The Beech Staggerwing & Bonanza

v1.0.0 / 01 mar 18 / greg goebel

* In the 1930s, the Beech Aircraft Company of Wichita, Kansas, introduced a four-seat luxury private aircraft, the "Model 17" -- an elegant biplane with an unusual wing arrangement that made it known as the "Staggerwing". It proved popular, with hundreds being obtained by the US military during World War II for utility / liaison work.

After the war, the company introduced a more modern four-seat private aircraft, the "Model 35 Bonanza", with an unconventional vee tail. It proved very popular, being followed by "Model 33" with a conventional tail arrangement, and then a stretched Model 33, the "Model 36" -- which remains in production in the 21st century. This document provides a history and description of the Beech Staggerwing and Bonanza.

Beech Model 35 Bonanza



* Walter H. Beech had been a US Army aviator during the First World War. After the conflict, he remained in the aviation sector -- starting out as a test pilot, to then help establish the Travel Air Aircraft Company. Travel Air was bought out by the Curtiss-Wright Corporation in 1929, with Beech becoming a company vice-president. In 1932, he left Curtiss-Wright to found the Beech Aircraft Company, sited in Wichita, Kansas.

The first aircraft built by the Beech Company was a monoplane trainer, the "Model 16". Only one was built -- it seems because Walter Beech's wife, Olive Ann, who was an operating partner in the firm, didn't think it had potential. Walter Beech, working with designer Ted Wells, moved on to the "Model 17" -- the number following the last Travel Air design, the Model 16. The Model 17 was a four-seat biplane, intended primarily as an executive transport, with an eye towards competing in the civil market then dominated by the Waco aircraft company. Initial flight was on 4 November 1932.

Beech Model 17R

Three initial configurations were built:

These "A-series" machines -- lumping the Model 17R in with them for convenience -- had very good performance for the era, but their handling left something to be desired, and they were too expensive. A comprehensive redesign led to the "Model B17L", first flying in 1934, with two built. The B17L was powered by a Jacobs L-4 / R-755D 7-cylinder air-cooled radial engine providing 165 kW (225 HP).

The B17L was a substantial redesign, first flying in early 1934. The A17 variants -- here defined as including the Model 17R, for convenience -- had demonstrated very high performance for the era, but their handling left something to be desired, and they were also too expensive. The B17L was extensively redesigned to reduce cost and improve handling. The most noticeable difference from the A-series was the landing gear. While the A-series had fixed landing gear -- more than less, the mainwheels could tuck up into the bottom of the "pants" fairings -- the B17L had retractable landing gear, with a wider and more manageable track than the A-Series. The B17L became the basis for initial full production.

The B17L provides a baseline for the family. It was a biplane of taildragger configuration and mixed construction, with fabric over a steel tube frame with wooden fittings -- plus tailfin and tailplane of wood construction, though the elevators and rudder were made of fabric-covered steel tubing. There were single-piece flaps on the upper wing, ailerons on the lower wing. All the flight controls were manually actuated. The wing configuration was unusual, with the lower wing forward of the upper wing -- the two connected by a raked "I"-type strut outboard, and crisscross dual cabling inboard.

A number of reasons have been advanced for the "negative stagger" wing, as the company called it: better field of view forward, improved handling, stabler positioning of the landing gear. It was certainly a plus for looks, giving an impression of speed. In any case, the wing gave the aircraft the name it would be famous for: "Staggerwing".

The engine turned a two-bladed propeller -- it appears a variable-pitch Hamilton Standard type, though sources hint that Hartzell props might have been fitted as well. The main landing gear pivoted from the wings in towards the fuselage; the tailwheel was retractable. There are photos of Staggerwings with floats, but that appears to have been an unusual configuration. There were twin bucket seats up front, and a bench seat across the back -- the bench seat able to handle two ordinary-sized people or, say, one adult and two kids. The only way in or out was through a forward-hinged door on left, opening into the rear of the cockpit. Accommodations were luxurious, Beech targeting the wealthy as customers for the Staggerwing.



The engine fit for Staggerwing variants was given by a letter suffix -- "B17B", "B17E", and so on. The Staggerwing had ten different engine fits through its lifetime, all 7-cylinder (7C) or 9-cylinder (9C) air-cooled radials, built by Wright, Jacobs, or Pratt & Whitney (PW):

There were four B-series variants:

That gave total B-series Staggerwing production of 67 machines into 1936 -- when it was replaced in production by the C-series, which was much the same as the B-series, except for various tweaks. Engine fits of the C-series were the same as for the B-series:

That gave total production of C-series Staggerwings as 84 machines. The Staggerwing had excellent performance, particularly the "R" series with the high-rated Whirlwind engine, and participated in air races. Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes won the 1936 Bendix trophy in a C17R. Beech-supplied kits.

