Saturday, August 19, 2017

A New York Piper in Beechcraft's Tennessee Court

Sowing Seeds

When I started flying sixteen years ago, I had the distinct impression that aviation was a topic that my Dad had virtually no interest in discussing. Over time, Dad remained the only member of my immediate family who had not flown with me in the Warrior. Whether this was through discomfort with aviation, a lack of confidence in me, or concerns about motion sickness (to which he is susceptible), I have spent the last many years convinced that I would never be able to share the gift of flight with my father.

Over the years, the Warrior has become an invaluable bridge between us in Rochester, NY and Dad in Knoxville, TN. Without it, Dad would see far less of us and I think he appreciates that fact tremendously. As the years have passed, I have noticed him showing an increasing interest in my flying. When we met in Michigan earlier this year, he opened a door by commenting that he would fly with me if asked.


Playing Favorites

We all have our favorites.

Beech Staggerwing, photographed at Sun 'n' Fun 2005.

I first laid eyes on a Beech Staggerwing (Model 17) at Sun 'n' Fun in 2005. For me, the Staggerwing epitomizes the grandeur of 1930s executive aircraft. It may not be as fast as a modern bizjet, but its radial engine, compound curves, and distinctive negative wing stagger simply exude graceful elegance. It is my all-time favorite civilian aircraft.

As a direct result of my fascination with the Staggerwing, The Beechcraft Heritage Museum has been on my list of places to visit. It is home to, among other things, the world's first Staggerwing. Located in Tullahoma, TN (KTHA), it is not terribly convenient from New York. However, a 1.3 hour flight west-southwest from Knoxville would deliver me there easily.

Another seed.


While planning a trip to Tennessee recently, I suggested to Dad that he and I could fly to the Beechcraft Heritage Museum together and explore it. The suggestion came with some anxiety on my part and I remember consciously thinking, "You're not asking someone to the prom, just ask!" I did and he immediately agreed that it sounded like a good plan.

After all these years, I was finally going to take my Dad flying!


Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
19 Aug 2017 N21481 DKX (Knoxville, TN) - THA (Tullahoma, TN) - DKX 2.9 1689.4

We planned to depart as early as the inevitable morning fog at Downtown Island Airport would allow. Out of a desire to give Dad a smooth ride, I wanted to return to Knoxville before 1:00 pm when thermals would surely be churning the air below the cloud bases.

He's having more fun than it appears. Really!

We departed Downtown Island VFR, picked up flight following with Knoxville Approach, and proceeded westbound in utterly smooth air. We were handed first to Atlanta Center, then Memphis Center. I had never spoken to Memphis Center before and was not really aware that there was a Memphis Center until conducting this flight. Below, large reservoirs created by TVA dams twisted across the landscape along the paths of former riverbeds.

I already knew that Dad was a radio operator in the Air Force, but did not know many details about what that entailed. As he listened to the back and forth between Center and various aircraft, he reminisced about his days receiving position reports from aircraft transiting overseas Air Defense Identification Zones. At one time, he was fluent in Morse Code, a skill that would have helped me during my last instrument practice flight.

A meat missile!

Air around Tullahoma (airport # 181) was calm with just enough wind down runway 18 to occasionally register on the AWOS. The pattern was empty. As we landed, a jump plane at 14,000 feet announced the release of skydivers into the air over the field.

A Beech Visit

A Piper visiting a Beechcraft museum? Sure, why not?

We followed signs off the south end of runway 18 to find the grass parking area outside of the Beechcraft Heritage Museum, a complex of buildings located on the south side of the field. As we parked, canopies from the skydivers finally appeared over the airport.

As airplane museums go, the Beechcraft Heritage Museum boasts one of the more elegant facilities I have seen, particularly compared to the utilitarian Piper Museum in Lock Haven, PA.


Founded in 1973 during a Staggerwing Club gathering in Tullahoma, a driving force for the museum was Louise Thaden. Louise won the 1936 Bendix Trophy (the first year women were allowed to compete in the race) by setting a world speed record between New York City and Los Angeles in a Staggerwing. As a guest of honor at the gathering, she pledged her trophies and memorabilia if the group started a museum to preserve the legacy of the Model 17. The museum incorporated that year and the first building was a log cabin that still houses artifacts of Louise's aeronautical legacy, including her Bendix Trophy, a flight suit, and her 1929 pilot license signed by Orville Wright (back when pilot licenses were still called licenses). Per the sign in front of the cabin, the sod was taken from the Wichita, KS Beech factory.

