Roden 1/48 UC-43 Staggerwing

KIT #: 442
PRICE: $52.99 SRP
DECALS: Three options
REVIEWER: Tom Cleaver
NOTES: New tool kit


            Today the Beech Staggerwing is considered “the Learjet of the 1930s.”  Myself, I like to think of it as the 1932 Duesenberg Model J of airplanes - it certainly reminds one of that great 1930s classic from the iconic exterior to the sumptuous interior.  

            Following the merger of the Travel Air Manufacturing Company with the Curtiss‑Wright Airplane Company in mid 1929, Travel Air co‑founder Walter Beech was given the position of President of the Aircraft Division.  Consumed with the desire to pursue his passion for aircraft design, Beech resigned and moved to Wichita, Kansas in April 1932.  He and his wife, Olive Anne, formed the Beech Aircraft Company that month, renting space in the idle Cessna plant.  With fewer than twenty employees, Beech set about with T.A. “Ted” Wells to  design a luxury executive aircraft. The project was considered foolhardy by many, being a large, powerful, fast biplane built specifically for business travel, this at a time when businesses were going out of business. It was the first designed-for-the-purpose corporate transport.

            As the last Travel Air aircraft built had been the Model 16, Beech chose to follow the numerical sequence and gave his new aircraft the name Beech Model 17. First flown on November 4, 1932, the airplane immediately became popularly known as the “Staggerwing” due to its design in which the top wing was  staggered behind the bottom wing, as opposed to the more normal stagger which was the opposite of this.  It set the standard for private passenger airplanes for many years to come.

            The reason for the unusual design was that staggering the wings in this manner maximized the pilot’s visibility while minimizing the tendency to stall, since the angle of incidence was such that the upper wing stalled first.  The Staggerwing’s use of then-uncommon retractable landing gear, combined with streamlining and weight reduction, gave the Model B17 a top speed of 175 mph powered by a 225 h.p. Jacobs, a climb rate of 1,600 fpm, a maximum cruising altitude of 21,500 feet, and a stall-proof landing speed of 45 mph, which allowed the airplane to operate from any airfield.  

            With a then-high price of between $14-17,000 depending on the engine, sales were slow in a depressed market and only two Model 17s were produced in 1933, both financed by an Oklahoma oil man; 18 were produced in 1934.

            Each Staggerwing was custom‑built. A luxurious cabin trimmed in leather and mohair, carrying up to five passengers in comfort, quickly won over the customers. The Model 17's impressive performance also made it a favorite among pilots - with radial engines ranging from 225 to 710 horsepower, it was faster than most military aircraft of the era.  The higher-powered models had a 200 m.p.h. cruise, which might as well have been Mach One in those days.

            What sold the Staggerwing was its record-setting performance.  The 1933 Texaco Trophy Race was won by a Model B17, while Capt. H.L Farquhar flew a Staggerwing around the world from New York to London, by way of Siberia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and back across Europe in 1935. Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes won the prestigious Bendix Trophy Race in 1936, marking the first time that women had won that event, flying a Model C17R.  Jacqueline Cochran used her D17W Staggerwing to set a women’s speed record of 203.895 m.p.h., establish an altitude record of over 30,000 ft. and finish first in the women’s division and third overall in the 1937 Bendix Trophy Race.  With a different pilot, her airplane also made an impressive showing in the 1938 Bendix race, which she won outright in a modified Seversky P-35.  This reputation soon translated into sales as the Staggerwing captured a substantial share of the private passenger aircraft market. By the start of World War II, more than 424 Model 17s had been sold, an astounding number for that period.

            Several Model B17 Staggerwings were used as bombers by Republican Forces in the Spanish Civil War.  China used eight as air ambulances, while the Finnish Air Force had one as a transport from 1940-45 and used a Model G17S from 1950-58.