The C-series gave way to the definitive "D-series" in 1937. It was substantially redesigned from the C-series, with a lengthened fuselage to improve yaw handling, and the ailerons moved to the bottom wing, with the flaps moved to the top -- the flaps on the lower wing had negatively affected aileron authority. D-series variants included:

That gave total production of civil D-series Staggerwings as 104 machines. The D17S was also the basis for military production in World War II, see below.

Beech Model D17S

The D17W, it appears, was intended as an air racer, one being flown by the well-known aviator Jacqueline Cochran, who used it to win the Women's Division in the 1937 Bendix race, and also used it to set a women's speed record. This particular machine became the UC-43K.

   _____________________   _________________   _______________________
   spec                    metric              english
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

   wingspan                9.75 meters         32 feet
   wing area               27.55 sq_meters     296.5 sq_feet   
   length                  8.18 meters         26 feet 10 inches
   height                  2.44 meters         8 feet

   empty weight            1,150 kilograms     2,540 pounds
   normal loaded weight    1,930 kilograms     4,250 pounds

   max speed               340 KPH             210 MPH / 340 KT
   cruise speed            325 KPH             200 MPH / 175 KT
   service ceiling         7,600 meters        25,000 feet
   range                   1,075 kilometers    670 MI / 580 NMI
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

The "E-Series" and "F-series" were built in parallel with the D-series, and apparently were lower-cost variants, with the cheaper Jacobs radials. They included:

With war flaming in Europe, in 1940 the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) obtained three Model D17S machines for evaluation, these aircraft being designated "YC-43 Traveler"; the US Navy obtained ten similar preliminary "GB-1" machines. That led to procurement of 412 "UC-43 / GB-2" Staggerwings for the US military -- the breakdown being roughly 231 UC-43s and 181 GB-2s. The only really noticeable difference between the civilian D17S and its military siblings was that the military machines had a direction-finding loop antenna on the belly.

GB-2 Staggerwing

Exact breakdown of the relative numbers of Staggerwings built for each of the two services is hard to grasp -- since in a good number of cases, machines built for one service were obtained by the other, and there was considerable swapping of machines in service. 106 of the machines built for US service also ended up in British hands under Lend-Lease under the designation of "Traveller Mark I". In any case, the military Staggerwings were used as VIP transport, liaison, and utility machines.

The British Staggerwings were either returned or scrapped at the end of the war. US military Staggerwings lingered in service for a time after the war, to then either be scrapped, passed into civil service, or provided to US allies.

Countries that flew the Staggerwing in military service beyond the US and Britain included Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Finland, Honduras, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, the Spanish Republic, and Uruguay -- with a number of these users flying different Staggerwing variants derived from civil Beech production, instead of hand-me-down US military machines. The Spanish Republicans flew theirs as bombers during the civil war.

After the end of the conflict, Beech threw together a final batch of "G20" Staggerwings with various refinements, ending Staggerwing production with a total of 785 aircraft delivered. A large number of Staggerwings survive, including many flying examples -- refurbished Staggerwings, in some cases including a bit of modernized avionics, being seen as a prestige mount. The Staggerwing is a flying equivalent of a classic 1930s roadster, and priced in much the same way.



* As World War II drew to a close, US aircraft manufacturers looked forward to a revival of civil aviation -- indeed, they had expectations of a wild boom of Americans buying private aircraft. Beech designer Ralph Harmon decided to come up with a new four-seat civil aircraft design using aircraft technology that had come of age during the war. According to legend, Harmon proposed the concept to Walter Beech, who was unenthusiastic; Harmon worked on the design at home in his spare time, and managed to convince Beech to make it real. The first flight of the "Model 25 Bonanza" was on 22 December 1945, and customer deliveries in 1947.

The Bonanza was departure from prewar light civil aircraft design, more reminiscent of World War II fighter aircraft. It was a low-wing aircraft with tricycle landing gear and all-metal construction -- except fabric-covered flaps and ailerons in the earliest production, with magnesium covering introduced later. It was distinctive in having a vee tail. The Model 35 was powered by a Continental E-185-1 engine flat-six air-cooled engine with 125 kW (165 HP), driving a two-blade wooden variable-pitch propeller. The Bonanza was much cheaper than the Staggerwing, the Model 35 having been designed to be much simpler to manufacture.

Bonanza prototype

The wing flight control surfaces were conventional -- flaps and ailerons -- with the vee tail having a combined "ruddervator" surface on each fin. All the flight control surfaces were manually actuated; the rudders and yoke were linked by bungee cords to assist turns. The landing gear retracted manually, all assemblies with single wheels, the castering nose wheel retracting backward, the main gear retracting from the wings in towards the fuselage. Ground steering was by differential braking.

