The Beech 18

For a while, when I was growing up, my father and a few partners owned a twin Beech. The model 18 Beech was (and still is) an iconic airplane that gave rise to modern corporate aviation, supported bye expansion of overnight freight deliveries and was an important part of World War II, the Korean War and the War in Vietnam.

Walter Beech made his corporation and his name with the model 17 Staggerwing. The airplane had a distinctive look for a biplane with the top wing mounted farther aft than the bottom wing. The plane featured a luxurious enclosed cabin and could cruse at over 200 mph. 785 of the planes were built after the prototype first flew in 1932. The plane was powered by a reliable Pratt & Whitney wasp junior 9 cylinder radial engine that produced 450 horsepower. Beech followed up with the success of the staggering with a thoroughly modern, aluminum-skinned twin engine, low wing cruiser with an iconic twin tail. By placing vertical stabilizers at the ends of the horizontal stabilizer, the rudders were in line with the prop wash from the engines and had much more authority than a conventional single rudder. First flown in 1937 the twin came with seating configurations from 6 to 11 seats and was built very stout. The coming of World War II increased demand for the reliable airplane. Two military configurations, the AT-11 and the C-45 were produced, the first being a trainer to transition pilots form single to multiple-engine aircraft and the latter a cargo version. They were real workhorses during the War.

My father spent much of his time in the Army Air Corps training pilots in the AT11 and accumulated a lot of hours in the type. In the early 1960’s he saw the opportunity to buy a surplus C45G and began the process of upgrading it to serve as a charter and air ambulance platform. The engines were overhauled and new three-blade props were installed. The nose was lengthened with a cargo area up front. A one-piece windshield was installed and insulation and soundproofing added to the passenger compartment. The airplane took burn patients to Houston, TX, brain injury patients to Rochester, MN, and transported prisoners between federal and state prisons. It took our family on some wonderful vacations including a one-stop trip to Washington, D.C. with a stop in Chicago on the return, a trip to San Francisco with a stop in Salt Lake City and a non-stop return, and a trip to Seattle. Our time of owning the airplane was before the boon in night flown package delivery pioneered by UPS, and the airplane just couldn’t generate quite enough business to make it a big financial success. It was eventually sold and continued to work for many years. A lot of the original 9,000 twin beeches manufactured are still flying, though more an more of them are retired to the luxury of collectors items and show planes. The only serious air worthiness directive on the plane had to do with the attachment points for the main spar that ran through the cockpit just behind the pilot’s cockpit. The spar straps that became mandatory solved the problem and the airplanes remain safe and reliable to this day.

I recently began reading “I’ll Take the 18” by Scott Gloodt. It is the story of freight hauling in twin beeches during the seventies and early eighties by a pilot who is very realistic and only a little bit nostalgic about the airplanes. It is a good recreational read for someone who loves airplanes and flying lore. The book reads a bit like sitting around a hanger at the airport and listening to the stories of the old hands. I’ve invested more than a few hours listening to that kind of story over the years as bit of an airport bum.

Reading the book reminds me of the sound of those twin wasp engines when they were in perfect synchronization. Our plane didn’t have an automatic synchronization system, so adjusting the throttles and props to their perfect settings for best fuel economy and cruise was an art. Seasoned pilots like my dad would advance the left engine an inch or so more in manifold pressure than the right for takeoff and landing to counter the torque of the engines and give more rudder authority for a crosswind. Dad would wait until he was on final approach to move the props to full pitch just to keep the noise down as he flew over town. I learned to recognize not only the sound of the twin beech, which was distinctive, but I could tell who was flying it by the sound of an approach. In later years, when the spray planes all had constant speed props, we got used to hearing them increase in noise as they flew over our place because the pilots advanced the throttles as part of their pre-landing checklist and without any concern for their noise footprint on the ground.

In cruise, the 900 hp of those engines would just purr. In the back of the airplane it was a gentle drone and it was easy to sleep as we flew. Most trips, however, I was too excited to sleep. My favorite place to ride was perched on the spar between and little bit behind the pilot and copilot seats. I had a clear view of the instrument panel, the throttles and other engine controls, and could see out the window clearly. I have a very clear memory of sitting there as we broke out of the clouds approaching Chicago from Lake Michigan and lingering even though I had ben ordered back to my seat and buckling up for the landing. It was an amazing sight.

I owned a share in a Beechcraft for a few years, though it was a basic trainer, the 4 passenger Musketeer. Ours was a 1963 model and I flew it enough to give our children a few memories of flying. These days my flying is reserved to passenger seats and a fair amount of daydreaming. I still rush outside and look at the sky when I hear a radial engine, especially when it is a twin. And, most of the time, when I do, it is a Beech 18 still gracing the skies after all these years.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!