Beech 18 Expeditor
Flying this iconic aircraft is a challenge, in terms of preparation, operation and landing — but what a joy!
There are few things more sonically satisfying than operating the twin throttles of a pair of well-tuned radials. As we rumble across the Berkshire countryside owner Tim Darrah gives the port prop lever the tiniest of tweaks and then they’re beautifully synched. I glance at Tim and we both grin at each other. No words are necessary – the grins are enough. Sometimes, life’s a Beech!
Known variously as the Model 18, Twin Beech, C-45 and Expeditor, this iconic aircraft has long been on my ‘wish list’, so when the opportunity arose to fly one I hesitated for only a fraction of a second.
The prototype made its maiden flight from Beechcraft’s Wichita, Kansas plant on 15 January 1937, and over the following 32 years it remained in continuous production, around 9,000 being built. During that time over 200 modifications were incorporated, including fitting a tricycle undercarriage and turboprop engines. The subject of this flight test, G-BKGL was built during WWII and then re-manufactured as a D model for the RCAF in 1951.
As Tim and I wander out on a beautiful autumn day at White Waltham, my initial impression is that it is quite a big aeroplane, while the US Army Air Force paint scheme gives it a wilful, almost aggressive appearance.
The first task is to pull each engine through nine blades (to avoid hydraulic lock) and then Tim shows me around. As we’re already standing by the engines, he tells me that power is provided by a pair of Pratt & Whitney R-985-AN14B supercharged nine-cylinder air-cooled Wasp Junior radial engines, which produce 450hp each at 36in manifold pressure and 2,300rpm, and turn Hamilton-standard Hydromatic metal two-blade constant-speed propellers. Each engine has its own independent fuel system consisting of two tanks in the relevant wing, plus an auxiliary tank in the nose.
Unusually, the air intakes are mounted inside the cowlings, while the intakes for the oil coolers are recessed in the wing’s leading edge, just outboard of the engines. The wings are built in three sections: the centre section is integral with the fuselage and carries the engines and main undercarriage. It features a single steel tube monospar which is joined at midspan to duralumin girders. Each wing has large metal-skinned plain flaps which are actuated electrically, the cowl flaps use cables. Access to the cabin (which can carry up to eleven people) is via a door on the port side, just aft of the wing.
The very big tailplane (although relatively short-coupled the Expeditor has a broad C of G range) carries a huge elevator, twin fins and rudders. With the exception of the flaps, all the flying control surfaces and their associated trim tabs (the elevator has two) are fabric-covered. The main wheels are fitted with big hydraulic disc brakes and use an electric motor to retract aft into the engine nacelles. When retracted, doors cover the undercarriage legs, but about half of each wheel still protrudes. The castoring tail-wheel can, and must, be locked for takeoff.
One thing’s for sure, with a maximum all-up weight of almost four tons, a wingspan of 14.5m and two 450hp engines the Expeditor definitely qualifies as a ‘big
taildragger’. Consequently, before even thinking about starting the engines, I sat in the cockpit with Tim for some time, familiarising myself with the controls. Aircraft of this vintage are usually ergonomic nightmares, and the Expeditor is no exception. There are buttons, knobs, levers, handles and switches everywhere− even under the seats! Just to confuse things further, both the layout of the primary flying instruments and the power control levers are completely non-standard.
Although often operated as a ‘two crew’ cockpit, as with most machines of this era the panel isn’t duplicated left and right.
One thing’s for sure, with a maximum all-up weight of four tons... the Expediter qualifies as a ‘big taildragger’
Instead the flight instruments are on the port side, and the paired engine gauges are grouped in a central column, three deep. Each gauge has multiple pointers and shows rpm, manifold pressure, oil and fuel pressure, and oil, carburettor and cylinder head temperatures. I found the engine instruments relatively easy to interpret, but the flight instruments... Forget it! As with most American aircraft of the 1940s their layout is completely
non-standard and difficult to scan. Oddly, there’s another carb heat gauge by the ASI, while the ammeter, voltmeter and fuel gauge are half-hidden behind the pilot’s yoke.
The fuel system is worthy of further comment as there’s only one gauge, even though there are five tanks (two in each wing and one in the nose). There’s scope for real confusion here as, when you select a tank, the quantity remaining in that tank is shown on the gauge in tenths. However, the front tanks are larger than the rear, so although the gauge may show that, say the front port is 4/10ths full and the rear port 8/10ths, there’s actually more fuel in the front tank.
