Twin Beech omelettes: learning the ropes from a freight dog

It was either the third or fourth day and night of almost continuous flying. Ray and I had taken turns flying while the other slept. This had been working until I recall waking up and realizing Ray was asleep in the left seat. We were flying straight and level and on course—the Beech 18 had no autopilot but was extremely stable in the air. On the ground it wanted to taxi all over the airport.

The usual name for an autopilot was George, but in this case an actual George possibly should have been flying. After snapping awake and wondering who was supposed to be flying, I started wondering where we were. I looked down, immediately saw we were above a large airport and saw the distinctive shape of a Convair B-36 on one of the taxiways. We were above Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the National Museum of the US Air Force. When B-52s replaced the B-36 as our nuclear deterrent, the B-36 was retired. One was sent to the Air Force Museum and became disabled on the taxiway, where it remained for years as a landmark.

That’s a pretty good landmark for a temporarily disoriented pilot.

Wright-Patterson was right on the course Ray (sitting in the other seat) and I had been repeatedly flying with cargo from Columbus, Ohio, to St. Louis, Missouri. Lane Aviation’s Beech 18, a medium sized twin, served as a cargo carrier most of the time, sometimes taking football fans to Cleveland for Browns games (the Browns were winning occasionally at the time). The purpose of our flights to St. Louis was to haul a large supply of rubber door gaskets from a plant in Lancaster, Ohio, to a Chrysler plant in St. Louis. A rubber workers’ strike was expected shortly and if there were no door gaskets in St. Louis, no Chrysler cars would be built and the plant would shut down. We were flying a preemptive supply to the plant.

Cargo flying was feast or famine. Usually the feast began when a machine would break down in the plant of a supplier of parts to the auto industry. The normal shipping of parts to an auto plant was done by rail on a schedule that would have parts arriving at an assembly plant as they were needed. A delay in this schedule could cause an assembly plant shut down. Traffic managers responsible for the inflow of parts would try to prevent this by having parts shipped by truck, a faster method, as soon as the flow of parts was recommenced. If the delay was long enough that trucks could not catch up, air freight was used to keep the schedule working. Trucking and air freight were more expensive than rail but less expensive than a plant shut down. That would cause loss of revenue from sales and put the assembly workers on furlough.

We picked up our first load in Lancaster, Ohio, which was loaded by a crew from the rubber company. The second load arrived at Lane in Columbus at 2:00 AM. The truck driver, Ray, and I were the only ones at the airport. The truck driver announced that since he was a truck driver, he and his union did not load airplanes. Ray responded that we were pilots and did not load airplanes. We wanted to get in the air to St. Louis and the truck driver wanted to get back to Lancaster and bed, so after a brief impasse we jointly loaded the airplane. We departed for St. Louis and the driver for Lancaster. If we left at night we loaded the airplane and during the day the Lane line crew loaded while we pre-flighted the plane.

Between flights to St. Louis we would generally have enough time to go home to bed and sleep an hour or two before a phone call to Ray would inform him there was another load of gaskets, followed by Ray calling me to tell me to call Flight Service to get the weather and file a flight plan for our next trip to Spirit of St. Louis Airport. This had become easy enough in my groggy state because it was the same flight plan as for all the previous flights. Another load of gaskets was on the way to Lane from Lancaster.

The Chrysler traffic manager who had hired Lane was under a great deal of pressure to keep the plant going so we were always informed that if we did not get to St. Louis by a specific time the plant would close down. The gaskets from our first load and all subsequent loads, however, were still on the loading dock when we made our last departure from St. Louis.

After our night flights to St. Louis, no matter how tired we were, we would go to a little nearby, nondescript restaurant on East Broad Street in Columbus. I would order a western omelette, which to this day I think of as a Twin Beech omelette. The memories of flying that airplane come flooding back when I order what is known here in New Mexico as a Denver omelette, especially starting the radial engines at night and watching the clouds of smoke and blue flame blast from the exhausts to settle down to a small blue glow in flight, similar to that of a Bunsen burner. You could adjust the fuel mixture by watching the color of the flame. I can still see the sparkling lights of cities and towns as we passed over them on clear nights. They seemed to be the scattered embers of campfires seen from far above.

