Beechcraft Staggerwing G17S by AMT
Kit No. T638
Decals: One version
Comments: Detailed cockpit and landing gear; easy to assemble
The Legend of Santa’s New Sleigh
As the third decade of the 21st Century approached, Santa Claus, after decades of lobbying by Mrs. Claus, aided by the ocassional agitation of the Elves and their union, Local Christmas Helpers and Technicians No. 9, came to the reluctant conclusion that the Old Sleigh just wasn’t getting the job done quite as well as it used to. With increasing globalization and the widespread use of the Internet for Christmas shopping, Santa decided, kicking and screaming, that it was time to modernize. The beloved Sleigh would have to be put out to pasture. “About time,” sighed Mrs. Claus, with an undercurrent of wifely exasperation.
She and the Elves expected an imminent announcement that they would computerize; that Santa, who had long banned the Internet from the North Pole, would allow not only access to the Web, but fiber optic cable, scanners, and cellphones for all (upon seeing the first clunky cell phone back in the 1990’s, Santa had decreed that the North Pole would never give up its land lines). But kids all over the world would now be able to put down pen and paper and abandon the snail mail letters to Santa, instead emailing their orders to him directly at Santa@NorthPole.org! Maybe Santa would even allow delivery of toys by drone!
But one fateful morning Lucas, one of the more motor-mouthed Elves, let slip the word “drone” while delivering firewood for the wrought iron stove in Mrs. Claus’ kitchen, and Kris Kringle nearly choked on his corn flakes. “Outrageous! Drones there shall not be!” Santa roared. “When I hear the words ‘unmanned aircraft system,’ I think only of the time Rudolph put the reindeer up to taking the Sleigh for a flying joyride without me!”
“Oh, my,” thought Mrs. Claus with trepidation. “Lucas has done it now. Our whole modernization program is in danger…just when we were about to join the 20th Century.”
She turned from the dough she was kneading for the afternoon’s Christmas cookies, the Elves’ favorite snack when they were working overtime in December on the run-up to The Big Day. “Now, Kristopher,” she said sweetly, shocking Santa and his Elves by calling the portly old icon by his full Christian name as she disapprovingly wagged a finger at him, “you promised we would have some improvements around here. You’re not getting any younger, and the world is getting bigger and faster all the time. Christmas is becoming a little tougher operation every year. I mean, we’ve made no changes, and we’ve been competing with Amazon for almost 20 years!”
“Nonsense, my love,” Santa replied irritably, “I’m as good as I ever was…but by Thunder, there will be no little whirlybird things here at the North Pole! I don’t care if they are on sale at Radio Shack! Reminds me of that ridiculous helicopter contraption that salesman from Bell Aircraft came peddling — remember that? 1964 it was, and I sent him packing.”
“Kristopher Kringle!” Mrs. Claus exclaimed, shocking Santa and the Elves a second time in as many minutes. “Don’t change the subject. We all know perfectly well that with the winds here at the North Pole, helicopters are unsafe. The point is, last year was the last time you will ever deliver toys by Sleigh. You agreed back in January as part of your New Year’s Resolutions. You agreed,” she repeated with emphasis.
“Tarnation, woman! Are you going to hold a man to that?”
“You gave me your solemn promise,” she said, and stamped her foot for emphasis. Her feet were small and hardly made a noise on the kitchen floor. But on the rare ocassions that she stamped her foot, her husband’s will to argue evaporated. “You are long overdue for something faster than the Sleigh,” she continued. “You’ve dragged in here at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning for the last time. You promised me that from now on, you would be home in time to kiss me under the mistletoe on Christmas Eve — even if that meant one minute to midnight.”
“Alright, Clara,” Santa said quietly, and turned to retreat to his private workshop.
“And your aversion to technology is over. The Elves need the Internet. Today,” she called after him.
Santa immediately made good on part of the modernization. Sitting in his workshop, he performed the necessary incantation. “By the power of Christmas, let there be Internet at the North Pole,” and instantly the elves had wireless laptop computers and iPads at their work benches. A cry of exultation rose up from the North Pole that was so loud it startled the reindeer in the barn.