A scheme was implemented to make sure the landing gear couldn't be retracted on the ground. Access was through a single front-hinged door on the front right; there was a small cargo door on the rear right, baggage being stowed behind the front seats. There two windows on each side of the fuselage, and four seats, with two bucket seats up front and a bench seat in the rear. It didn't have dual controls, at least by default, but the control yoke could be swung from one seat to the other. The aircraft was unpressurized.

Model 35 Bonanza

The Model 35 would prove wildly successful; while the postwar private aviation boom expected by US aircraft manufacturers didn't generally materialize, Beech hit the "sweet spot" of the market. The company was a bit of a victim of its own success: the Beech 35 ended up with a high accident rate, to become known as the "vee-tailed doctor killer". There may have been some technical difficulties early on, but the most common problem was overly confident pilots -- stereotypically doctors, inclined to think their skills as doctors necessarily carried over to piloting -- flying them into storm clouds.

1,500 Model 35 Bonanzas, retrospectively known as the "Straight 35", were built. Refinements followed:

A second-generation Model 35, the "H35", was introduced in 1957. The H35 featured a stronger airframe plus updated interior -- as well as a Continental 0-470-G engine with 180 kW (240 HP), driving a constant-speed prop. 464 H35s were built in 1957, to be followed by improved variants:

A third generation of Model 35, the "S35", was introduced in 1964, the significant change being a Continental IO-520-B flat-six engine with 210 kW (285 HP) to permit higher MTO. A three-bladed prop was available as an option. 667 S35s were built in 1964 and 1965.

The S35 led to the very last vee-tailed Bonanza series, starting with the "V35" -- which was an S35 with higher MTO and a one-piece windshield. It could be obtained as the "V35-TC", with a turbocharged TSIO-520-D engine, allowing it to maintain performance at altitude. 873 S35s were built in 1966 and 1967.

A "V35A" followed, featuring a streamlined windshield, and various tweaks. It could be obtained as the turbocharged "V35A-TC". 470 V35s were built in 1968 and 1969. The ultimate vee-tail Bonanza was the "V35B", featuring refinements in systems and trim, with a 24-volt electrical system in later production. It could be obtained as the turbocharged "V35B-TC". 873 were built from 1970 to 1982.

   _____________________   _________________   _______________________
   spec                    metric              english
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

   wingspan                10.21 meters        33 feet 6 inches
   wing area               16.81 sq_meters     181 sq_feet   
   length                  8.05 meters         26 feet 6 inches
   height                  2.31 meters         7 feet 7 inches

   empty weight            960 kilograms       2,115 pounds
   MTO weight              1,540 kilograms     3,400 pounds

   max speed at sea level  335 KPH             210 MPH / 180 KT
   cruise speed            320 KPH             200 MPH / 170 KT
   service ceiling         5,450 meters        17,800 feet
   range                   1,650 kilometers    1,025 MI / 890 MI
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

Bonanzas could be obtained with special kit, such as dual controls for training, or wingtip tanks. It is unclear if such kit was available from factory production, aftermarket suppliers, or (probably) both. Some vee-tail Bonanzas still flying have been fitted with modern avionics modules. The V35B was the end of the road for the vee-tail Bonanzas, but that wasn't the end of the Bonanza by any means.



* It appears the Model 35 Bonanza never really shook the "vee-tailed doctor killer" name. More to the point some buyers, particularly conservative government buyers, were put off by the vee tail -- and so in 1959, Beech introduced what amounted to an M35 Bonanza with a conventional tail assembly, which was introduced as the "Model 33 Debonair" -- the new name of course intended to further differentiate the new aircraft from the vee-tails. Much was also done to with the Model 33 to reduce costs, in hopes of matching competition from Piper and Cessna.

The Model 33 was powered by a Continental IO-470-J flat-six engine with 165 kW (225 HP). The baseline model was very spartan, with an austere interior, customers supposedly buying options to bring it up to snuff. 233 Model 33s were built in 1959, to be followed by improved variants:

There was a "D33 Debonair", but it was a one-off prototype of a light attack aircraft, and is discussed below.

Model 36 Debonair

In any case, with the C33A effectively up to much the same standard as contemporary vee-tailed Bonanzas, the company gave up the attempt at product differentiation -- and so the next model, the "E33", was simply called a "Bonanza". It was much the same as the C33, with the IO-470-J engine, but with a proper standard of trim, with 116 built in 1968 and 1969.

An "E33A" with the IO-520-B flat-six engine was built in parallel, with 85 built in 1968. There was also an "E33B", which was the E33 with a reinforced airframe and certified for aerobatics; it is unclear how many were built, and they may have been part of E33 production. The "E33C" was an E33B aerobatic machine with the IO-520-B flat-six engine, with 25 built in 1968 and 1969.