A centre console carries the power levers in a non-standard arrangement, with the prop levers nearest the pilot, mixtures nearest the co-pilot and throttles in the middle, along with levers that control each engine’s manifold heaters and oil shutters, and flap and undercarriage selectors. A flat sub-panel below the console carries the fuel valves, T-handles for the tailwheel lock and park brake, plungers for oil bypass and oil shut-off, engine primer and fire suppression selectors. Two handles next to the pilot’s right knee, which resemble handbrakes from a vintage car, operate the cowl flaps, while a large red lever by the co-pilot’s left hip works the wobble pump. A big wheel on the right side of the pilot’s seat operates the elevator trim; there’s a small wheel for aileron trim between the flap and undercarriage selectors and a handle in the roof (which resembles a car’s window winder) for rudder trim. Elevator, rudder and flap position indicators are above the columns of engine gauges, directly below the two large, red guarded ‘prop feather’ buttons. Finally, a red handle (which resembles a truck’s window winder) in front of the elevator trim wheel is used to manually operate both the undercarriage and the flaps.
Just like the exterior, everything is built to last. The yoke is suspended from an arm that looks like it’s been borrowed from a bridge, while the rudder pedals are clearly designed for pilots who wear boots.
Finally, we get down to the business of starting this big, twin-engine warbird. As has probably become apparent, starting it is very much a ritual, with a considerable number of buttons, switches, knobs and levers to be pushed, pulled, twisted, turned and set. Items that pilots of modern aeroplanes will be unfamiliar with include pushing in the oil shut-off plungers, opening the cowl flaps, closing the oil shutters and selecting the fire extinguisher to the appropriate nacelle. Tim starts ‘his’ motor with barely a murmur−and now it’s my turn, so I crack the throttle open slightly, shout “clear prop” and energise the starter.
Slowly, the big two-blade propeller begins to revolve and after six blades scythe past the window I turn on both magnetos. From within the bowels of the cowl comes a cough and a grunt as a
couple of cylinders fire somewhat hesitantly− then a backfire. Argh! A few more cylinders fire and the motor begins to wake up. Smoke streams back from the exhaust and suddenly the remaining cylinders burst into life, turning the two propeller blades into a single shimmering circle and the engine soon settles into that wonderfully liquid radial rumble. I’m not really an animist, but sometimes I swear that these big old engines actually do ‘come to life’.
While the motors warm up, I notice several people standing by the fence and give them a cheery wave. Clearly the sound of a pair of Wasp Juniors grumbling away has generated some excitement, and not just in me. I’ve been lucky enough to fly several truly iconic aircraft over the years and, although it’s easy to become blasé, I’m genuinely looking forward to trying to tame this charismatic machine. However, my excitement is tinged with trepidation, as− particularly when taking off and landing− the Expeditor does have a reputation for being a bit of a handful, if not a real, 24-carat SOB (and I don’t mean “son of a Beech”!)
As soon as the oil temperatures reach 20°C and the cylinder head temperatures are above 100°C (and no, I don’t know why the instruments of an American aircraft built 64 years ago are in centigrade) Tim eases us out of our parking spot and gives me control. Steering is by a combination of differential thrust and differential braking, so as soon as we’re rolling I draw the throttles back immediately and carefully set exactly 800rpm on each engine. This is important, as even a suggestion of differential thrust will make taxying more difficult. The field of view isn’t bad, but I’m still glad Tim is keeping an eye on his side.
The pre-takeoff checks are quite comprehensive and include cycling the props and testing the feathering system, ensuring that the oil shutters are set and
Beware: the levers are arranged with propeller controls to the left, throttles in the middle and mixtures, right
The elevator trim wheel is located low down, by the pilot’s right hip
Beech became Beechcraft long after the Model 18 first emerged
P & W R-985s each churn out 450hp, giving a power to weight ratio of just under 230hp/ton
Relatively short-coupled, the aircraft has a very large — and distinctive — tailplane
Red-handled wobble pump is designed to be operated by the co-pilot
This bright red ‘window winder handle’ is actually the manual emergency back-up for flap and undercarriage operation
Mounted overhead, the rudder trim handle at least works in the intuitive direction