Twin Beech
The Twin Beech was not an easy airplane to land, but it was a great way to build time.

The opportunity to fly with Ray on cargo flights made up for my delayed entry into flying. The delay was caused by the death of my brother in 1944, who flew a P-47 Thunderbolt in support of US ground troops in Europe. Applying for pilot training was more than I wanted to inflict on my mom so flying was long delayed.

Ray had experienced all forms of flying but military. He had been a crop-duster and organized and run a college flight training program. He had been a contract pilot flying C-46 aircraft to the far north, in complete darkness, in difficult weather, with inaccurate charts and compasses, no directional radios, with supplies and equipment to build the early warning radar DEW line. He had been with the airlines. It was extremely difficult to become an airline pilot without military experience at the time that Ray had done it. If you resigned it was impossible to get rehired.

He left because his new wife had become hysterical because of an air crash that occurred while he was flying. She assumed it was him and she had to be hospitalized briefly. He cared more about her than his career. His change of occupation did not change the marital situation and a divorce followed. Ray went back to flying in whatever position was available but never returned to the stable, better paying job with the airlines. He was chief pilot at Lane when I knew him. Women often help a spouse in career achievements but Ray’s experience definitely had the opposite effect.

Flying with Ray, I had the opportunity to do things I would have been very apprehensive to do alone. We flew in all kinds of weather, mostly at night. I learned navigation skills and dealing with Air Traffic Control that could only be learned from an old hand. On one of our VFR night flights to St. Louis, Ray said to me, “which way do you think it is to St. Louis?” I pointed to where I thought it was and Ray said, “that looks OK to me, let’s fly that way.”

In a little while he said, “In about an hour we should see the lights of Terre Haute just off to our right.” As predicted, the lights of Terre Haute showed up where and when Ray said they would. That night I learned relaxed confidence was as important as the calculations one learned in pilot training. It was not as easy to get lost as I thought.

Another night, landing in Wilmington, Delaware, on an instrument approach, I was handling the radio. As we descended to the runway through heavy cloud, the tower asked at what altitude we had broken out of the overcast. I was about to respond 180 feet when Ray grabbed the mike and responded, “250 feet.” He then said to me, “check the take off minimums. If you said 180 we would be stuck in Wilmington for at least the rest of the night.” I learned a new communication skill and to be suspicious of other pilot’s reports when landing in instrument conditions.

Just about everyone has driven in a rainstorm so heavy that they have pulled off the highway and parked. One night flying into Rockford, Illinois, in Lane’s Cessna 337 Skymaster, Ray and I landed in a rainstorm like that and the only place to park was on the airport—but we had to land there first. There was no forward visibility as we were in clouds, and water was streaming in sheets across the windscreen. As we flew down the ILS path to the runway, Ray hollered over the pounding noise of the rain, “watch for the strobes, I’m staying on the gauges until you see them.”

ILS approach at night
Looking for the lights…

I watched for the flashing runway end lights while Ray kept the needles centered on the ILS to keep us on the path to the runway. I was glued to the windshield, which was almost opaque with rain. Suddenly, pulsing flashes of light lit up the windshield and I yelled “I got the strobes.” Ray had flown us right down to the approach end of the runway to land. I don’t think he could see to land but instinct from many other hairy incidents took over. We managed to get to a taxiway and get off the runway in case someone else was unlucky enough to be landing at Rockford behind us.

Ray showed me how to use the Automatic Direction Finder (ADF), an instrument now being phased out, to avoid thunderstorms while in clouds. When lightning would occur, the ADF needle would swing wildly in the direction of the strike. One could fly in a direction away from the strikes and the accompanying dangerous turbulence. That principle was later used to invent an instrument called the Stormscope, that showed where lightning strikes were occurring in relation to your flight path.

