At the beginning of the thirties, Walter Beech foresaw a market for a fast enclosed-cabin biplane for executives. He visualised this aircraft having a top speed of 200mph (322km/h) and able to carry four or five passengers in luxury and comfort on long distances up to 1,000 miles (1,610km). When designing the Travel Air Model R, Ted Wells, Herb Rawdon and Walter Burnham had gained experience in high-speed flight. So, Ted Wells began designing a biplane the unique feature of which was the negative-stagger wing layout which procured good stall and recovery characteristics as well as good visibility for the crew. Unfortunately, the project did not draw the interest of the board at Curtiss-Wright. But, when Walter Beech formed his own company in 1932, he decided to complete the design which became the first Beechcraft aircraft, the Model 17.
The reliable 420hp Wright R-975-E2 Whirlwind radial engine was chosen as powerplant, which was to be enclosed in a NACA-type cowling and drove a two-blade Lycoming-Smith controllable-pitch propeller. A Navy N-9 aerofoil section was retained for the wings for low drag and a split rudder was fitted in order to reduce substantially the landing speed. This innovative rudder was activated by means of a lever in the cockpit. The structure of the fuselage was made of steel-tubes with wood and metal formers and wooden stringers. The wings were made of steel-tubes, had I struts and were fabric covered. The wheels of the fixed undercarriage could be partly retracted into their trouser fairings after take-off.
After a full-scale mock-up had been built with the help of Theodore and William Cochrane, in the old Cessna hangar, construction of the prototype was completed on 2 November 1932. Painted brilliant vermilion overall with brown trim and registered 499N, the first Beechcraft biplane took off from the Wichita Municipal Airport, built on the California Section grounds southeast of Wichita, for its un-eventfull maiden flight at 12:30pm on 4 November 1932 with Pete Hill at the controls. Speed tests were begun on 9 November and showed a top speed of 199.5mph (321km/h). In later tests, top speed was increased to 201.2mph (324km/h). These tests also showed, a cruising speed of 180mph (290km/h), a landing speed of 60mph (96km/h), a take-off time of 12 seconds, a rate of climb of 1,600ft/min (487m/min), and a ceiling of 21,500ft (6,555m). The aircraft received its Type Certificate (No.496) on 20 December 1932 and Beechcraft c/n 1 was eventually sold to Ethyl Corporation. It was entered in the Miami Air Races held in January 1933, and, with Eric H Wood at the controls, it won the Texaco Trophy.
Although the prototype showed outstanding performance, W H Beech was not satisfied and asked for improvements. The engineers spent a year improving the aircraft and this resulted in better streamlining and a fast-acting fully retractable undercarriage. A new engine, a 225hp Jacobs R-775 radial, was installed. Flight tests of the new Beechcraft Model B17L (c/n 3, NC270Y) began on 2 February 1934 and proved that these improvements were sound. Tooling for production was set up and three basic models were offered for sale: the Model B17L, the Model B17R and a high powered variant, the Model A17F with a 650hp Wright R-1820-F11 Cyclone.
Though the Cyclone-powered Beechcraft could fly faster than the Army Air Corps pursuit aircraft, there were few buyers. That is why most of the 18 aircraft built during 1934 were Model B17Ls. Happily for the young manufacturer, business climbed in 1935 and production doubled. The B17B, powered by a 285hp Jacobs L-5, was introduced in late 1934, and two new models were introduced in 1935: the Model B17E powered by a 285hp Wright R-760-E1 and the Model B17R fitted with a 420hp Wright R-975, while the Model A17F was abandoned. That year, a successful flight around the world by a Model B17R enhanced the fame of Beech. The trip was undertaken by Capt H L Farquhar, first secretary of the British legation at Mexico City, with Fritz Beiler as his navigator. The aircraft flew from North Beach, New York, to Heston, England, via Canada, Alaska, Siberia, China, India, and North Africa.
In 1936, more important improvements were introduced in the Model 17. The wing flaps were relocated, and the undercarriage legs shortened, resulting in better landing, take-off, and taxi-ing qualities. Minor changes were also incorporated. These improved biplanes were designated Models C17L, C17B, C17R. Permanent improvements led to seven new versions introduced on the production lines between February 1937 and April 1939 (D, E and F Models).
Throughout the war years, Beechcraft Aircraft Corp produced 105 Model 17s for the US Army and 320 for the US Navy. After cessation of war, production was resumed on a new version, the Model G17S, on a low scale. Not for long however for, in 1948, production was discontinued. A very last Staggerwing, a G17S, was assembled from parts on hand at the factory in 1949 (c/n B-20, registered N80321, sold by Henry Seale Aviation Supply of Dallas, Texas). In all, 781 Model 17s had been built of which 356 had been sold on the civil market.