But what to do about his beloved Sleigh? Santa ruminated on this for some time. All year he had been certain Mrs. Claus would forget all about that darned Resolution to give up the Sleigh…but no such luck. Now he was really in a fix. She had gone so far as to hide not only the reins of the Sleigh, but the rig to hitch the reindeer up to it. Where was her Christmas spirit? He’d had to swear to the reindeer he’d keep them on the payroll, Sleigh or no. He knew she expected him to get some kind of ridiculous jumbo jet with a massive cargo door in the back. He would not have such a thing at the North Pole, besides the maintenance costs were outrageous. A business jet? Something small and sleek by that gentleman named Lear, perhaps…no. Too high falutin’. Besides, Clara would only say he was buying a toy for himself, not ensuring speedy delivery to the world’s children.
He needed something iconic, something classic. There was only one Santa Claus, after all. But what? It could not look too modern, that would never do. Yet Clara would not let him get away with something that looked too old-fashioned. What aircraft would fit that bill?
There was a knock at the door of his private workshop. Santa bellowed permission to enter, and in walked Marvin, a skinny little Elf that Santa had always been a little leery of. Now, Santa loved and respected all the Elves, for they made him what he was. They didn’t need a union, for example, for most of the time he caved in to whatever they wanted — but he didn’t object when they wanted to form one. No, the only reason Santa was leery of Marvin is that he had always suspected Marvin was telepathic, that he could read other people’s minds. He caught Marvin smiling at him once when he was having, well, private thoughts about Mrs. Claus.
“Forget about it,” Santa retorted. “No drones.”
Marvin dismissed the thought with a wave of his Elf hand and frowned his agreement. “I’m with you, Santa. I don’t care for those things. No, I came to help you out with your problem.”
“Problem? What problem?”
“Replacing the Sleigh. This is a special snow globe, boss,” Marvin said, producing the globe from a pocket. “It’s always been a help to me.”
“Well, it uh…it helps me with ideas.”
“Yes. Like when I’m trying to think of something, but I don’t know what it is.”
Santa gave the Elf a blank stare.
“That’s the beauty of it. Whatever answer you’re lookin’ for,” Marvin said brightly. “Try it,” he urged, leaving the globe on Santa’s work table. “Well, I gotta get back. Some kinda robot I gotta build for a kid in Marrakech. See ya, boss.”
Santa returned to the problem of what aircraft to acquire to fulfill his Christmas obligations. Jets, even turboprop planes, were out. They were too noisy, and would wake the children as he passed overhead at treetop height. Unless it was a stealth jet. No, too modern. Bad for the image. At least size was not an issue. With the proper Christmas incantation, he could ensure that the cargo space would continuously replenish itself with toys, just as the Sleigh always had. And not just any toys, but the exact toy that the child in the house he was passing over at the time had asked for, the product of a marvelous database that — come to think of it, it was Marvin who had figured that out. So even a small plane would do.
But for the life of him, Santa could not think of an aircraft. He consulted his library of aviation books and encyclopedias, even some of the classics written in French, from the days when they were the leaders in aerospace engineering. But he was stumped. Warplanes were out. Most cargo planes were too ugly, dumpy looking, or lacking in style.
He fell asleep with the Encyclopedia of Civil Aviation in his lap. It was a deep sleep. He awoke to the sound of the coo coo clock in his workshop. It was midnight, and he could smell one of Mrs. Claus’ handmade apple-cinnamon pies, fresh from the oven. That Clara was always baking, seemed like 24 hours a day this time of year. The Elves had ravenous appetites when they worked late.
He was worried. Midnight meant it was the 20th, and Christmas was only 5 days away. The Sleigh was out of commission by order of Mrs. Claus — he could not allow that piece of news to get out — and he had to find alternate transportation by Christmas Eve. He should be making toys, at least overseeing the Elves — by tradition he always made a few toys himself, just to keep his hand in, and it was good for the Elves’ morale. But he couldn’t think of anything else while he still had an aircraft to acquire.
He reached for the plate of cookies (Mrs. Claus had crept in and left them while he was asleep, with a glass of milk) and absent-mindedly began to munch on one of the chocolate chip delights. As he did, his eyes fell on Marvin’s snow globe. Crazy Elf.
