharger must not take it past 36”.
It’s good to get the tail up nice and early to see where you are going. You lift off at 70 miles an hour and suddenly find yourself very busy. Several things need your immediate attention. She accelerates so fast that you must put the flaps and undercarriage away pretty smartly, otherwise you will exceed the 90 mph flap limiting speed and the 115 mph gear limit. You must come back on the manifold pressure and revs instantly, before temps and pressures go out of limits. And a quick yank on the mixture control will halve your fuel consumption.
And you had better know beforehand which knobs do what. The throttle is the top one, just below the VOR. Below that is the red undercarriage knob, and below that you have the prop and mixture controls next to each other.
But, first things first. A quick grab at the power levers slightly reduces the rate at which things happen. Now you hold the stick firmly back, which causes an alarming nose high attitude, but it keeps the airspeed within limits while you do battle with the undercarriage.
As you select the gear up the ammeter hits the stop and electrical smells dominate. Things happen fast and it’s vital to rescue the electrical system by helping to wind the wheels up before something burns out. There’s a crank handle on the sidewall next to your left knee. You engage the handle into the mechanism that operates a bicycle chain and put some energy into cranking to help the motor pull the wheels up. This would be easy if the arc of the handle did not coincide with the stick position – but it does.
So you have to rock the stick out of the way each time the handle comes round. This gives the initial climb a curious wing waggling motion which must continue until the wheels are tucked away.
After that the climb is rapid but fairly stately. As with most radials you get the feeling that you are flying the engine, and everything else just tags along. There is no set airspeed for the climb – it is dictated entirely by engine temperatures. You climb at a particular temperature. If it is cool you can raise the nose, and if the temp increases you must lower the nose a tad. Failure to comply with this rule makes you answerable to Messrs Pratt & Whitney, in cash.
Cruise performance is also dictated by the exchequer, and fuel consumption is calculated in drums-per-hour. However, if you want to convey five people, in antiquated luxury through a speed range from just under 50 mph to more than 200 mph, you must pay. If you don’t lean the mixture correctly, you get a terrible pain right in the back pocket.
The Staggerwing handles like it was built for aerobatics. The controls are beautifully smooth, positive and well balanced. It will glide for ever and the only way to reduce speed for the circuit is to make it go uphill.
For such a hot and slippery aeroplane, stalls are almost embarrassingly simple. There is no stall warning, nor is one needed. The controls simply get more and more sloppy and eventually she nods her head like a Piper Cub. That is it: no buffet, no wing drop, no nothing – just a straight bow and you are flying again.
Now to the landing.
You approach comfortably at around 75 mph coming back to 65-ish over the fence. Airspeed and approach slope are easy to handle, but you had better make sure that it’s exactly aligned with the runway when the wheels first touch the ground.
I will never condemn an aircraft as being a ground-looper, that adjective must be reserved for pilots. But the Beech 17 seems to attract pilots in that category. Better men than I have been grievously disappointed with directional control after touch down. If you don’t lock the tailwheel you are likely to become a blushing, jabbering, aircraft bender.
Even with the tailwheel locked, 180s are never far away. Don’t let the nose wander one millifrac from the straight and narrow. If she tries to bite, you must be ready with some rapid and decisive footwork.
If you think that Walter Beech’s model 17 Staggerwing sounds like a lot of fun, you are seriously understating the matter – it’s a magnificent aeroplane that leaves you with a silly grin on your face for weeks afterwards.