“I think I might fly the BE-18 a few minutes next week. If you want a sneak peek, the left seat is yours…” Dan said in a Facebook message to me. It didn’t take long for me to say that I’d be there if I could. You know, as long as the world didn’t end or something.
My old Cessna Cutlass swiftly carried me southwest from Clemson, South Carolina, towards Griffin, Georgia. I flew under the busy Atlanta airspace, and listened to the chatter of the Atlanta controllers on the radio. Soon, the Griffin airport emerged out of the haze. “Griffin traffic, Cutlass two zero charlie uniform five northeast, landing three-two, Griffin.”
Dan came on the radio and guided me into a spot next to his hangar. The Beech 18 was in front, attached to a tug. A red-nosed, polished DC-3 was nosed up under an open part of the hangar on the other side. We walked back and admired the graceful old gooney bird. As I climbed into the left seat, I said that I’d often daydreamed of owning a DC-3 one day. “I daydream of selling one someday,” Dan said with a smile.
We left the DC-3 and walked over to the Beech 18 on the other side of the hangar. We climbed in and sat in the cockpit for a while. The seats do not move, so you have to take what you get. This one seemed to fit me well. Big engines on both sides. Lots of switches. “We have to make sure to identify any switch before we move it,” Dan cautioned. I found the elevator trim wheel on the right side of my seat, and I studied the panel, trying to orient myself to this new bird.
Back outside, Dan pushed the 18 out onto the ramp with the tug. I unhitched the towbar and we did a final walk-around. “Slow, deliberate movements, when you climb in up there,” Dan cautioned as I headed back up front. The cockpit fit like a glove. Dan pulled out a checklist and we carefully followed it.
Left boost pump on. I carefully identified the switch and turned it on. Whirr. Left boost pump off. Mag master on, both mags off. Dan lifted a cover and pressed buttons. A whirring noise came from the left cowling, then the blades started spinning. “Left mags on,” Dan said. My hand slipped; I clumsily flipped the left mag switch to both and the big engine roared to life. Oil pressure. Charging. We did the same for the right; this time my hand didn’t slip off of the mag switch. Slow, deliberate movements, I told myself.
Soon, I was carefully taxiing the big bird. Slow movements on the throttles. Not too low on the RPMs or the plugs will load up. Even out the throttles. Number one is on the left. My brain forgot left and right as I tried to get the tachometer needles to match. Looking up, I saw that we were darting off to the left. Rudder, brakes. Don’t fixate on anything. Pay attention to everything.
At the end of the taxiway, we checked the controls, and did a run-up. Throttles slowly up to 1700. Hold the brakes. The plane crept forward. Hold the brakes harder. Check the mags, count the clicks. It would be bad to turn one off. Click, click. Both. Click. Both. Repeat. Check the props. Press the big red feathering buttons; pull them back off.
I carefully pulled the big bird onto the end of the runway, worried I might smash a light with the big tail, but I wanted all of the runway. Tailwheel locked. Feet on the bottoms of the pedals. I brought the throttles forward and Dan stopped me when we got to takeoff power.
Keep it straight. Luscombe experience is good here. Airspeed is alive. The tail is flying. Wait for 100. The end of the runway is approaching fast now. Rotate. Nose down. We want 100. Nose down. The engines made a sweet roar as we climbed out.
Although the attitude seemed flatter than I was used to, we were steadily climbing. The round engines on each side hummed confidently. Sky King. I headed west and tried some turns. The big plane’s handling was crisp and precise. “Now you know why the Younkins do acro in these,” Dan said.
We headed to Falcon Field for a touch and go. A couple of training aircraft were in the pattern there; they made room for us as we entered the pattern on the upwind.
Turning downwind, gear down. A notch of flaps. Power stays where it is. Turn base, another notch of flaps. Maintain 100. Nose down. The runway filled the windshield. Throttles back. I worked the controls, feeling for the runway. Bump, there it is. Forward on the controls. Bring the power back up. 100, rotate. Nose down. Climb at 100. Nice. Nose down, 100.
We left the pattern and climbed to about 500 feet above the ground to get a glimpse of how we’d see America on our barnstorming tour in a couple of weeks. Cell towers jutted up here and there. Rolling green countryside passed beneath us. Someone looked up and waved. “It’s a hell of a way to see the country,” said Dan.
“There’s the airport,” Dan pointed at Griffin. We entered on the downwind. Gear down, wait for the three indicators to stop bouncing. Notch of flaps. Turn base. I overshot final just a little bit, but there was room to get straight. Getting low. Keep the nose down, add power. 100. Keeping the PAPIs white over red, it looked like we would smash into the traffic lights at the end of runway 32. Nose down. We need 100. Throttles back, I feel for the runway. Bump, forward on the controls. Easy, now. Zig, and a zag to fix it. Brakes. The end of the runway. I carefully taxied back to the hangar.
“Well, you’re about ready for solo,” Dan laughed. This is going to be fun, we both agreed.
In the weeks ahead, look for a pilot report of Dan’s 10-day barnstorming trip in the Beech 18. He promises us lots of photos and good flying experiences.