Beech 18 Ex­pe­d­i­tor

Fly­ing this iconic air­craft is a chal­lenge, in terms of prepa­ra­tion, op­er­a­tion and land­ing — but what a joy!

Pilot - - CONTENTS - Words Dave Un­win

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

Pho­tos Keith Wil­son

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

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