St. Thomas – A day at the Beech
Well I finally finished it, the diorama’s pièce de résistance. And boy was it ever a piece of résistance. Back in Texas, we had word for projects like this – “Snakebit.” This Beech was “snakebit.”
To date, this is undoubtedly the most challenging modeling project I have undertaken. I became the Sisyphus of modeling, paint it one day thinking it was finished, only to have to roll out the paint and do it again the next day. This went on for months. This model would have tested the patience of Job.
Lord: “Job I want you to build a model of the twin Beech and put pairs of all the animals on board – wait, wrong page. Forget the animals Job, just build the Beech.
Job: “That’s it I’m outta’ here!”
More than once I truly wanted to fly this model into the wall (unlike Boeing 767s flying into twin towers, Twin Beechs have never been known to come out the other side intact). However, one finally reaches a point in time, effort and money where they decide “glue smudges, paint flaws and warts be dammed, it’s going on display!” I know I’ve come a long way when I can finish a model like this intact. Maybe too far.
Okay guys, you can take the straight jacket off now, I think I’ll be okay. Besides, I’m tired of typing with my nose.
And now for the story behind the Twin Beech.
~ Islands in Between ~
Friday evening, 1985. It was a memorable moment at the end of a long day. I was sitting on the beach at Hull Bay St. Thomas, United States Virgin Islands. The sun setting on the horizon was a lovely sight, but I wasn’t paying attention to the sunset. Instead, I was focusing my attention on the dollar a bottle, Mt. Gay Rum I was drinking and chasing with beer. It was all I could afford on my salary. This was a fitting end to a daily exercise routine that usually ended with an hour-long swim in Hull Bay and on this particular occasion, I felt I deserved the added relaxation.
Gentle waves lapped quietly at my feet and most of the tourist had departed the previous week. The water, always aquamarine, was now deep azure from the setting sun. Perhaps it was just the intense color of the Caribbean sunset or maybe it was just the alcohol taking effect. It really didn’t matter, I was happy to be there.
The day hadn’t started that way, it had begun gray and overcast with embedded thunderstorms. Most people don’t pay much attention to embedded thunderstorms, but I did. My job was flying cargo consisting of foodstuffs, building materials, and other various sundries from island to island. The job required flying under and around those thunderstorms.
The aircraft I would spend my day in was a Beechcraft, Model 18, commonly referred to as a “twin Beech.” I am unsure of how this particular name came to be, as Beechcraft made a number of different twin-engine aircraft to which this generality could apply, but when one said “twin Beech” they invariably referred to the Model 18.
This particular Beech was a wartime relic the military had designated “C-45,” along with the official name “Expediter.” Military pilots frequently referred to the Beech as the “Bug Smasher,” but we just called it “Twin Beech.”
This aircraft had been modified with a large, two-door cargo hatch replacing the small, oval passenger door of the original passenger configuration. The cargo hatch was supplemented with a crew door that was accessed by climbing on the wing. The crew door was used because the cabin was usually filled with cargo, making it impassable. This was the aircraft I would fly on the morning run to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
That gray morning, I had begun feeling like a working stiff about to spend another day on the job. Many people think flying is glamorous work; it isn’t. It’s simply a job with a great view out the window.
The Beech 18 is an all-metal, twin engine, low wing monoplane that drags its twin tails around. It greatly resembles the Model 10 Lockheed seen at the teary end of the movie Casa Blanca. This particular example was about the same age as the movie, but the plane in the movie wasn’t a Beech and I certainly wasn’t Bogey – I boarded the plane.
Settling into the cockpit, I eyed the overcast through the dirty windshield. I thought about using the windshield wipers to clean it, until I remembered earlier that week the chief of maintenance had told me to remove the wipers. When I inquired about the reason for this action, he replied: “Because, the motors have burned out and we don’t have replacements.”
To save myself the laborious process of removing the wiper motors, located inside the nose, under the dash, behind the instrument panel, along the paper work involved in revising the weight and balance schedule, I climbed on the nose with a hacksaw and cut the wiper motor shafts off at the base and then filed them down. That was the kind of operation it was, as well as the reason there were no windshield wipers.
