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 3 of 5)
“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.
Ramey has owned about a dozen Beech 18s, and says that since starting Vintage Aircraft more than 20 years ago, he’s restored and maintained probably five times that many. Owners from as far away as Australia and Switzerland have ventured to Stockton seeking his advice and services.
Flight students pay upward of $600 an hour (fuel and aircraft rental included), hoping to learn the skills necessary to master an airplane that, unless it’s directed properly, can sometimes prove, like Marilyn Monroe, difficult. Like most taildraggers, the Beech 18, upon landing, is predisposed to ground loop if an aviator is not on his game. In the Twin Beech, the inclination to swap ends can occur with unnerving rapidity.
Some pilots, like John Hannigan, never do get a true feel for the airplane. Hannigan was in his early 70s, a retired mechanical engineer with end-stage prostate cancer, when he first approached Ramey about helping him acquire a B-25 Mitchell bomber. “When he found how expensive the B-25 is to operate,” says Ramey, “he decided, ‘Oh, maybe not.’ ”