Sisters man restores a piece of aviation history
Last updated 6/20/2023 at 5:46pm
In 1932 Walter H. Beech began designing and manufacturing airplanes in Wichita, Kansas, with his business partner and wife, Olive Ann Beech. They had one objective: to build the finest aircraft in the world. They began their business during the Great Depression and were warned a cabin biplane with a fancy exterior wouldn't "fly." The naysayers were wrong. Beechcraft airplanes are still flying today.
Sisters resident Steve Harris is a longtime pilot. He has been intrigued by the first Beechcraft off the assembly line, the Model 17 biplane known as a Staggerwing. The pioneering airplane included a luxurious cabin ready for executives who preferred flying to slower, land-based travel. The U.S. military also wanted the airplanes, because they were often faster than military
"This was the corporate leader jet of its day," said Harris. "It was for executives and military uses when you needed to fly at 185mph."
Beechcraft's Model 17s changed the course of aviation history. The Beechcraft name maintained its reputation for quality, innovation and a sleek look. Harris has a modern-day Beechcraft Bonanza and loves it, but he really wanted to own one of the first models. Staggerwings were designed to improve visibility for pilots, accommodate retractable landing gear, and go fast.
"The retractable landing gear for a tail dragger was groundbreaking," said Harris. "The airplane has a Jacobs 300-horsepower radial engine with seven cylinders."
Finding a Beechcraft Staggerwing isn't easy, and it's hard on the wallet. So when Harris and his partner heard about a Staggerwing that was in pieces in Minnesota, the two decided to take the risk and buy it - all while wondering if the airplane came with all its parts. Only reassembling the plane would answer that question.
In 1936 the price for a Staggerwing from the factory was $9,000.
"We paid $100,000 for the condition it was in. In flying condition our plane would be worth $150,000; in museum condition it's worth up to $500,000. They're valuable planes," said Harris.
After all the parts were found and the plane successfully put back together, the Staggerwing is in a hangar near the Sisters airport and is legal to fly. But Harris hasn't taken it up yet.
"There are a few fairings to put on it and some painting to do," he said.
(Fairings are structures whose primary function is to produce a smooth outline and reduce drag.)
Harris laughs at the antics he and his partner endured retrieving the plane and putting it back together. The already arduous task of rebuilding the aircraft was made more difficult because it had been exported to Brazil in 2008.
"It was in a flying museum and was flown for about 20 hours then they wrecked it and rebuilt the damaged wing and put in a new engine. It was never flown in Brazil again," said Harris.
In 2017, the airplane returned to the U.S. in pieces.
"The person who purchased it got cancer and couldn't finish putting it back together, so it sat in a hangar from 2017 to 2022, when we bought it in Minnesota," said Harris.
The partners have been putting the plane back together for the past year. Their task was made harder because the airplanes logbooks were in Portuguese. Then it took nine months to go through the FAA to get it designated as airworthy.
With the bureaucracy, translations, and painstaking reassembly behind them, it's time to get the plane back up in the air. With 35 years flying, Harris knows even with his experience, it's always a good idea to talk with other pilots who've flown Staggerwings. Harris found another pilot in Central Oregon with a Staggerwing, and he plans to get in touch and ask him if he'll go up with him as he logs more time in the new aircraft. Once he's comfortable with the plane, Harris would like to fly it back to the Beechcraft Museum in Tullahoma, Tennessee as well as the Oshkosh air show in Wisconsin.
The airplane won't be at the July 4 air show in Sisters. With the plane's fabric wings and intricate wooden ribs inside the fragile fabric, it's too much of a risk for Harris. Instead, Harris and his partner plan to put the sky-blue aircraft on their grass that is adjacent to the airstrip while they watch the July 4 festivities.
It won't be long before the airplane finally returns to the sky. Harris can't wait to go up and start the next chapter for an airplane that's a flying piece of history.