Denied its chance for glory, the pugnacious A17FS languished as a “hangar queen” for much of its brief life.
Racing had always been in Walter Herschel Beech’s blood. He was an incurable disciple of speed, that indispensable aeronautical asset his friend Clyde V. Cessna had once proclaimed was “the only reason for flying.” Of all the attributes the infant Beech Aircraft Company claimed for its bullish, 690-hp Model A17F biplane in 1934, performance was at the top of the list.
With a maximum speed of 215 mph, the A17F was fast, and when the opportunity to enter the lucrative MacRobertson International Trophy Race came late in 1933, Beech jumped at the chance to claim the $50,000 first prize. He ordered chief engineer Ted Wells to build a second, more powerful A17F designed to win the grueling 12,000-mile race from London to Melbourne. Designated the A17FS, the biplane would be powered by a supercharged Wright SR-1820F3 9- cylinder radial engine belting out a thundering 710 hp. Beech was confident that no other competitor would be able to match the one-of-a-kind biplane when it came to sheer power and speed. Famed aviatrix Louise Thaden, who had set a number of women’s speed, altitude and endurance records in the late 1920s, was engaged to pilot the racer. Her husband, Herbert von Thaden, a pilot and aircraft designer, would serve as co-pilot and navigator.
Wells orchestrated a number of significant systems modifications to the A17FS, increasing maximum gross weight to 6,000 pounds, up from the A17F’s 5,200 pounds. The weight gain was necessary not only to make the airplane competitive but also to assure compliance with airworthiness requirements stipulated by Britain’s distinguished Royal Aero Club, responsible for administering the race. Chief among the changes was an increased maximum usable fuel capacity of 310 gallons, which would provide a nonstop range of up to 1,600 statute miles. That amount of fuel was considered the minimum required to feed the thirsty Wright radial, which easily gulped 40 gallons per hour while cruising. Five aluminum fuel tanks under the cabin floor would provide 187 gallons, and another set of tanks holding 127 gallons replaced the aft cabin seats.
As construction of the A17FS continued in the sweltering summer of 1934, Louise Thaden spent weeks at the Beechcraft factory in Wichita, Kan., preparing for the challenge ahead. The SR-1820F3, which at $8,000 cost as much as a factory-fresh Beechcraft B17L, finally arrived early in September. Unfortunately, a series of delays in completing the airplane, coupled with an acute lack of funds, forced Louise to withdraw from the MacRobertson event late that month. The free-for-all class of the race, for which the A17FS was uniquely suited, was won by a twin-engine de Havilland DH.88 Comet.
Perhaps it was just as well the A17FS didn’t compete. The additional fuel tanks and their complex system of aluminum tubing and selector valves, all of which would be subject to serious vibration during flight, would have greatly increased the chance of failure during the race. And neither Louise Thaden nor her husband was trained in long-distance flying, let alone dead-reckoning navigation on a global scale. Although disappointed at having to withdraw, years later Thaden confessed that she was “secretly glad we did not go. It was without question a foolhardy enterprise and a dangerous one.”
Despite temperatures that sometimes reached more than 100 degrees in the factory, workers finally put the finishing touches on the brutish Beechcraft and prepared for its maiden flight. Resplendent in a patriotic red, white and blue livery designed to leave no doubt as to the airplane’s nationality, the A17FS thundered into the blue Kansas skies late in September piloted by Robert S. Fogg, who had been flying the A17F.
With his hopes of winning the MacRobertson race gone, Beech was anxious to sell the fire-breathing A17FS to generate much-needed revenue. But at $25,000 it would be a hard sell at best, and Beech knew it. Flight tests continued through the fall, with well-known local pilot George Harte, a friend of Beech’s, at the controls. As he gradually expanded the high-speed flight test envelope, Harte noted that the A17FS had a maximum speed of 230 mph and a cruise speed of nearly 220 mph—faster than most single-engine pursuit planes of its day.
After Harte completed basic flight testing, the airplane was relegated to a dark corner of the factory and left to await its fate. Beech made calls, wrote letters and talked with potential buyers, but a sale was not forthcoming. In addition, he directed Ted Wells to launch a campaign to have the Bureau of Air Commerce license the aircraft under a Group Two approval, which was less demanding than the Type Certificate process and was often used by manufacturers to help sell one-of-a-kind airplanes.
The Bureau, overwhelmed with certification work, was slow to respond to Wells’ plea. More weeks passed with no buyer stepping forward. Beech thought he had lassoed a buyer in November, but the sale never materialized. The A17FS gathered more dust to go along with its growing reputation as the company’s expensive “hangar queen.”
Late in 1934, Beech Aircraft won a bid circulated by the federal government for an airplane “to educate the Bureau’s personnel in the performance characteristics and operation of new, high-speed aircraft equipped with the newest devices and instruments.” Although Walter Beech was elated to have sold the ship, he could not have foreseen the difficulties involved.
In January 1935, James Peyton arrived at the factory to fly the aircraft. His boss, Alfred Verville, the Bureau’s chief of manufacturing inspection, had ordered him to peruse every aspect of the Beechcraft to ensure its airworthiness. After more than five months in storage, the A17FS returned to the sky on January 30. Peyton’s chief aim during a series of flights was to probe the airplane’s stability characteristics and ensure it was free of control surface flutter up to a never-exceed-speed of 313 mph. Verville’s primary concern was that the control surfaces, which were not statically balanced, might flutter at high airspeeds.
Peyton gradually flew the airplane to higher and higher speeds in search of any tendency of the control surfaces, particularly the ailerons, to flutter. Initial excursions at airspeeds approaching 250 mph revealed no issues, but during a dive at 260 mph from 11,000 feet to 8,000 feet, the A17FS went wild. “All of a sudden the whole airplane seemed to quiver, then as I cut the throttle the left wing and tail fluttered vertically so hard that I felt the surfaces were about to leave the aircraft. The left wing fluttered vertically about 18 inches or more and the tail fluttered so bad that I strained my back holding onto the control column. The surfaces continued to flutter until the airspeed indicated 110 mph.”
Fortunately, the airplane held together, and Peyton returned to the airfield without further incident. Confronting Wells, Peyton said he would not fly the A17FS again until the flutter problem was resolved. After a series of modifications, the Beechcraft was cleared to resume testing, this time with another Bureau test pilot, Harold Neely. Those tests were completed successfully, and the Bureau accepted delivery of the biplane in July.
But after less than a year in service, citing the high cost of operating the Beechcraft coupled with a need for frequent repairs, the Bureau withdrew the A17FS from flight operations in mid-1936 and it was put in storage at Queen City Flying Service in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Bureau later considered modifying the airplane to extend its service life, but those plans were abandoned. After an all-too-short career, the obsolete, temperamental Beechcraft was struck from the inventory.
Walter Beech had the biplane returned to the factory, but its subsequent fate remains a mystery. Rumors persist that it was sold to a buyer in California, where it was stored indefinitely, but there’s no evidence to support that contention. It is entirely plausible that the A17FS was dismantled at the factory and disappeared. Regardless of its fate, the bullish Beechcraft will always be remembered as an airplane that had no equal.
Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.