The Griffon Aerospace Lionheart – building a better mousetrap!

When Walter Beech suggested that rich U.S. executives might need an aircraft to serve as fast, personal transport around the country, there were some that must have thought him mad, for it was 1932 and at the height of the Great Depression. However, his Chief Designer, Ted Wells, designed an absolutely classic biplane, the Beech Model 17, a.k.a. the Beech ‘Staggerwing’. Called by some ‘an art Deco masterpiece’ the reverse-stagger on the biplane’s upper wing and the steeply sloping windshield and retractable undercarriage all suggested speed. Later, wartime production ensured a healthy supply of Staggerwings for the U.S. armed forces, as well as countries such as China and the U.K. Postwar, a small number of a developed version were built, but Beech soon switched to modern monoplanes, as did the rest of the U.S. light aircraft industry.

There the story of the Beech ‘Staggerwing’ might have ended, with a few dozen much-loved survivors being cherished by their owners in North America and Europe, but there was to be a twist to this tale. Griffon Aerospace Inc. of Alabama are known for using their advanced manufacturing capabilities to produce many thousands of unmanned aerial vehicles (or UAVs) such as the MQM-170C Outlaw for the U.S. Department of Defence. However, their Chief Designer, Harry French, surprised a great number of people in the aerospace industry by designing and building a high-tech business aircraft based on the Staggerwing. The yellow prototype, called the Lionheart and registered N-985L, first flew on 27th July, 1997, just in time for the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual event at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. To say that it was a sensation was a massive understatement. Harry French had slightly stretched the Staggerwing’s fuselage length to give a true six-seat capability, in a wide comfortable cabin. The original’s welded steel tube, wood and fabric construction had been replaced, of course, with a carefully engineered composite structure including carbon-fiber spar end caps. The fit is flawless, with a smooth skin from front to back of the fuselage, flaps and ailerons on all four wings, and fighter-like ‘sticks’, rather than the Beech’s ‘control wheels’. This is appropriate, given the aircraft is stressed to +6/-3 and has a spritely climb of nearly 2,500 ft/min and a roll rate of over 70° per second!

One thing hasn’t changed, in that the ubiquitous supercharged Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior radial, offering 450 hp for take-off and 300 hp at 10,000 feet, is still the preferred powerplant (although engines up to 600 hp can be fitted, if required). This gives a maximum speed of 232 mph, and a cruise of 210. However, the composite structure and modern soundproofing give a surprisingly ‘civilised’ ride. There are other major differences, of course, and perhaps the most surprising is the lack of the single interplane struts between the wings on each side. The cantilever wing structure is so strong that there is no need for these – and, of course, this reduces the drag considerably. Another change is the access to the roomy cabin via an integral airstair on the port side. There are longer and larger cabin windows, of course, than the original design.

The performance offered is quite splendid for a 6-seater aircraft, with a take-off run of about 1,100 ft, when climb is established at 30 inches of manifold pressure and 2,000 rpm, followed by cruise at 22″ manifold pressure and 1,800 rpm. This gives a useful range of around 1,450 miles on about 180 gallons of fuel. The ceiling is 20,000 feet.

However, all this aviation delight comes with an expensive price tag. The Lionheart was marketed as a kit, with a ‘bare cost’ of $96,900, and a factory ‘quick-build’ option costing another $18,000! The build time was estimated as 2,500 man/hours, and it was noticeable that every one of the buyers opted for the ‘quick-build’ option. On top of this, would have been the cost of a zero-timed R-985 ($20/30,000) plus cabin trim and expensive avionics. Needless to say, despite the overall excellence of the design, there were only a handful of kits sold – eight, in fact. Unfortunately, just two are currently flying on the U.S. Register, N15TE, c/n GA-LH-008, built by Charles Ealand, and finished in an attractive blue scheme, with a polished three-bladed propeller, and N110N, owned by James Cassoutt, and painted white with a black/red contrast line.

The aircraft you can see above is on display at the Beechcraft Heritage Museum, a magnificent facility located on Tullahoma Regional Airport, Tennessee. Registered N985CC (c/n 003), this beautiful aircraft was built in 1999 by two brothers, Chuck and Ken Cianchette of Pittsfield, Maine. The aircraft was eventually donated to the Beechcraft Heritage Museum by the Cianchette family, and it is displayed alongside many other historic Beech aircraft, including examples of the Beech 17 and D17 Staggerwing family.

Sadly, according to Griffon Aerospace Inc., the Lionheart aircraft is now listed as being currently out of production. This is a shame, as it was an elegant upgrade of one of the most classic aircraft designs of the 1930s.

7 comments on “The Griffon Aerospace Lionheart – building a better mousetrap!”

  1. A lovely aircraft and so interesting without the wing struts. The performance is admirable but it’s the style that makes it outstanding 🙂


  2. Yes! Another slight but noticeable difference was the revision of the rather ‘ungainly’ tailfin/fuselage contours of the original Staggerwing. Just like those of the early model Boeing B-17, they didn’t look quite ‘right’


    • You have a good eye — I now see what you mean regarding the tail assembly. What about spats though — possible something aerodynamic regarding the wheel struts — but I think some wheel spats would be a positive cosmetic improvement?


      • It’s fully retractable – although sides of the wheels are exposed when flush (rather like the Curtiss P-36 or the Boeing 737 !)


  3. Yes, I see the main wheel bays now. All the better and I should have looked more thoroughly. The Lionheart must look spectacular in flight and worth the money I’d think. It has me wondering about the higher rated engines and what performance could be had. But cruising at 210 mph as far as 1450 miles is a sweet pair of numbers. I’d likely be landing at half that at any rate 😉 What an aircraft to hop out of when visiting an aviation museum or site 🙂


  4. Nice blog, however, there are some minor inaccuracies. The original designer is named Larry French in lieu of Harry and there are currently 3 of them still flying…the one that you failed to list is the original factory prototype still owned by Larry French.


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