            In 1937, Beech began a major redesign, which resulted in the Model D17, considered by many to be the “classic” Staggerwing.  It featured a lengthened fuselage that improved the landing characteristics, a shorter landing gear that improved vision on the ground, while the ailerons were relocated on the upper wings, eliminating interference with the air flow over the flaps.  A foot‑operated brake synchronized with the rudder pedals was introduced.  With a 450 h.p. Pratt and Whitney R‑985 engine, the Model D17S had a top speed of 212 m.p.h. and a cruise speed of 202 m.p.h.  260 were produced during World War II, designated UC‑43 by the USAAF AND GB-2 by the U.S. Navy, the Staggerwing was used as a VIP transport.  The British designated their 106 Staggerwings as the Traveller Mk.I, which was used primarily by the Fleet Air Arm; these were apparently taken from the USN GB-2 series. 118 civilian Staggerwings were also inducted for service during the war.

            In 1946, the final Staggerwing, the Model G17S, was introduced.  With an improved cowling, streamlined windscreen, and larger rudder to take on increased power, the G17S was the fastest Staggerwing of all with an easy 220 m.p.h. cruise after the airframe cleanup.  Sixteen were produced by the time production ended. 

            However, the day of the Staggerwing was over as Beech went on the next year to produce the finest single-engine general aviation airplane ever flown, the Beech Bonanza.  The last Staggerwing came off the Wichita production line in 1948, for a total of 781 Model 17 Staggerwings in eight different series produced over 16 years.  

            In 1970, due to a dispute with the T‑6 racing class, the Reno National Air Races invited five Staggerwings to do a demonstration race. Two G models and three D models raced. The five pilots were Bryant Morris, Bert Jensen, Don Clark, Noel Gourselle, and Phil Livingston - the only pilot to have prior racing experience in the T‑6 Class. The race was flawless with ABC Wide World of Sports Coverage, but protests from the T‑6 racers prevented further competition with spurious allegations of safety issues.

            Today, there are still over 270 Staggerwings in existence, with fewer than 100 flying, 61 years after the last one was built.  They still draw a crowd wherever they land, and still compare favorably in performance with all other piston-engine general aviation aircraft ever flown.  Yours truly had the opportunity to fly a Staggerwing at the 1977 Watsonville West Coast Antique Airplane Fly-In, and it is an experience I still treasure.  If I ever won the lottery, the purchase of a Staggerwing would be high on the To-Do list.

            Technologically advanced for its time, the timeless beauty of the Beech Staggerwing coupled with its still-outstanding performance, puts this great classic in a class of one. In the April, 2007 issue of AOPA Pilot magazine, the Staggerwing was voted by nearly 3000 AOPA members as “Most Beautiful Airplane,” calling it “the perfect balance between muscular strength and delicate grace,” and rating it high for its “classic lines and symmetry."  The last production model sold in 1949 for $29,000; you can’t touch one today that’s restored and flying for less than $500,000.


            The only other 1/48 Staggerwing kit was the Model G17S released in the late 1970s by AMT.  It was one of their better kits, and has always been popular among modelers.  The only other injection-molded Model D17 Staggerwing kit I know of is a 1/72 limited-run kit by Special Hobby (Pavla also did several versions including one on floats. Ed).  A 1/72 vacuform Model D17 was also released in the 1970s.

             This kit is fully up to Roden’s high standards.  The parts are crisply molded in Roden’s tan plastic.  The fabric effect is completely realistic and looks exactly like the surface of a Staggerwing from the close-up detail photos I have.  The interior could stand more detail, but there is a question how much of it would actually be visible in the completed model.

             Markings are provided to the YC-43 Staggerwing used by the American Embassy in Britain in 1939-40, in USAAC colors of blue fuselage and yellow wings and tail, an Olive Drab-and-grey USAAF UC-43 based in England, and an overall silver UC-43 used in the United States in 1944-45.  Too bad there aren’t decals for a civil version since that’s really the way the Staggerwing looks best with the “Staggerwing pinstripes,” but Roden knows civil kits don’t sell all that well, even if they are Staggerwings.  These options all appear to be done from photos of restored aircraft, and the markings are not necessarily correct for the original airplane.  


            Overall, this is a simple kit.  So simple, in fact, that I was able to do it as a “weekender” even with the added duties here of chief cook, bottle washer and maid, the result of SWMBO having fractured her humerus two weeks ago in a slip-and-fall.