I reflected on the fact that I was about to fly into questionable weather in an aircraft that was fully instrumented, to the point of having weather radar. Too bad the radar didn’t work, but then again not much of anything on the instrument panel worked either, so the inop radar was nothing out of the ordinary. The panel sure did look good though – at least when the inspector came around. Fortunately, he was never aboard to see the panel in action. Had that been the case, our operation might have never left the ground.
The run to San Juan, via St. Croix, took about an hour and a half in the Beech. The entire trip would be made over water, as is every journey in this part of the world. Departing St. Thomas, I surveyed the flight instruments that did work on occasion.
There was the airspeed indicator, last calibrated in 1975, that gave a fair assessment of speed in flight. Then there was the altimeter that was accurate to within 200 feet. I seldom flew above 2000 ASL though; at least that’s what the altimeter said.
Next, there was the magnetic compass that was almost full of compass fluid. After all those years, this never ceased to amaze me. Compass fluid is pure alcohol and as such might have provided an excellent source of liquid inspiration for the previous pilots who had flown this aging collection of rivets.
Then there was the directional gyro, a gyro-stabilized compass manually set to a heading taken from the magnetic compass. Its major attraction was that it did not have the dip and precession errors inherent in the magnetic compass. This particular example was accurate to within twenty degrees, at least when it’s worn out bearings didn’t hang. The presence of this instrument made hitting North America a very likely event, providing you made certain you flew north in the first place. Aside from the compass, the standard basic navigation instrument for aircraft was the automatic direction finder or “ADF”.
This instrument functions by homing in electronically on any standard A.M. radio frequency. The face of the instrument has a needle that points to the station you select on the little radio set to which the instrument is connected. The neat thing about the ADF is you can tune in any local AM radio station and listen to tunes or weather broadcasts.
The major problem with the ADF is that the instrument needle has a tendency to point toward lighting strikes instead of radio stations. The very kind of lighting one finds in thunderstorms, which happened to be the very kind of storm I would soon be trying to avoid. So in this case, instead of bird-dogging my direction home to the radio station on St. Thomas, the instrument would tell me where I didn’t want to go.
Completing the list was the attitude gyro. This instrument, also gyro stabilized, has a little airplane on the face of it that indicates the attitude of the aircraft in flight. This particular one only lagged behind the Beech’s actual attitude by only a few seconds, making it all but useless. One attitude it didn’t show was the pilot’s attitude in flight. If it had shown my attitude, the little airplane might have bent itself right off the instrument face.
Shoving both mixture control levers to full rich, I began the left engine’s prop turning with the starter button. Then, flipping the magneto switches on, I began jiggling the left throttle. With the distinctive cough of the P&W R-985, the aging left engine wheezed to life. I then repeated an identical procedure for the right engine.
With both engines warmed up and running more or less smoothly, I called St. Thomas tower for taxi clearance. The tower responded by clearing me to the active for immediate takeoff. I started my checklist by performing the engine’s magneto check enroute to the active and completed it the moment I lined the Beech up with the runway centerline. The last thing on the checklist was to lock the tail wheel to its center position.
A moment later, the Beech and I were airborne over St. Thomas’ Charlotte Amalie bay turning west towards San Juan. An empty Beech climbs like a scalded dog, so it wasn’t long before we were at cruise altitude, heading toward our morning joust with the line of thunderstorms that stretched across the horizon of the panoramic vista viewed through the windshield.
I checked the engines and instruments again, resetting them for cruise configuration. Everything seemed to be in order as the Beech and I flew on, under steadily deteriorating weather conditions. Approaching San Juan, I dropped lower to stay out of the clouds. Flying into clouds with those instruments was tantamount to carrying out a death wish I had yet to develop.
I got on the “coffee grinder”, the polite term used for one of the radios the Beech was equipped with, and tried to raise San Juan Flight service – no luck. Then I tried raising the tower. Again, no joy on the radio. Finally, I decided to try raising a passing aircraft speeding toward me, closing at well over 350 MPH. I might as well have tried to raise the dead, and at the rate we were going, it looked as though I might have a chance to address them personally.
