In the wake of Louise Thaden’s forced withdrawal from the 1934 McRobertson International Trophy Race, Walter Beech parked Thaden’s airplane, the bullish Beechcraft A17FS, in a dark corner of the factory on Wichita’s East Central Avenue.
Beech was actively seeking a buyer for the cabin biplane, and he engaged pilot Robert S. Fogg to command the ship on its maiden flight that occurred late in September. Walter was under tremendous financial pressure to sell the Beechcraft – it was the middle of the Great Depression – and although sales of the new, more affordable Model B17L were brisk, only two airplanes had been sold since the company began operating in April 1932.
In November 1934, however, a buyer appeared who was willing to pay $25,000 for the biplane, but the sale failed to materialize. Undeterred, Beech kept up his search. Meanwhile, weeks passed and the A17FS continued to collect dust. Finally, after three months in mothballs, in January 1935, Walter won a contract to sell the Beechcraft to the Department of Commerce’s (DOC) Bureau of Air Commerce for a mere $15,000.
The ship was prepared for flight tests to be flown by DOC Engineering Inspector James N. Peyton – a highly qualified and experienced test pilot. When he started the nine-cylinder, 710-horsepower Wright SR-1820F3 radial engine, the entire airframe rumbled and shook like an earthquake with wings.
Minutes later the airplane roared down the sod runway and thundered into the Kansas sky. Peyton suddenly realized that the A17FS possessed a level of gusto like nothing he had ever flown. During one test the ship easily exceeded 250 mph (indicated airspeed) in level flight, but
Peyton noted that the ship was…”exceedingly longitudinally unstable, with oscillations [that] were very abrupt in that from a dive the nose would shoot up in a very steep climb and drop off in a steep dive.”
As if inherent negative instability was not bad enough, when Peyton carefully began dive tests to check for wing or aileron flutter, the A17FS came close to committing suicide! To quote Peyton’s test report, when he began a dive from 11,000 feet to 8,000 feet at an angle of about 30 degrees (nose down), “All of a sudden the whole airplane seemed to quiver, then as I cut the throttle the left wing and tail fluttered so hard that I felt that 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 on to the control column. These surfaces continued to flutter until the airspeed indicated 110 mph.”
Badly shaken but thankful that the Beechcraft was still in one piece, Peyton slowly returned to the airport, landed and told Walter Beech he refused to fly the ship again until the instability and flutter were corrected. After these serious conditions were addressed and further flight tests were made, in July the ship was accepted and began its short career with the Bureau of Air Commerce.
Registered NS-68, the A17FS was flown chiefly to familiarize Bureau pilots with the handling characteristics of high-performance airplanes and to help maintain instrument flying skills. Although the fire-breathing Beechcraft fulfilled that mission well, it was proving too costly to operate and frequent repairs restricted its utility.
As a result, in mid-1936 the Bureau withdrew the ship from service and placed it in temporary storage. It was decided that the biplane had become obsolete and was too temperamental compared to more modern ships that were becoming available .
After only one year in service, the DOC eagerly sold the A17FS back to Walter Beech, and in August 1936 he delivered a new Model C17R registered NS-1 to the Bureau. The orphaned Beechcraft was shipped back to Wichita and disappeared from history. Despite rumors that the airplane was sold to a buyer in California, there is no known evidence to support that contention.
The powerful, majestic, bullish Beechcraft A17FS would never be forgotten, not by those who created her not by those fortunate enough to have experienced the sheer thrill of flying an airplane that had no equal.