             The first thing I noticed was how beautifully thin the wings and tail surfaces are, with commendably-sharp trailing edges.  I did however need to sand down the edges of all these parts, due to the fact the kit had far more flash in it than any other Roden kit I have built.  I assembled the separate upper wings and the three-art lower wing, dropped the elevators on the horizontal stabilizers, and set these aside.

             I then painted the cockpit interior.  Military Staggerwings had the same beautiful leather interior that their civilian cousins came with.  I used several different colors of Xtracrylix brown and tan for the leather-covered seats and leather-trimmed cabin walls and bulkheads.  The instrument panel was painted light grey. 

             After I assembled the cockpit and slipped it in a fuselage half, it was clear I wouldn’t see much of the detail inside, so I did not go into any extra detail.  I had already decided to close the cabin door, since I wanted to emphasize the beautiful lines of the Staggerwing with this model.

             Be careful when assembling the fuselage halves, that you get as perfect a joint as possible on the upper fuselage, so you do not have to do a lot of sanding and filling up there, which will lose that ever-so-nice fabric detail.  Also be sure to press the lower rear fuselage into a perfect alignment with the fuselage halves, so you minimize scraping and sanding to get that area smooth. You need to carefully test-fit the lower wing to the fuselage, to get the area of the forward fuselage to fit right.  This is definitely test-fit four times before gluing once.

            Overall, everything fit so well that I only needed to use some cyanoacrylate glue along the centerline seam of the upper fuselage, and in the area of the lower forward fuselage joint to the lower wing, with very light sanding to smooth everything.

            I attached the horizontal stabilizers, and made the mistake of attaching the elevator counterweights.  These are small and thin and easily broken off, which I did, and then had to rebuild one with Evergreen .010 rod.  Do yourself the favor of not attaching these till the last thing you do in final assembly.

            The engine went together without problem and fit inside the cowling.  Everything attached to the forward fuselage without problem.

            I left off the upper wings for final assembly after painting, though I made sure they fit right so I could attach them without glue during painting.

            I discovered while attaching the clear parts that they don’t really fit.  I had to do a lot of test-fitting to get the windshield to fit, and the side windows ever did too well. Fortunately, those windows roll down on a Staggerwing, so leaving them open is an option, that or replace them with clear plastic sheet cut to fit.


            There are very few photographs of military Staggerwings out there.  I was able to determine by going to the online Beech Museum that the markings options provided by Roden are for restored antiques.  The “YC-43" is a Staggerwing that is operated in the Netherlands and is seen around the European air show circuit. The OD airplane is a restored warbird and not done accurately, since they were not done overall OD.

            While perusing the Beech Museum, I did discover a period photograph of a lineup of Royal Navy Traveller Mk.I airplanes, though I was unable to figure out the colors.  I also found an online discussion group, where some knowledgeable people mentioned that Royal Navy Staggerwings were supplied in the USN tri-color scheme, sent on from GB-2 production.  Once I knew that, the colors of the black-and-white photo (which is provided here) were easy, since I could even make out the USN designator stencils on the vertical fin and rudder.  I had been halfway to deciding on a USN scheme anyway, and doing a tri-color scheme with Royal Navy markings made for a different-looking model.

            I used Tamiya Flat White, Intermediate Blue and Field Blue for the camouflage, with some post-shading to the upper colors. 

            I pieced together decals from the Decal Dungeon to make an otherwise-unidentified Fleet Air Arm Traveler Mk.I used around Great Britain in 1944-45 for communications duties.


            I gave the model a coat of Xtracrylix Flat Varnish, then applied exhaust stains on the lower fuselage.  I attached the upper wings and the interplane “I” struts, then used RB productions 4BA stainless steel wire for the simple wing bracing wires.  I then unmasked the windscreen and attached the landing gear and prop.


                        This is the Staggerwing kit I have been waiting for all these years.  The kit design is simple, and the result is bound to look superb.  But I sure do wish they’d included a nice set of civvy markings.

                        The Fighter Collection at Duxford has the only flying Staggerwing in Great Britain, an airplane formerly owned by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, which is known to have been a Fleet Air Arm Traveller Mk. I, FT475. I know they have been trying to decide what military markings to use for the restoration, and I hereby suggest they take a look at this, it’s the best guess from the available information.

            Review kit courtesy of my wallet 

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