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 5 of 5)
Vintage Aircraft has since grown to employ an office manager and five full-time mechanics, including Rick Clausen, 55, a former computer network administrator who is also a pilot with DC-3 experience. After being laid off 10 years ago from his corporate job, Clausen chanced to meet Ramey at a gathering of warbird enthusiasts, and asked if he had any openings. Ramey eventually called.
“He said, ‘I’ve gotta change a fuel pump real quick. Any interest?’ ” remembers Clausen. “I was down here in 20 minutes and never left.”
Clausen earns a third of what he made managing computer systems, but says that working on Beech 18s all day comes with its own rewards. “It’s so funky, it’s not even retro,” says Clausen. “For all those digital folks out there, it’s completely and totally analog.”
Pulleys and cables. Flight instruments that could have been designed by Jules Verne. An autopilot? Dream on. In an age of shiny glass cockpits and fly-by-wire controls, many who own a Beech 18, including Roscoe Diehl, a former Lockheed F-104 test pilot and retired Delta Air Lines captain, would have it no other way. “This is a plane you fly from the minute you pull chocks to the minute you put ’em back under the wheels,” says Diehl. “It’s definitely a challenge.”
Revered as it is, the Twin Beech comes with the kind of complications common among its contemporaries: Serviceable parts are becoming more elusive. The nation’s biggest supplier of Beech 18 components, Oklahoma-based Southwestern Aero Exchange, shut down operations when its owner died in 2006 and is liquidating its inventory. Then there is the advancing age of many of its most ardent devotees, who were born before the Twin Beech was on the drawing board. When asked what will be the airplane’s legacy when they are all gone, some shrug their shoulders stoically.
“An antique toy without any real function” is how Diehl envisions what will become of the Beech 18—the inevitable fate of most machinery trumped by technology’s relentless march.
Ramey professes little concern over the aircraft’s future. Work orders at his shop remain steady, he reports. “We are all just caretakers of these treasures,” he says. “If we do our jobs right, the aircraft will live for many future generations to enjoy long after we are gone and forgotten.”
Matt Walker is too preoccupied to ponder such thoughts just now. He’s prepping his favorite Beech 18 for flight. N1828D was once owned by the company that made Lay’s potato chips. Walker found it in 1992, sitting all but abandoned at a parachute drop zone outside Kapowsin, Washington. The airplane had not been flown in 11 years, and owls had converted the fuselage into condos. Walker spent 18 months restoring the airplane to airworthiness. He used to take skydivers up in it. Now he mostly flies it for pleasure, and to wing him and his wife between their homes in Henderson, Nevada, and southern California.
As spectators gather on the ramp at Chino, Walker energizes the right boost pump, cracks the throttle, and sets the friction lock. Then he simultaneously thumbs the primer and starter buttons, keeping a close eye on fuel, oil, and temperature gauges.
“C’mon, baby,” he coaxes the hulking 450-horsepower Pratt & Whitney right engine. Then he starts up the left. The Twin Beech’s powerplants protest at first, coughing and sputtering like old men roused from sleep, before roaring to life, a defiant shout at history.
David Freed is a pilot, novelist, and former Los Angeles Times reporter. His latest mystery-thriller, Fangs Out, will be released in May.