Traveling first class, of course, doesn’t come cheap. Just ask Blane Grow, an anesthesiologist from Paducah, Kentucky, who has owned his circa-1946 Twin Beech for 25 years. Outfitted with long-range fuel tanks that allow it to stay aloft for as long as 13 hours, the airplane had been used by drug runners before being confiscated by federal authorities and left to rot under the south Florida sun. Grow installed new engines and revamped the instrument panel. The work, among other repairs and improvements, cost him a small fortune. But it’s been the increasing cost of fuel that has him wondering about the airplane’s affordability.
“It’s gotten painful to fill up,” he says. Cruising, the Beech 18 uses about 40 gallons an hour, while climbing can consume significantly more fuel. The dual engines on Grow’s Beech have been altered to burn unleaded automobile gas, which these days costs about $2 less per gallon than the low-lead fuel used by most piston-driven aircraft. Even with the modification, flying the airplane can hardly be considered inexpensive. But Grow has no immediate plans to part with it, if for no other reason than his desire to help young people, who are typically more enamored of what he describes as “cyberthings,” better understand the value of such non-cyber treasures as the Twin Beech.
“As long as I can,” he says, “I plan to nurture, preserve, and operate mine as a tribute to a time when individuals were more bold.”
Remember Field of Dreams? The ghost of star outfielder Shoeless Joe Jackson, played by actor Ray Liotta, gazes at the baseball field that farmer Kevin Costner has hewn from a stand of Midwestern corn and asks, “Is this heaven?”
“No,” Costner replies. “It’s Iowa.”
No question a similar scene could play out between any number of Model 18 enthusiasts and Taigh Ramey, whose company, Vintage Aircraft, specializes in restoring the airplanes. Only heaven in this case isn’t Iowa. It’s near the north end of California’s San Joaquin Valley, at the drowsy Stockton Metropolitan Airport.
There, tucked behind the control tower in a corrugated-metal hangar that bakes in summer and can get downright nippy come winter, is a veritable Fibber McGee’s closet crammed with every piece and part that could have any possible use on a Twin Beech: four partially assembled airframes, antiquated flight instruments, engine and airframe components, and shelf upon shelf, box upon box, of fittings, fasteners, and other thingamabobs. When no serviceable replacements can be located, some parts are machined on the premises. Much of the rest Ramey hunts down on Web sites like eBay.
“Fortunately,” he says, “we’re a nation of collectors.”
Ramey’s ode to all things Twin Beech continues outside his hangar. Nuzzled like submarines around a tender are six Beech 18s in various states of renovation or, depending on your point of view, decomposition. Parked alongside them is his latest project, a Lockheed-built, U.S. Navy PV-2D Harpoon, circa 1945.