The Beech Boys

The pilots and fans dedicated to prolonging the stardom of the Beech 18.

“There are many Beech twins, but only one Twin Beech,” in the words of Model 18 owner Enrico Bottieri. (Roger Cain)
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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.’ ”

With Ramey’s guidance, Hannigan opted for a Twin Beech. Ramey found one for him in good condition in Rialto, California, its aluminum skin still trimmed in bright lime-green paint, denoting its former life as a U.S. Air Force instrument-training aircraft. Then he hired Ramey to teach him to fly it.

“John tried to kill me in more ways than all my other students combined,” Ramey says, smiling. “It was a learning experience for both of us.”

Hannigan sometimes confused the fuel-air mixture and throttle controls, starving the engines of gas at particularly inopportune times—like right after takeoff. On occasion, he had trouble with directional control. Once, during an especially windy takeoff at Stockton, the airplane went crosswise and Ramey had to take over, jamming the rudder pedals so forcefully to stop from veering out of control that he snapped a rudder cable.

Hannigan logged about 200 hours in his Beech 18 with Ramey riding right seat. They became close friends. They even flew together to one of the annual AirVenture fly-ins at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Ramey came to respect and admire Hannigan’s pluck, but says he never felt confident enough in his student’s skills to let him fly solo. Hannigan never seemed to mind. Before he died in 2007, he willed the aircraft to Ramey. It still bears Hannigan’s name, stenciled in faded black, just below the pilot’s window.

Ramey’s fascination with the Beech 18 began in 1981, when he was a freshman studying aeronautics at San Jose State University. It was Christmas time. Rubik’s Cube was a big gift that year, but Ramey’s dad, Henry, had other ideas. He bought his son a World War II-era gun turret. On its canvas cover was printed “Training Type A-8 for Model AT-11 Aircraft.”

“My first thought was Cool! My very own gun turret,” recalls Ramey. “My second thought was What the heck is an AT-11?”

It’s a Beech 18, in military uniform.

About David Freed

Contributing editor David Freed is a pilot, novelist, and former Los Angeles Times reporter.

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