Flying the Twin Beech

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Flying the Twin Beech: There are certain pivotal moments in your life – 1st solo, marriage, birth of your kids; not in any particular order – sorry honey!
I feel fortunate to have had a few of those ‘wow’ moments and this is one of those stories. It goes back to June of 1995 and I was working for a great guy, Jim Brewer, at his fixed based operation in South Central Oklahoma. Jim has always had a plethora of airplanes around, but the queen of the fleet is his 1949 D-18S ‘Twin Beech’.
He purchased it from Canada and repatriated it back to the United States in the late ’80s – it is his pride and joy. He put the airplane to work on the skydiving circuit, flying jumpers up to 14,500′ and letting them egress en mass via its large side cargo door.
Jim and his Twin Beech have quite a reputation in the skydiving circles. It is super-reliable and it climbs fast and smooth in Jim’s hands – just what jumpers want! During my tenure with Jim, I had the privilege of flying ‘The Beech’  several times under his supervision; Jim has always been really gracious about sharing his love for flying.

Jumper’s away! Jim demonstrating how it’s done!

At this point of my career I was at the pinnacle of my flying. I was in and out of different airplanes all day – teaching, test flying, doing trips; it was great! I flew 10 different makes/models in July alone and I was flying all the time (I flew 104 hours that month and that was pretty typical) and my proficiency was peaked. That was good because I was going to need to tap into those skills in the near future.
Jim had a skydiving venue on the schedule up in Cushing, Oklahoma July 1st. If you know anything about flying jumpers as a traveling jump-plane, your reputation depends on making it there and flying the loads – cancellations are not appreciated. To compound matters, Jim’s Beech was the star attraction for that July 4th weekend; the basis for the event.

As the date approached Jim was busy prepping the Beech like he always did before a big ‘boogie’ – changing the oil, topping off the battery, etc.

Then the phone rang. There was a trip on one of the corporate Cessna 421C’s that we operated and I wasn’t on the insurance to fly it as pilot-in-command – me and Jim were the only commercial multi pilots on staff. There was no time to send me to school, which is what the insurance required. The irony was I was already flying a C-421C, but this company used a more restrictive insurance carrier. The only thing that could be done was put me in the Beech to fly the jumpers, while Jim flew the C-421 trip. It would only be one day; Jim would come in and do the rest of the weekend.

So in the days preceding the Boogie, Jim and I worked together to get me up to speed in his baby.

Jim’s Twin Beech

First up we worked on engine starts; critical with those big R-985 450hp Pratt and Whitney’s otherwise you risk running the battery down, or worse an intake fire or blowing off a cylinder. There is definitely a process to start it and if you did it all just right, she purred like a kitten.

Then we did touch and goes; lots of touch and goes. We also discussed how to do a jump run and flew some mock runs to get a feel for how to handle the engines both in the climb and on the way down; again critical to manage them properly otherwise they could revolt with disastrous results.

I solo’d ‘The Beech’ on June 30th, with my dad in the right seat – he was a freshly minted student pilot at the time. I was beaming with pride!

With a successful check-out under my belt the day dawned to ferry up to Cushing and start flying jumpers. Cushing was a relatively short flight 100nm flight – I don’t even remember it –  just a blur. I do remember the weather was perfect.

Arriving at the drop zone, I met the Owner and some of the jumpers I would be hauling that day. I nervously milled around a bit waiting for the 1st group to gear up.

I should pause and explain what it’s like to be at a dropzone. Cushing was pretty typical, a disheveled hangar and jumpers that demographically came from all walks of life; hippies, yuppies, farmers, race car drivers…you name it. It’s a veritable cornucopia of humanity at a dropzone.

The time came for that first load and my stomach was in knots. I knew what to do, but the spectre of screwing something up reared it ugly head. I carefully brought the engines to life and lumbered out to the runway, I started to calm down a bit – I knew what to do.

The mood in a jump plane is driven by the jumpers and they hate the takeoff and initial climb – that is where they have lost friends from airplane accidents. Once you are above a couple thousand feet they can just jump if something goes wrong. So the climb out was fun, lots of hooting and hollering and back slapping going on – the adrenaline was contagious!

Up to 14,500msl for the jump run. The jumpers would feed me commands to get to the right position for the exit and once it was time, I would drop the gear and flaps to slow down so they had a nice transition to free-fall. They would start to get outside of the airplane using the hand rail mounted on the fuselage above the now large opening that was the cargo door. The CG gets pretty far aft and it takes almost full forward yoke to keep the airplane level. They all of a sudden they are gone – it’s really strange to be flying with a plane load of people and then suddenly be by yourself. And you notice you are cold in the middle of summer in Oklahoma. I start my decent tweaking the power and mixtures a little on the way down – don’t want to awaken the demons inside those bright red cowlings, I’ll need their help later.

I come back in and make a nice wheel landing, the only kind I have done in the Beech, and taxi back to the hangar – load #1 is in the books and no one died and the airplane is still flyable!

That day I flew 8 loads with 6 hours on the hobbs. Some were better than others. On one load I screwed up the mixtures and just about asphyxiated myself and the jumpers up at altitude – rich exhaust fumes coming into the cabin from the open door almost made me dizzy. An old grizzled jumper that was riding in the right seat reached over and tapped the mixtures, right before he ran out the door,  and said, “you might want to pull those back a bit” – oops!

My last load of the day, I landed on the grass between runways only to see Jim standing on the ramp when I taxied in. He congratulated me on my success and mentioned that I was pushing the tail too high on rollout – his only critic. He flew the last loads of the day. I was happy to hand back his beloved Twin Beech unscathed!

I stayed the night at Cushing that night and departed for Duncan the following day to hold up the fort down there while Jim finished the boogie.

I am truly thankful for the opportunity and humbled by the responsibility that was placed in my hands that weekend at the tender age 24.  The memory of that time is indelibly imprinted in my brain. To this day, I believe the Twin Beech is one of the best flying airplanes in the world. A timeless design that will always be cool!

Less than a year later I would be flying another twin full-time, only this one was a Cessna and it was turbine power – the venerable Citation, but that’s another story for another day.

by Brent Owens

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