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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He learned all he could about the airplane. Later, he would discover that his father, an Army Air Forces navigator and veteran of the Pacific campaign, was part of an AT-11 crew that had buzzed a control tower on Japanese-held Rota in the Mariana Islands, prompting the lookouts to leap for their lives.

Ramey was hooked.

He was determined to find an AT-11 to accommodate his fully functioning .30-caliber gun turret. As it turned out, San Jose State owned two non-flying Beech 18s, which had been used to train would-be airplane mechanics. One of the airplanes, he determined upon close inspection, had served as a wartime AT-11. Ramey bought it for $250. He had to borrow the cash from his mother.

“And that,” he says, surveying the repository of history that is his hangar, “is how all this madness started.”

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.

About David Freed

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

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