Born in Depression, Bound for Greatness
Walter and Olive Ann Beech established the Beechcraft company in Wichita, Kansas in 1932. Prior to this, Walter Beech had been a co-founder of the Travel Air company along with other general aviation pioneers, Clyde Cessna and Lloyd Stearman.
Beech’s first product after forming his own company was the Model 17 Staggerwing of 1932, a very streamlined biplane designed for corporate aviation that proved to be faster than many military fighter aircraft of the day. It was a very successful design for the time and remains popular with vintage aircraft operators to the present day.
In the late 1930s, riding on the success of the Model 17, Beech set about designing a light, twin engine transport and utility aircraft. In 1937, that aircraft took to the air for the first time as the Model 18. Though not a revolutionary or adventurous design, the Model 18 was a very clean, attractive and well thought out machine with small airlines and corporate operators as target customers. While the aircraft was intended primarily for the civil market, Beech had designed it to have potential military use as well.
The Model 18 was something of a gamble by Beech. It was conceived and designed on the premise that there actually would be a market of any sort for a twin engined aircraft of smaller size. Happily, it was a bet that paid off in spades for Beech and the many customers the Model 18 secured over the years.
The Model 18 enjoyed a production run of over 30 years that saw more than 9,000 of the type built in over 60 factory standard versions at least 15 licensed modified versions by other companies.
Civil variants of the Model 18 revolutionised corporate and short haul aviation in a way the immortal Douglas DC-3 did for commercial aviation in the same period. Military variants were used to train countless Allied air gunners, bombardiers and navigators during the Second World War.
At that, let’s spend some time with this most legendary of Beechcraft machines:
A Slow Start to Stardom
As renowned as the Model 18 was to become, it may be difficult to believe that it experienced only modest success in the beginning.
Part of what gave the aircraft a slow start was direct competition on the American market by the somewhat larger though similar looking Lockheed Model 12 Electra Junior. The Lockheed aircraft was slightly older and better established on the American market than the Model 18 and was a descendant design of the proven Lockheed Model 10 Electra.
Neither the Model 18 nor the Electra Junior met with much interest from American commercial operators. In the pre World War Two period, commercial air travel was still the exclusive territory of the wealthy traveler and the idea we take for granted today of smaller aircraft flying feeder routes to connect with larger aircraft flying trunk routes from hub airports was still very much in infancy at the time.
For the American corporate aircraft market on the late 1930s, the Electra Junior was stiff competition for the Model 18 and easily outsold the Beech product. However the Model 18 was garnering constant orders from foreign customers in a variety of sectors and this went a long way to offsetting the imbalance against the Electra Junior on the domestic corporate market. Notable among these early foreign customers were several Canadian bush pilots, the Model 18’s rugged nature along with the ability to be fitted with float or ski landing gear made it most welcome in Canada’s frozen northern reaches and areas where water was the only available surface to operate from.
The domestic fortunes of the Model 18 changed, albeit in tragic form, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December of 1941. With America officially on war footing, Lockheed was forced to focus their energies on their larger Model 14 Super Electra and Model 18 Lodestar.
With the Electra Junior out of the way, the door was open for the Model 18 to shine and Allied militaries were very interested in the type as both a trainer and utility machine. The Model 18 would excel in these roles and many others through the course of WWII.
Into the Fray
The Model 18 had seen modest military interest prior to the Pearl Harbour attack. By 1939, the U.S. Army Air Force had a small fleet of the type under the designation C-45 as personnel transports as well as the F-2 variant for photographic reconnaissance . In the same year, Beechcraft reached an agreement to provide a small fleet of bomber trainers to the Nationalist Chinese government under the designation Model 18R.
Over 90% of American air gunners, bomardiers and navigators received their training through specialised Model 18 variants. For USAAF navigators, there was the AT-7 Navigator which had room for three students to learn the techniques for both celestial and radio navigation. Conversely, air gunners and bombardiers trained in the AT-11 Kansan which was modified with a glass nose, dorsal gun turret and a small bomb bay. In U.S. Navy service, the AT-11 and AT-7 had counterparts in the SNB-1 and SNB-2 respectively.