I now considered waving to a passing pilot, but he would probably misinterpret my wave as nothing more than a friendly gesture. Then I thought maybe passing a note would work. Yes! That was it! If the next plane came any closer I would try passing a note. I finally decided if another aircraft got any closer, I would make a rude gesture instead.
Looking down, I could plainly see the spray blowing off the white caps tipping the waves. My thoughts began to drift back to one of my first encounters with flying with this operation. I was flying with one of the other pilots on what they called an “orientation flight.” At least I was undergoing orientation; the pilot I was flying with was picking up shrimp for delivery to St. Thomas. It was on this flight I encountered one of my more memorable Caribbean flying experiences. It was after our departure from St. Maarten that I was to become intimately oriented to operational procedures in the twin Beech.
St. Maarten is one of the jointly governed Dutch\French possessions in the lesser Antilles chain. We were on a six-hour “shrimp” flight to Long Island in the Bahamas. As we climbed out, the other pilot began discussing the need for precise navigation to keep us out of Cuba’s airspace. He suddenly stopped in mid sentence to instruct, “Hey, go back and see if we packed our usual survival equipment.” I climbed out of the copilot seat and proceeded to search the obviously empty cargo bay for large objects like inflatable life rafts.
After seeing there wasn’t even a small, personal life vest on board, I looked to the aft end of the aircraft. There once had been a tiny compartment partitioned off in the back that had been a lavatory in the Beech’s earlier days. I thought to myself, of course you i***t, survival equipment would never be stored in an open cargo bay where it could be readily damaged or stolen. A glance reminded me that compartment was now part of the cargo bay. A slight pang of fear gripped me. I thought, cripes, we’ve left the survival gear behind! I returned to the cockpit expecting excited conservation, possibly even returning to St. Maarten, now rapidly receding in the distance.
I went back forward to inform the pilot in command of the missing survival gear. Removing his David Clark headset from one ear, he listened over the roar of the Pratts for a moment before turning to me with a grin, “Relax, they’ve packed our usual survival gear.” With that, he went back to listening to the music on the ADF and smoking his cigarette. I went back to wondering about the possibility of encountering Castro’s Migs, if we accidentally strayed into Cuban airspace.
Later, on the return trip, I experienced the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen. It was late in the afternoon and we were gliding along about a thousand feet below a layer of what looked like cotton puffballs. These “puffballs” were clouds in disguise. Underneath our aircraft was a limitless expanse of deep blue Caribbean ocean, and on this flat, deep blue plain, rested the emerald green islands of the Caribbean.
Off the left wing a double rainbow shimmered on the horizon. At the very moment I was taking in this breathtaking sight, a song came on the radio featuring a woman singing a siren song of the Caribbean native to the islands. The song was a musical portrait of life and love on the islands and the sultry voice of the woman singing it painted the moment perfectly. For a brief moment, a euphoric feeling swept over me. It was one of those glamorous moments of flight.
My mind snapped back to the present. Looking at the angry, white-capped, waves, the here and now was a decidedly unglamorous moment. But at least I could see San Juan’s shoreline through the rapidly deteriorating weather. I finally managed to raise San Juan approach on the radio. I was all of ten minutes out, leaving plenty of time for San Juan approach to get around to talking to me, so they didn’t talk to me. They had more pressing problems with larger aircraft approaching the landing pattern. I maintained radio silence. Thankfully, at least I was now in sight of terra firma.
As I approached the landing pattern, the tower broke my reverie to give me landing instructions. They didn’t realize that I didn’t care if they gave me the finger, with my fuel situation I was going to land anyway. I put the gear down and watched two green lights illuminate on the panel. There should have been three lights, but the tail-wheel had been permanently fixed in the down position. The lights indicated the landing gear was down and locked, a good idea when landing any retractable gear airplane. I thought about the old saying about landing with retracted gear: “Those who have and those who will.” A least this time I would avoid that embarrassment.
