Companies doing business in far-flung places use a wide variety of general aviation aircraft to visit their customers. But as far as Pat Napolitano knows, the 1941 Beechcraft Model D biplane he flies on trips representing Mid-Continent Instruments and Avionics is the only Beech Staggerwing flying today as a corporate airplane.
Napolitano knows that he’s about as fortunate as a pilot flying himself around the countryside for business travel can be. So when the airplane turned 75 years old this year, Napolitano said—mostly in jest—to his boss, company President Todd Winter, “Let’s have a party for Queenie.”
The comment by Napolitano, Mid-Continent’s western regional service representative, may have seemed mere whimsy. But Winter ran with the plan and threw Queenie’s birthday party, for which more than 200 guests—and several of Queenie’s contemporaries—turned out for a ramp-dazzling bash at California’s Fresno Chandler Executive Airport on Nov. 5.
“This party is definitely going into the history books. What a great time,” Napolitano later wrote in a thank-you message emailed to the guests.
Mid-Continent Instruments and Avionics was founded in 1964, and was acquired by Todd Winter’s father John in 1980. The company, with locations in Wichita, Kansas, and Van Nuys, California, is “an industry leader in the overhaul/exchange, repair, design and manufacturing of aircraft instruments, avionics and advanced power solutions,” says a historical recap on the company’s website.
Todd Winter wanted Napolitano to have access to an aircraft he could fly to visit the company’s western regional customers. Perhaps something like a Navion or a Cessna 185 would work, Napolitano thought.
What he found himself in charge of instead was Queenie, a Beechcraft Model D17S Staggerwing powered by a 450-horsepower Pratt and Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior radial engine, aircraft serial number 1020, manufactured in Wichita with the date of Sept. 26, 1941.
Queenie served in a succession of military roles until 1946, when the aircraft was acquired by an aviation company for $5,400. In early 1947 its registration number N79091 was issued for civilian use. Its conformity inspection to be operated in the civilian sector was approved by famed aviation designer and engineer Lloyd Stearman. Queenie was passed along to a series of owners in southern California, but flew only about 60 hours from 2002 until 2012, when the aircraft was acquired by Mid-Continent, Napolitano said.
Although Queenie is autopilot- and Garmin GTN 750 nav/com-equipped, the aircraft with its single throw-over yoke retains a “steam-gauge look.” Napolitano flies Queenie from 200 to 300 hours a year on customer visits, in VFR and “light IFR” conditions. This year he flew Queenie to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for the first time, where Lloyd Stearman’s 93-year-old son, Lloyd Stearman Jr., “signed the inside of our map box,” Napolitano said.
Describing Queenie‘s handling and flight characteristics leads Napolitano to say that the Staggerwing feels like “a Starduster Too on steroids”—a reference to the substantial sink rate of the wood-construction aircraft with an empty weight of 3,200 pounds and a maximum 4,250-pound gross weight. The weight also helps manage crosswind landings in the aircraft, which has a lockable tailwheel and effective top-of-the-wing ailerons.
“I rarely use flaps,” Napolitano said.
The aircraft’s mass also makes it a stable platform for IFR flying, he added.
Before flying Queenie, Napolitano had considerable experience flying large taildraggers including 2,000 hours in T-6 Texans (500 of those hours flying in formation). He recently earned an instrument rating and a commercial pilot certificate, and has accumulated about 1,000 hours flying Queenie in the course of his work for Mid-Continent Instruments and Avionics.
Most pilots can only dream of working from home and flying a classic aircraft for business travel. Small wonder Napolitano thought it would be nice to throw Queenie a birthday party.
”I am the luckiest guy in the world to do this,” he said.