The "F33" was a minor update of the E33, with the IO-470-J engine, modified rear side windows and other tweaks, with 20 built in 1970. It gave way to the "F33A", with the IO-520-B flat-six engine, with 621 built from 1970 through 1994. Later production had the extended cockpit and six seats. 118 "F33C" Bonanzas -- the F33A, certified for aerobatics -- were built in 1970. The final Model 33 variant was the "G33", which was an F33 with a Continental IO-470-N engine providing 195 kW (260 HP) and V35B trim, with 50 built in 1972.

* As an evolution of the Model 33, in 1968 Beech introduced the "Model 36 Bonanza", which featured a fuselage stretch of 25 centimeters (10 inches), giving room for six proper seats, with double doors on the rear right fuselage. Two seats could be removed and two folded for cargo carriage. Modern production has club-type seating, with two rows of facing seats and a folding tabletop. It is not clear if three forward-facing rows of seats were ever offered, though the Model 36 could be configured as an air ambulance, with space for one stretcher and seating for a medical attendant. Baggage space was limited in early production, but eventually more room was found behind the rear seats. The double doors were apparently also available as an option on long-cabin Model 35 and Model 33 Bonanzas.

   _____________________   _________________   _______________________
   spec                    metric              english
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

   wingspan                10.21 meters        33 feet 6 inches
   wing area               16.81 sq_meters     181 sq_feet   
   length                  8.38 meters         26 feet 6 inches
   height                  2.62 meters         8 feet 7 inches

   empty weight            1,148 kilograms     2,530 pounds
   MTO weight              1,655 kilograms     3,650 pounds

   max speed at sea level  340 KPH             215 MPH / 185 KT
   cruise speed            305 KPH             190 MPH / 165 KT
   service ceiling         5,640 meters        18,500 feet
   range                   1,385 kilometers    860 MI / 745 MI
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

Six full-sized passengers could not be carried along with a full fuel load. The Model 36 is easily identified by having four cabin windows on each side of the fuselage. It is powered by the Continental IO-520-B flat-six engine. 184 were built in 1968 and 1969.

Model 36 Bonanza

Improved variants followed:

The final production version of the Bonanza was the "G36", which is an A36 with a Garmin glass cockpit, introduced in 2006. An update with a fully revised interior and modernized climate-control system was introduced in 2012. The G36 is still in limited production. Almost 18,000 Bonanzas have been produced, the majority of them still flying.



* The Bonanza ended up serving in the military forces of several nations, including Iran, Mexico, the Netherlands, and Spain, in the utility or flight training roles. The "D33 Debonair", mentioned above, was a light attack derivative of the Debonair, which did not go beyond a prototype. Sources also mention a single "YAU-22A" light-attack prototype, derived from the Model 36.

The Bonanza did see action of sorts over Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War in the form of the "QU-22", which was a militarized Model 33, intended to be used by the US Air Force as a relay aircraft for the PAVE EAGLE program, passing on signals from ground sensors air-dropped on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia, to track North Vietnamese supply and infiltration columns moving along the trail.

Six "YQU-22A" prototypes were operationally evaluated in 1968, with two lost, a civilian test pilot being killed. That led to 27 "QU-22Bs" that went into operational service, with six lost, two Air Force pilots being killed. The QU-22Bs had airframe reinforcement and more fuel supply for greater endurance; they had a distinctive "hump" on the nose for an electric generator to drive the relay payload. They could in principle be flown as drones, but they were actually piloted in operational service. It appears that all the losses were from mishaps, not enemy fire.


* There have been a number of special modifications of Bonanzas, likely the oddest being the Beech Model 40A, with a single prototype built in 1948. It featured two Franklin flat-four engines in an over / under arrangement, driving a single prop. The idea ran into complications -- it turned out that certification required a firewall -- and was a dead end.

Since that time, there have been a number of re-engining programs for Bonanzas, including refits of alternative flat-piston powerplants, or turboprop propulsion -- including the Allison 250 or Pratt & Whitney PT6A. There was also the "Bay Super V", which was a twin-piston conversion of the Bonanza. The Bonanza did lead to twin-engine aircraft designs produced by Beech, but that's a devious subject that needs to be discussed elsewhere.



* As concerns copyrights and permissions for this document, all illustrations and images credited to me are public domain. I reserve all rights to my writings. However, if anyone does want to make use of my writings, just contact me, and we can chat about it. I'm lenient in giving permissions, usually on the basis of being properly credited.

UC-43 Staggerwing

* There isn't that much data on the Bonanza out there, so this document was put together as a scavenger hunt from websites and various air encyclopedias.

* Revision history:

   v1.0.0 / 01 mar 18