With muffled thud and tire screech, the Beech settled ever so gently on the runway. A split second later, I received orders from San Juan tower to use the first taxiway before bidding me good day and handing me off to ground. Taxiing slowly up to the company’s loading ramp I thought to myself, No use feeling smug about it, you’ll be back in the air, in a couple of hours. I could have been a little smug though because it took most of the afternoon to load the Beech and clear San Juan customs.
Eventually the loaders finished their task and I finished fueling the Beech. Then came the obligatory check and signing of the cargo manifest. I noticed that the cargo weight listed on the manifest was thirty three hundred pounds. The maximum cargo limit for the Beech is thirty one hundred pounds. Oh joy, only two hundred pounds over their aircraft’s gross loading.
To my great delight, I also noticed I would have a passenger for the return flight. This would be one of those eccentric passengers occupying one of the cardboard boxes in the back. Then again maybe it wasn’t an eccentricity, maybe it was because he was now listed as “human remains” on the cargo manifest. I figured everything would soon be coming up roses, including my passenger.
With the delivery of these glad tidings I started to think maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad flight after all, especially if I didn’t lose an engine on take off. If that happened, as it had several times before in flight, there wouldn’t be any flight at all. Instead, there would be yet another wreck in the swamps at the departure end of San Juan International’s runway.
Taxiing out to the end of the runway, I could feel the tail-heavy condition of the aircraft. A tail-heavy condition in a Beech 18 is highly conducive to a maneuver called a “ground loop.” The ground loop consist of first losing control of the aircraft, at which point the aircraft takes over and rapidly pirouettes several times, either right or left. The maneuver is an attribute of leaving the tail wheel unlocked, a requirement for taxiing the aircraft.
The ground loop was one of the few truly ugly ballet movements the Beech could make and it could perform the maneuver virtually anytime the aircraft was rolling with its tail wheel unlocked. This maneuver did not help the main landing gear structure either. A moment of inattention on the pilot’s part and the Beech would fulfill its life-long dream of becoming a prima ballerina. Knowing that such an audition would occur in front of an airport audience, I paid close attention to my charge.
Upon reaching the run up area short of the active runway, I pressed hard on the toe brakes to accomplish the magneto check. The disk brakes held and I began my final check. Magnetos are small electrical generators mounted in pairs on each engine. Their purpose is to supply spark to the cylinders for ignition. The “mag check” is the final health check for an engine. The check consists of running the engine at a specified RPM setting and switching off one magneto and then the other. The difference in rpm between the two magnetos is called “mag drop.” that difference in rpm is what indicates the health condition of the engine in question.
During the mag check, the tachometer showed a slightly rough left engine with a 150 rpm drop, the right demonstrated a drop of 75 rpm. I ran the left engine up to about 2000 rpm and leaned out the mixture to clear the plugs. Then dropping back to 1700 rpm, I performed the check once again. The left engine now showed a 100-RPM drop. Not quite what the book recommended, but good enough for the company. Besides, if both engines ran smoothly, with a minimum drop between them, it would mean taxiing back to the hanger to find out what the problem was as engines always run smoothest – right before they quit. At this point I figured a takeoff with these engines would not, could not, be any worse than my trying to run a mile with a 101-degree temperature.
San Juan tower rudely interrupted my checklist recital with a clearance for immediate take off. I found this suggestion to be an excellent idea, as American heavy 911 was about to touch down on the very spot we presently occupied. Today, departure was allowing what many San Juan controllers considered the bad form of giving at least a few seconds spacing between aircraft. This error in their judgment means they almost never got to see a major collision on the runway. A sight that would invariably liven an otherwise boring day to say the least!
Remembering something a physicist once said about bodies occupying the same space at the same time, I pushed the Beech’s throttles forward, even as I pressed hard on the right toe brake. The Beech responded to my combined actions by wallowing onto the runway. Aligning the Beech’s nose with the center of the runway, I firewalled both throttles and then quickly reached down to lock the tail wheel. A ballet audition on takeoff with this load might well prove fatal.