Ultimately, every banch of the U.S. military used variants of the Model 18. Such was the machine’s versatility, that it quickly grew past initial roles for it and took on other tasks such as air ambulance, communications, drone control, liason and VIP transport.
In British and Canadian service, the Model 18 was refered to as the Expeditor II in Royal Air Force and Royal Navy service and the Expeditor III in Royal Canadian Air Force service.
Almost Everything to Almost Everyone
While the Model 18 had a long military career beyond the Second World War, seeing service in the militaries of nearly 50 countries, many were put on the civil market immediately following the war. Being easily affordable as war surplus and easy to support as the type was still in production, many were purchased and showed as much and even more versatility in post-war civil hands a they had in military life.
The Model 18 returned to it’s civil roots with ease. In the 1950s boom economy, the Beech 18s were still in demand by bush flyers in Canada as well as corporate users in other places. From the 1950s through into the 1970s, the Beech 18 formed the backbone of numerous small air freight companies throughout America. Additionally, the airline industry was opening to a wider range of customer classes and the Model 18 found a place in regional and feeder routes. Other civilian duties carried out by the Model 18 have included: agricultural work, aerial firefighting, police work, smuggling, sightseeing flights, skydiving platform, research flights and air ambulance among many, many others.
During the Vietnam conflict, extensive use of the Model 18 was made by the Air America organization. Much of this work was of a clandestine nature for the CIA.
The aircraft also found its way into cinema as both an aerial filming platform and a performer. The Model 18 has appeared in over 100 films and television series over the years.
The aircraft’s flexibility goes beyond job adaptability; in its long life, many modifications have been approved for the original design. Modifications have been introduced to increase the number of passengers it can carry, other modifications have seen the original piston engines replaced with more modern turboprop types and the tail wheel replaced with a more contemporary nose wheel landing gear arrangement. Over 200 adjustments, both subtle and obvious, have been approved as options for the original design.
A Sentence and a Reprieve
The 1970s brought an uncertain future for many Model 18 aircraft due to structural flaws, corrosion and cracking in the wing spars. A wing spar reinforcement procedure was instituted to keep the aircraft legally flyable, but many owners decided to abandon their Beech 18s as they didn’t see the wing strengthening as a worthwhile expenditure on an aging aircraft. This left many Model 18s languishing and awaiting their fate in scrapyards.
Not all of the aircraft that went to scrapyards stayed there. The 1970s saw the beginning of a revived interest in vintage aircraft and their restoration; Beech 18s were plentiful and cheap to acquire from scrappers. That the Model 18 was still in active service and the production line had only closed in 1970 meant that spare parts and servicing for the aircraft were also readily available for those who wished to restore an example of this type to flyable condition.
Happily, many people who wished for a vintage aircraft to restore and fly have recognised and appreciated the Model 18’s historical significance. Thanks to such people, we are able to enjoy the sight and sound of this legend in the present day.
Still Going Strong
If you’ve ever been to an airshow that featured vintage aircraft in the performing line up then chances are good that you’ve seen a Beech 18 as many are flying on airshow circuits around the world. To see this surprisingly acrobatic twin engine aircraft put on a performance and then finish it off with a full power, low pass in front of the crowd is a treat to behold.
The good news is, if you haven’t seen such a spectacle, the Model 18 has an avid fan base among pilots and several specialist companies exist to ensure service and spare parts for the aircraft. As such, you have time to see it, the Model 18 shows no signs of slowing down with age.
As of a 2014 count, over 300 members of the Beech 18 family were on civil aviation registers worldwide. Many more were known to be under restoration, preserved in museum collections or stored for use as spare parts donors. Chances are you won’t have to go too far to see one in most places in the world.
For more information on the Beech 18 and an insight into the efforts made to keep the type flying, the TwinBeech.com website is a good start.
This 2007 article from General Aviation magazine gives some good insights into what the Beech 18 is like to fly.
In print media, “I’ll Take the 18” by Scott H. Gloodt, is a very absorbing read about flying a legendary aircraft in a bygone era of aviation.