Once on a daylight return trip to Columbus, I asked Ray what it was like to crop dust. Since we were flying at low altitude to avoid stronger headwinds, Ray responded by spotting a large cornfield ahead of us and descending at 200 miles an hour—to about 10 feet above the tassels on the corn stalks—and said, “like this.” What I remember most is seeing a rabbit fleeing through the rows of corn at maximum hopping speed. I have to admit I was relieved when Ray took us back up to 500 feet.

There are methods, developed over time, regarding most of the difficulties encountered in flight to safely deal with them. There is one that I encountered on a charter flight to Grand Rapids, Michigan, that I have never found a solution to, except by quick reflexes and hoping for the best. That situation is a crosswind on an icy runway, especially one that has partial, bare, non slippery patches. The icy patches require one set of control actions and the bare spots another. Destructive side loads on the landing gear would be one result and being blown off the runway would be the other from such a situation.

One night flying into Detroit Metro in blowing snow, I saw Ray chew his ever present cigar with great intensity when landing the Twin Beech in a strong crosswind on a very icy runway. The plane had a reputation for being a very difficult airplane to handle on the ground, which added to the intensity of this landing. We, and Ray’s cigar, survived the experience. We did better than the cigar.

In addition to the invaluable learning experience, I got most of my instrument training from Ray in actual conditions and also did part of my instrument flight test in the Beech with Ray (who was also an FAA Pilot Examiner). I respected Ray and was very grateful for what I learned from him, however a problem came up involving a conflict of interest that I had to acknowledge.

Mr. Varner, a partner at Lane, did the hiring of the front desk ladies and did a very good job of finding attractive ladies for the position. Ray told me he was interested in one of the ladies running the front desk at Lane Aviation. I did not know how to deal with this as I was already in a relationship with that lady, one that had reached the point where she was making nightly visits to my nearby apartment. We were both helping overcome the loneliness of fairly recent divorce. The problem was solved for me by an offer of a position teaching industrial design at Kent State. It removed me from the conflict of interest and also the concern that the desk lady relationship was not a permanent one.

Although I had design clients while flying, I went back to industrial design and teaching design, the other strong professional interests in my life. I continued personal flying at a much higher experience level than I would have otherwise, because of a year of flying as an instructor, charter pilot, and especially cargo flying with Ray. This was possible because Ray needed someone that he thought could keep a Twin Beech right side up while he napped. This was an experience that most general aviation pilots do not have access to and which I treasure. I hoped Ray and the desk lady would connect and live happily ever after, but unlike most fairy tales, that did not happen.

What is called a western omelette in Ohio will always be a Twin Beech omelette to me. When eating one, I will hear the rumble of radial engines, see the blue flame from the exhausts, and the sparkle of city and small town lights scattered below in the blackness.

13 Comments

    • Great story. Beech 18s were numerous when I first arrived in Honolulu at the University where I was employed. The Beeches were used mainly for sight-seeing the neighbor islands, with a circle above the Kiluea Volcanoe on the Big Island, stop at Hilo for lunch and fuel, and return via the north shores of Maui and Molokai. I have not heard the familiar sound of their twin Pratt & Whitney engines for a long time.

  • Great story! You may be interested to know that Mr. Varner was still working at Lane when I worked in an office there in the 1980s. Even after retirement he would stop-in and say hi, always impeccably dressed in a 3 piece suit.

  • I have good memories working on the line at Lane Aviation in 1973. I remember fueling Twin Beeches on their nightly mail runs on cold winter nights when some would arrive loaded with ice. I wound up several years later as a copilot on a DC3 with contract freight runs out of CMH and CVG to MEM and later to MDW.

    • Warren, as a side note: I flew for an airline for years and years – a major one. We were at CMH one afternoon in the dead of winter. 1. Our airplane’s APU didn’t work. 2. We needed de-icing. 3. Our company’s de-icing equipment didn’t work either. 5. Nobody in our company knew what to do. 6. I, as captain, got on the phone to Lane Aviation. (I had been dealing with them for years and years…) 7. Within 30 minutes we were de-iced by Lane equipment and personnel and hooked up to a fantastic huffer owned by Lane. 8. Fifteen minutes later we were off the ground and on our way west. Our station manager was not happy. Lane was, and will always be, the best in my book.

