If Marilyn Monroe had been an airplane, she would have been a Beechcraft Model 18. With buxom radial engines and ample forked tail, the Beech 18 has not just the movie star’s curves, but, like her, an adoring fan club. Pilot and civil engineer Matt Walker is a member.
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Walker, 58, owns four Beech 18s. His affair with the airplane started soon after he graduated from engineering school in 1980, when he began moonlighting on evenings and weekends flying Beech 18s on cargo runs in and out of Long Beach, California. “They’re kinetic art,” says Walker. “The airplane always draws a crowd wherever it goes.”
Of all the piston-powered airplanes manufactured in the United States, none has remained in continuous production longer. The Beech 18, also known as the Twin Beech, rolled out of the Beech Aircraft Company’s Wichita, Kansas assembly plant from 1937 to 1970. In all, 8,980 Model 18s were built, 5,186 of them during World War II as military transports and trainers.
Yet despite its vast numbers and long-standing popularity, no more than perhaps 50 remain in commercial use worldwide. Another 300 or so are believed to be held by private collectors, pampered hangar queens mostly, dusted off and flown only during airshows, if at all.
While time has taken its toll on those that remain in flying condition, the ardor of Twin Beech enthusiasts is hardly on the wane. Proof of the airplane’s popularity shows up on the Internet, where forums like beechtalk.com and beech18.net have supported a community of self-proclaimed “Beechnuts,” who swap everything from maintenance tips to photos of their favorite airplanes.
H.F. “Enrico” Bottieri, 87, is a longtime Beech 18 owner. During World War II, he trained as a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot but was never deployed overseas. He subsequently spent nearly 30 years as a TWA flight engineer and captain. Logging more than 25,000 hours in the air, he’s flown nearly 100 aircraft types. But it was not until the Beech 18 he has owned since 1975 was nearly destroyed in a bizarre incident that Bottieri learned just how much one old airplane can affect lives.
The motives remain muddled, but one day in 1985, an emotionally unstable airplane mechanic rammed his car at high speed into Bottieri’s Beech while it was parked on the ramp at his home airfield in warbird-friendly Chino, California. The damage was extensive: The wings were wrinkled, and the tail assembly was bent nearly 30 degrees. (The mechanic was uninjured and was arrested.) Even though Bottieri was at the time a licensed airframe-and-powerplant mechanic, he couldn’t do all the repair work himself. But something extraordinary occurred: When word of the assault on the airplane spread, volunteers began showing up, offering to help fix it.
Most were not aviators, and few had any experience in aircraft restoration. Yet every Saturday, rain or shine, and sometimes Sundays too, they would meet for a cookout and spend the day in Bottieri’s hangar, slowly piecing the Twin Beech back together. For many, says Bottieri, the experience “was almost like going to church.” Whatever problems they endured in their lives away from the airfield—meddlesome bosses, bad marriages, health issues—were put aside as they focused on repairing the vintage aircraft. In all, more than 200 people pitched in for 16 years to restore the Beech 18 to airworthiness.
One of them, Stephen Törnblom, 35, was not yet in his teens when he began persuading his father to drive him every Saturday to Bottieri’s hangar. While laboring over the damaged aircraft, Törnblom says, he learned how to see a task through to completion. He also learned how to grill a mean hamburger. “I was the one who barbequed,” says Törnblom, who works today in Long Beach as an operations coordinator for JetBlue.
After his army finished restoring the airplane, Bottieri christened it Impossible Dream. He wears its likeness on the back of his leather flight jacket, along with the embroidered words “Beech Boys,” the name of the association he helped found to carry on the legacy of the Model 18. Bottieri had quadruple bypass surgery in July 2011, but that hasn’t stopped him from flying Impossible Dream (he is accompanied by another pilot).