What the heck, it was worth a try.
He picked up the globe, and shook it vigorously. He peered into it, and the vision that appeared — Santa could hardly believe his eyes — was that of a gleaming red biplane. He at once knew that this was the plane. But there was more. There next appeared a name, and then an address. Santa snatched up a retractable crayon pen, and scribbled the information down. He picked up the globe and shook it again. Again the red biplane appeared, even more brilliant now.
And that was how Santa Claus came to own a sleek, streamlined, fire engine red, 1946 Beechcraft Staggerwing, purchased for a song after a mere 20 minutes of negotiation by telephone by Marvin from a retired TWA executive living in Decatur, Illinois. Marvin handled the wire tranfer of funds, and Santa, traveling incognito as Christopher Crandall, hopped a commercial flight to Decatur airport. There he took possession of the red, fabric-covered wonder faired with wood formers and stringers over a welded, steel tube frame with its single, gleaming aluminum propeller and a red spinner polished until it rivalled Rudolf’s nose in its brilliance.
The plane was perfect. The beautiful red exterior was complemented by a Lime Green cabin featuring darker, phosphorescent green seats, and the cabin door interior was fitted with a leather map case. The engine purred like a kitten; it had just been overhauled by Mr. Edwin Aldicott, the previous owner, a now elderly former airline executive who in his youth had had orders barked at him by none other than Howard Hughes. With a firm handshake shared with Mr. Aldicott, Santa climbed into the Staggerwing and taxied off, feeling as ecstatic as a boy with a brand new, Red Ryder BB gun on Christmas morning. After a rapid run down the tarmac, he was airborne.
When he landed at the North Pole, taxiing right up to the estate-like house, Mrs. Claus came out and shrieked her delight.
From the window of the Elves’ Workshop, Marvin cracked a little smile, silently congratulating himself. “Bet the old dog gets lucky tonight,” he muttered.
The Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing is an civilian biplane with an unusual negative wing stagger (the lower wing is farther forward than the upper wing) that flew for the first time on November 4, 1932. At the height of the Great Depression, aircraft executive Walter H. Beech and airplane designer T. A. “Ted” Wells collaborated to produce a large, powerful, and fast enclosed cabin biplane built specifically for the business executive. This became the Beechcraft Model 17, the “Staggerwing.” During its heyday, it was used as an executive aircraft, much as the private jet is now.
The Model 17’s unusual stagger wing configuration and unique shape maximized pilot visibility. The fabric-covered fuselage was faired with wood formers and stringers over a welded, steel tube frame. Construction was complex and time-consuming to complete. The Staggerwing’s retractable conventional landing gear, uncommon at that time, combined with careful streamlining, light weight, and a powerful radial engine, helped it perform well.
In the mid-1930s, Beech undertook a major redesign of the aircraft, to create the Model D17 Staggerwing. The D17 featured a lengthened fuselage that improved the aircraft’s handling characteristics by increasing control leverage, and the ailerons were relocated to the upper wings, eliminating interference with the flaps. Braking was improved with a foot-operated brake linked to the rudder pedals.
Sales began slowly. The first Staggerwings’ high price tag (between $14,000 and $17,000 — equivalent to a range of $261,000 to $317,000 in 2017 values — depending on engine size) scared off potential buyers in an already depressed civil aircraft market struggling to remain viable at the height of the Great Depression. Only 18 Model 17s were sold during 1933, the first year of production, but sales steadily increased. Each Staggerwing was custom-built by hand. The luxurious cabin, trimmed in leather and mohair, held up to five passengers. Eventually, the Staggerwing captured a substantial share of the passenger aircraft market. By the start of World War II, Beechcraft had sold more than 424 Model 17s.
The Staggerwing was fast and popular with 1930’s air racers. An early version of the Model 17 won the 1933 Texaco Trophy Race. In 1935, a British diplomat, Capt. H.L. Farquhar, successfully flew around the world in a Model B17R, traveling 21,332 miles (34,331 kilometers) from New York to London, by way of Siberia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and back across Europe.