  • What story. I had visions of Sky King, Penny, and Smilin Jack. Freighter Dogs and Phantoms. The automated aviators don’t understand what they’re missing. Thanks for the best thing I’ll read this Sunday.

  • Great Story, the Beech 18s are all in the bone yards now in the North Country. They were still going strong in the 1980s up here, the war of attrition has retired em all…

  • Great story about a great time in aviation. I fueled may Twin Beeches in my early days, I have a great respect for these aviators. Lane is still tops in the Midwest.

  • Great story and nice to see I’m not the only one that the Twin Beech made such a strong impression on so many years ago!
    Along those lines….if you liked this story I’m guessing you would like a book I recently found….”I’ll take the 18 The Story of Beech 18 Freight Flying” by Scott Gloodt
    It too brings that era alive much the way this article did.
    The 70’s and 80’s were a fascinating time to begin a flying career and so different from now. We had no idea what laid ahead and until recently I thought this generation was in for a very smooth ride compared to us. If you are starting your career now hang in there, it’s still worth it and times will change!

  • Thanks much to all of you for your comments. They are very much appreciated. When you are 90 and your life is mostly memories it is great to know you brought back good memories to others who knew and enjoyed what you were writing about.

    George

  • What a GREAT flying adventure you have shared George. To have flown 41 different aircraft during your 60+ years of FLYING is VERY impressive. Thank you, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!……. Below is, ‘When Did You Know’, more information about me (Joel Godston) than you ever wanted… but now you have it. I was born on July 4, 1934, living on Staten Island, when at the age of 9, I knew I wanted to be involved in Aviation. My parents helped me purchase a Thor model airplane motor…. really wasn’t
    much good…. would not run very well even on the motor stand I constructed…. built u-control model ‘high speed’ model airplanes… Graduated Curtis High School in February 1952…went to RPI to become an Aeronautical Engineer and in Air Force ROTC… Graduated… was in the Air Force pilot training class of 57-H…. First flight in a ‘souped up’ Piper Cub was on February 2, 1956…. Became a pilot after almost being ‘washed out’… flew B-47’s with an Aircraft Commander who flew B-17’s in WWII…. flew F-86H’s and F-84’s in the Mass. Air National Guard…worked at Pratt & Whitney, division of United Technologies, Inc. for about 40 years….. Now retired mentoring and ‘teaching’ aviation related subjects with elementary, junior, and senior high school students, and previously adults in Dartmouth’s ILEAD program…. Received the EAA Leadership Award in 2006, and in 2010 The Wright Brothers “Master Pilot” Award from FAA “In recognition of your contributions to building and maintaining the safest aviation system in the world, through practicing and promoting safe flight operations for 50 consecutive years”… Organized Airport Awareness Day and Young Eagle Rally at Lebanon Airport for 4 years and Dean Memorial Airport for 14 years… continued flying in our 1976 Cessna 182 to travel, and fly youngsters to become a Young Eagle, an EAA program chaired by Sully & Jeff, pilots of the now-famous US Airways Flight 1549 ditching in the Hudson River… My last flight in our 1976 Cessna 182 (N1408M) was in October 2011 and sold in 2012… VERY sad; but I had 55 years, 1,996 hours flying time with 1,762 take-offs and landings… much fun, challenges, excitement, and pilot-in-command time… In 2014 I became a ‘Ground Pounder’, member of EAA Chapter 26 Seattle, WA co-chairing monthly newsletter, “WIND IN THE RIGGING, belike”, and doing mentoring/seminars on many Aviation related topics with youngsters & ‘elderly’.
    Being in Aviation, EAA Young Eagles program (flown just under 400 youngsters), and mentoring youngsters has been, and is, a VERY rewarding experience. Finally. I would like to have a 5-10 minute telcon with you sometime to share some of our flight experiences, etc. So, let’s do that. My telcon is (206) 382-3643. Better yet, PLEASE email me your telcon number and some date(s) and time(s) that are good for you; and I WILL telephone you.

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