Warrior 481 seen through the glass hangar door in the museum lobby.

Over time, the museum expanded its scope from Staggerwings to the entire Beechcraft line, eventually winning the support of Walter Beech's widow, Olive Ann Beech, and the aircraft company she ran until the early 1980s.

Staggering Numbers of Staggerwings

For me, this hangar was the highlight of the visit.

This is the first Beechcraft ever built, the model 17R Staggerwing completed on November 2, 1932. It cruised at 170-180 miles per hour. The chunky wheel pants are unique to this aircraft - later Staggerwings featured retractable gear.

A split rudder was incorporated into the design to function as a speed brake, but the design did not prove effective enough to progress into later versions of the aircraft.

The Beech Aircraft Company was founded because of this airplane. Prior to that, Walter Beech was still associated with Travel Air, the company that he founded with Clyde Cessna and Lloyd Stearman. The Model 17 was designed by Travel Air engineer Ted Wells in 1931. Curtiss-Wright, Travel Air's parent company since 1929, was uninterested in building the Model 17. Beech responded by founding his own company to manufacture it.

This version of the Staggerwing was aimed at the "budget" market and sold for under $10,000. It featured a smaller engine, lighter airframe, and retractable gear. Still, it achieved cruise speeds of 175 MPH.

In addition to the Staggerwings, other treasures in the hangar include this Travel Air 4000. In 2003, I had stick time in the front cockpit of a 4000.

Also included was this air racer, a rare Travel Air Mystery Ship.

In addition to the first Beechcraft ever built, the museum houses the first aircraft built by Travel Air.

Manufactured in March of 1925, only a single Model 1000 was built. This was the airplane that launched Travel Air and, in so doing, the careers of Cessna, Stearman, and Beech.

Louise Thaden's trophy for winning the 1936 Bendix Race.

Spinner selfie!

Seeing Double

Another hangar houses examples of the Model 18 or "Twin Beech".

This is a gorgeous example of the Beech 18, but my elbows hurt just looking at it.

Whereas the other hangar housed early examples of the Staggerwing, the Beech 18 hangar includes one of the last twenty built. This Model G17S was produced in 1946 with a cruise speed of 175-201 MPH and a listed selling price of $29,000.

That King radio stack would have been state of the art in the 1990s, suggesting a panel refit since this Staggerwing was first manufactured.

A skinless Staggerwing reveals the level of handmade craftsmanship hidden under the fabric.

A T-34 Mentor military trainer

No Beech collection would be complete without an early Model 35 Bonanza.

In following the industry trend toward all-metal airplanes, Beech transitioned from building the Staggerwing to the Bonanza.

This aircraft sold for $7,975 in 1947. Capable of achieving comparable speeds to the late model Staggerwings, it was 25% of the cost; a Bonanza for owners, indeed!

Back to the Air

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Beechcraft Heritage Museum. Though my primary interest was satisfied by the Staggerwings, Beech 18s, and rare Travel Airs, I was disappointed to find that the Starship was unavailable owing to a hangar renovation.

When I proposed this trip to Dad, foremost in my thoughts was a childhood voyage across Lake Michigan on the SS Badger. It was the day I learned that Dad was susceptible to seasickness. Because of this, my goal was to start back to Knoxville before the Tennessee thermal machine cranked up enough to spoil the smooth air we enjoyed that morning.

We actually spent more time at the museum than I expected, but experienced calm air and a tailwind for most of the way home. Closer to Knoxville, cumulus marked areas of rising air and we found ourselves in light chop as we descended through Knoxville's airspace and directly over the city to enter a left downwind leg for runway 26 at the island airport. Dad was completely unperturbed by the bumps.

Photo by Kristy

Back on the ground, Dad rated the experience highly. In lunchtime conversation with my stepmom, who has significant GA experience flying on business trips with her former boss, I was gratified to hear him assert that I was "very safe".

More than two decades have passed since the last time Dad and I did something together one-on-one. I cannot put into words how delighted I was to share a flight in the Warrior with him and that we were able to get some time together exploring a beautiful aircraft museum.

Surely, there could have been no better way to spend National Aviation Day in 2017!


  1. Awesome! So glad you had this experience. I too am so thankful that my dad, who is a former Chinook pilot, was willing to go fly with me and also declared me a "safe pilot". Means the world to me. He's not a fan of the hard IFR, but he definitely likes the Bahamas!

    1. Thanks, Geoff! I wasn't going to attempt subjecting him to any IFR this time around. I did enough of that to my wife on the way down to Tennessee...