As the Beech fought to gain speed, I prayed she fully appreciated the presence of a 727 “heavy” with its hot, kerosene breath on her tail. The take off checkpoints began passing by the windshield. V1, a point by which time the aircraft should have rotated to a level flight attitude, passed uneventfully. Then, before I knew it, V2 passed without any discernible notice from the twin Beech. V2 is the point by which the aircraft should have gaily levitated skyward from mother earth. We simply taxied past V2 at a high rate of speed with the tail wheel still rolling merrily along the ground. It was only then I considered the fact there was no V3.
So far the engines hadn’t coughed so all was not yet lost. Finally as we, the Beech, myself and the dead guy in back, passed the point where there should have been a huge, flashing sign proclaiming: “LAST CHANCE TO LEAVE THE GROUND ALIVE, ONLY JESUS CAN SAVE YOU NOW!” I managed to horse the Beech off the ground still in a three-point attitude. Now tension began to set in as I realized darkness was only a couple of hours away. Flying over water after dark in thunderstorms was not something I wanted to experiment with in this airplane. The weather was bringing on a premature dusk and it was already getting difficult see.
The air traffic between San Juan and St. Thomas is no busier than a major freeway in any major metropolis at five o’clock Friday afternoon, on a Labor Day weekend. The only difference is that airplanes fly at different altitudes, there are no lane dividers in the sky, and the average closing speed is two to three times faster. Another minor point to consider is that people on the freeway communicate with each other more often then we did in the air and usually in the same language. All of this added up to new dimensions of excitement, three of them to be precise. Throw in twilight and you have a ride as thrilling as any amusement park could ever hope to offer.
Climbing out with both engines screaming at full throttle and max manifold pressure, I could only see dark clouds in front of me. As the aircraft sped us to the edge of those dark clouds, we began flying into rain. In other places, in other aircraft, such conditions would normally bring on a very cozy moment, flying through pouring rain all snug and dry in your toasty warm cockpit. I was not dry though, and the heater was nonexistent. Aside from my own perspiration, I discovered the windshield was leaking at the point where the Plexiglas met the aluminum directly overhead.
Actually, “pouring” would be a more accurate description of the windshield’s problem, for there was virtually a solid sheet of water cascading directly in front of my nose that terminated perfectly upon the control column, soaking my pants to the bone. This came as an unpleasant surprise, as I had never flown this aircraft in the rain before.
The soaking I received was just a minor inconvenience though, the major inconvenience was that I could not see anything in front of the aircraft and the curtain of water in front of my nose did not help the situation one bit. I now had to look out of the side window to keep the aircraft upright. As I strained to look out the side window, I reconsidered what I would now give for a pair of working windshield wipers.
The clouds were getting lower as I flew along in the private shower provided by the leaky, but now very clean, windshield. Once again, I was down to an altitude that allowed me to view the stark contrast of the angry white caps riding the ugly green waves and it was no great surprise to find they didn’t look any more inviting than they did on the trip over.
The situation was rapidly falling apart. As a gentle reminder of my good fortune up to this point, the left engine coughed a couple of times and then resumed its normally raspy roar. The cough was probably just the downpour, but I mentally began reviewing my chances of survival again.
Let’s see, there’s a half inch, honeycomb sandwich, aluminum cabin wall separating myself from thirty three hundred pounds of cargo that fills the cabin directly behind me… well never mind the cargo. Let’s say I manage to bring her down softly enough to survive the crash. I’ll have to negotiate my egress through the two-foot square “crew” door directly to my left. The crew door was a modification to the aircraft to provide crew access to the cockpit when the cargo bay was packed to the ceiling, as it was now.
Trouble is the dwarf-sized door is difficult to negotiate on a sunny day with the plane sitting comfortably on level ground. More than once shreds of my snazzy, khaki uniform remained on the sharp edges of the door, silently attesting to this fact. “Okay,” I thought “Let’s say I get out with a minimum amount of bloodshed. Now there are the sharks, native to these waters…”
I reminded myself, that this line of thought was going nowhere, but I was going somewhere – at around 200 knots. At this point, I felt a pressing need to concentrate on staying in the air or on the other hand, maybe I thought I should try raising the office on the radio to tell them I might be eternally late for dinner. After trying for ten minutes to raise St. Thomas operations though, the radio’s only reply was steady static.
