The Beech Boys
The pilots and fans dedicated to prolonging the stardom of the Beech 18.
- By David Freed
- Air & Space magazine, January 2013
(Page 2 of 5)
The AT-7 Navigator, AT-11 Kansan, C-45 Expeditor. The Bug Smasher. The Exploder. The Slow Navy Bomber. The Wichita Ice Maker. The Wichita Wiggler. All were Beech 18s. Over the years, 32 variants, both military and civilian, were manufactured. Federal aviation officials approved more than 200 changes to the original design, including aerodynamic and structural improvements to the wings, engines, and landing gear. One modification, to the fuselage, was purportedly ordered by Olive Ann, the wife of company founder Walter Herschel Beech.
As the story goes, the self-made aircraft mogul was riding to New York in a Model 18 along with Olive Ann and a few of her friends when he excused himself to visit the small toilet compartment at the rear of the cabin. Upon finishing his business, Beech, a large man, realized that, because of his airplane’s tapering roofline, he didn’t have room to hike his pants up.
The door to the restroom flung open. A frustrated Beech stepped out and, in plain view of Olive Ann’s friends, squared himself away. Olive Ann was not pleased. Soon after landing, she reportedly instructed company engineers to make sure a similar episode never happened again. Their solution was to blow out the top of the fuselage and build in another six inches of headroom.
Some aviation historians believe that Walter Beech copied Lockheed’s similar-looking Model 12 Electra Junior: an all-metal, twin-radial-engine craft that could comfortably transport a half-dozen executives for more than 800 miles at nearly 200 mph. Ferrying well-heeled businessmen between sales calls and board meetings, however, was only part of the Beech 18’s job. From Argentina to Zaire and virtually everywhere in between, Model 18s evacuated the sick and injured as air ambulances, delivered the mail, dropped parachutists, ran guns and narcotics, seeded clouds, sprayed insects, and sowed good bugs to eat the bad ones. They fought fires, conducted photo-reconnaissance, and towed advertising banners. Equipped with pontoons or skis, Beech 18s became bushplanes. Flown by famed stunt pilots like Frank Tallman, they appeared in memorable Hollywood films (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; Octopussy) and a few less than memorable ones (Nicolas Cage’s Con Air; Vin Diesel’s xXx).
The Twin Beech was also a prodigious freighter. Crates of canceled checks, drums of frozen buffalo meat, automobile parts, oil-drilling equipment—you name it, pilots say, and the Beech 18, often overloaded, probably flew it. Alec S. Hamilton, an American Airlines DC-10 captain who flew Beech 18s while hauling copies of the Wall Street Journal between northern California and Salt Lake City, remembers one flight during the early 1970s in which he transported cargo that ordinarily would have flown on its own.
Hamilton was dispatched to Guaymas, Mexico, to pick up a shipment of African Grey parrots. The birds screeched like crazy as they were loaded aboard. “As soon as I started the engines,” says Hamilton, “they never made another sound.” Perhaps the parrots grew mesmerized by the harmonic “music” that pilots say the Twin Beech engines croon when balanced and in tune—a soothing Zen-like hum, far removed from the impersonal whine of a 21st century jet turbine.
To command the surprisingly agile Twin Beech, as I did briefly from the right seat of one owned by Matt Walker, cruising low over the Inland Empire east of Los Angeles, is to be transported not only in time, but also in mindset. In an era of function over form, the Beech 18 serves as a reminder that there is still value in unhurried elegance.
“Every time I [fly in a Beech 18], I feel like I’m going first class,” says retired Air Force mechanic Paul Minert, who became a Twin Beech fan while helping restore Bottieri’s Impossible Dream.
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.