A number of Model B17Ls were pressed into service as bombers by the FARE, the air forces of the Second Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War. China ordered a number of Staggerwings to use as ambulance planes in its fight against Imperial Japan. Finland had one C17L as a liaison aircraft between 1940-1945. On October 2, 1941, Beech shipped a special camouflaged D17S to Prince Bernhard of Lippe, who was in exile in London after the German invasion of the Netherlands. He used it for refugee work in and around London.
The Beech UC-43 Traveler was a slightly modified version of the Staggerwing. In late 1938, the United States Army Air Corps purchased three Model D17Ss to evaluate them for use as light liaison aircraft. These were designated YC-43. After a short flight test program, the YC-43s went to Europe to serve as liaison aircraft with the air attachés in London, Paris, and Rome.
During World War II, the U.S. Army Air Forces ordered 270 Model 17s for service within the United States and overseas as the UC-43. These planes differed only in minor details from the commercial model. To meet urgent wartime needs, the government also purchased or leased at least 118 additional “Staggerwings” from private owners, for both the Army Air Force and the U.S. Navy.
After the war, Beech converted its manufacturing facilities back to civil aircraft production, making one final version of the Staggerwing, the Model G17S, which is the subject of this kit. Beech built 16 aircraft, which sold for $29,000 apiece ($361,000 in 2017 values).
The lightweight V-tail Beechcraft Bonanza, a powerful four-passenger luxury aircraft, soon replaced the venerable Staggerwing in the Beech product line, at about a third of the price. The Bonanza was a smaller aircraft with less horsepower, but carried four people at a similar speed to the Staggerwing. Beechcraft sold the 785th and final Staggerwing in 1948 and delivered it in 1949.
The Beechcraft Staggerwing is injection molded in yellow and consists of 35 parts. The kit externally has very good stressed fabric detail, and the cabin features separate seats for the pilot and co-pilot, as well as a single control yoke that can be handled by either of them. There is a main instrument panel with extensive raised detail, and the cabin interior features textured paneling, complemented the simulated upholstered surfaces of the seating. There is a two-part radial engine with a separate exhaust ring, separate one-piece cowling, and detailed landing gear faithfully rendering the unique look of the actual Staggerwing. For its vintage, this is a fairly well engineered and detailed kit.
First released by AMT in 1977, this kit was re-issued by a company called Round 2 Models in 2015. This kit, one of the original 1977 run, was the brainchild of imagination fired by the Christmas spirit. If Santa Claus had a plane instead of a sleigh, I thought, what would it be? What would old Saint Nick choose to fly? The answer, of course, was the Staggerwing — just the right amount of style, sleek but not too modern, and traditional, somehow. And not so fast as to cause Mr. Kringle labor problems with Reindeer Local No. 107…
Construction of the Staggerwing was straightforward and there were no major fit problems. I had to do a minor amount of puttying of the fuselage join seam, but that was it. The biggest challenge was painting the kit, since the paint scheme was unconventional to say the least.
The Staggerwing’s cabin interior is brush painted in an enamel, Humbrol Gloss Lime (HU38), with seats and sidewall upholstery in Mr. Color Metallic Green (77), an acrylic. The exterior was airbrushed in a gloss acrylic, Gunze Sangyo Red Madder (H86).
The kit decals were not in keeping with the Santa Claus theme, and in any event, had become thoroughly oxidized since their minting in 1977. I needed just a few markings, in green. I found them on eBay in the form of Microscale’s Luftwaffe I.D. numbers and letters (13mm size) for 1/72 scale aircraft (Set No. 72-42). They provided the kit’s only markings, the Staggerwing’s call letters, “NPX01” for “North Pole Express, Number 1.” While at least 15 years old, these decals were still in their original Microscale envelope and were in perfect condition, thin, strong, eager to settle into surface contours, and they reacted well to both decal solvent and Future.
This is a great kit that holds up well 40 years after its introduction. It is easy to put together, meets the eyeball test for accuracy, and has just enough detail to build on if you want a truly impressive Staggerwing. The best advertisement for AMT’s old Staggerwing is that it still fetches a pretty penny on eBay (upon to $40.00 or more) despite the fact that there is a newer, ostensibly better version in Roden’s land-based and floatplane versions released in 2011-2012.