But there was an even more interesting aspect to this diversion. As it happened, the mike button was mounted on the control column, the one mounted perfectly under the windshield’s shower head, so with each attempt at establishing radio contact, I was rewarded with a jarring shock. I wondered what demented Soviet behavioral scientist had collaborated with the windshield designer. I envisioned a hidden camera recording my reaction every time I pressed the mike button. As the demented behavioral scientist looked on, he would note in his book, “Subject using explicative’s heretofore unknown in the Soviet Motherland” Considering the twin Beech’s other instrumentation, the Soviet motif seemed to fit nicely – nothing worked.
I tried the ADF again for a bearing. “Thank goodness for the lightning flashing around the aircraft, I thought, cockpit lights are inop and without lightning, I wouldn’t be able to make out the direction the needle is pointing.” In this case, it was anybody’s guess. I quit guessing and went back to flying by the magnetic compass. Looking at the fluid in the compass, I was now truly grateful that no previous pilot had come to the conclusion they needed inspiration. Then the thought occurred that I might be the very first.
I now resigned myself to fate. The realization came to the forefront of my consciousness when I realized my genuflecting had become reflex action; it would not be long now lord. I began thinking how I would report this to passengers – should I have had any that were listening. “Ladies and gentlemen we are now cruising at wave top height. If you look out your window you will notice whitecaps that appear to be higher than our altitude…”
But my only passenger was the hard luck guy in back waiting for burial that might now occur at sea. The situation did not appear to concern him in the least. Thankfully, he hadn’t voiced any concerns. There is something about a calm passenger, at least when they’re alive, in a tight situation. A calm passenger gives the pilot a sense of confidence and confidence was a commodity that, like live passengers, was in very short supply at that moment. I decide to go for shock treatment one more time with yet another call to operations on St. Thomas.
Picking up the mike, I made the call with voice pitch that would have made the average soprano green with envy, “St, Thomas operations, this is Beechcraft, One Nine Mike Echo.” Once again, there was no response, only static. Suddenly the static broke, leaving an eerie silence in my headphones. Out of the gray, a calm, deep, clear voice broke through the silence to ask the rhetorical question, “Are we having fun yet?” I fought the temptation to say yes, knowing the pitch of my voice on that last transmission would betray the lie.
The tension was broken though and once again I felt the presence of another human being and this one was still alive. I immediately recognized the voice as one of my fellow company pilots; a wag flying one of our company’s C-47s over the top of this nasty mess flight service laughingly called “weather.”
Quite suddenly, we, meaning the Beech, the hard luck guy and myself, broke out of the weather into a bright, late afternoon sky, with the island of St. Thomas directly ahead. The company now called me, asking for my position and estimated time of arrival before ending the transmission with a playful demand to know why I hadn’t reported inbound. I gave the voice on the radio the requested information. To keep the transmission brief, I responded to the last part of the question with a standard reply – “radio trouble.”
The landing at St. Thomas was uneventful, one might even say smooth, considering the loading of the aircraft, but the guy in the cardboard box offered not the slightest congratulation or thanks for his safe return. Later that evening, while finalizing voluminous mounds of custom declarations, one of the maintenance people approached me about the radio problem. I told him there was nothing wrong with radio.
He stopped, shooting me a questioning look as though hard pressed to believe it. So for validity, I added, “Pavlov looked at it in San Juan. He said it was working fine. Must have been the weather.” The technician gave me another quizzical look, apparently he could not recall anybody named Pavlov working for us in San Juan.
I went home for that drink.
~ Finis ~
Here is a typical day at the Beech as I remember it. Loading cargo for the morning “bread run” to St. Croix. That’s why Delany’s Bread truck is parked at the tail. After dropping the bread in St. Croix, it would be on to San Juan to drop off the remaining cargo and then pick up more for the trip back to St. Thomas.
Note guy in ze plane stacking cargo.
33 additional images. Click to enlarge.