“Beechcraft Revenge” *
Although I had been hoodwinked into training in multi-engine airplanes when I was a callow midshipman, I always avoided flying the SNB in any of its manifestations. If I had to fly proficiency I could always find an SNJ or T-28 somewhere. I imagined the “bug smasher” to be the choice of people who really weren’t all that interested in flying and who just wanted to lounge comfortably for a few hours while they fulfilled their CNO-imposed minimum training requirements. The “snibs,” I thought, were for guys who liked to rack their seats back, listen to golden oldies on the ADF, and smoke a cigar. (Remember cigars?) Anyway, I didn’t consider myself an SNB type and always avoided the silver frog. In my mind, checking out in a “Beechcraft” had the same appeal as duty in our nation’s capital. Then came Line School.
In Line School at Monterey, California, evolving Holloway midshipmen were force-fed black shoe doctrines in preparation for our “doing time” on a large gray vessel. It was the theory in those pre-McNamara days that a naval officer should be able to fill any old billet that needed filling, whether in the air, ashore, or at sea; and to that end we studied sea lore, embodied in aphorisms such as “white-over-red, pilot ahead” and “red-over-white, fishing at night”. During the nine months while we were engaged in stuffing our heads with nautical wisdom we were allowed to sate our aviation cravings – for by that time many of us were addicted – by operating one of the Line School’s collection of flying machines, most of which were the dreaded SNB or JRB or UC-45 – whatever they were called they were silver, they had a pair of R-985 engines, twin vertical fins, and – hold onto your sides, folks – they were taildraggers! Years later I was to find that these machines were known at Beech D-18s in civilian life and were greatly revered.
The SNB probably sensed how I felt about it, for one of its multitudinous family soon repaid me for my ill will. Not only did it subject me to fear and monumental inconvenience but it did so in such a way that I, at that point in my career a respected driver of heavy iron, was humiliated.
My logbook serves as an effective diary, and reference to it shows that this event took place on September 12, 1958. The entry for that day shows a flight of 1.1 hours to Paso Robles, California; it does NOT show a return flight to Monterey. On that September day I went to fly the sullen Beechcraft and was paired with another aviator who undoubtedly would have disliked the airplane as much as I had he given it any thought. Ron Caldwell [Pensacola Class 6-48] was, however, a jet attack pilot and I don’t think he even considered the Beech to be a real airplane. He wore a kind of amused smile as we walked around the thing and he rocked gently on his half-Wellingtons as I explained that since it was a multi-engine airplane, and since I was a renowned multi-engine pilot, that I would make the takeoff and we would switch seats later. We taxied out to the runways while I continued my non-stop pontificating about the heavy responsibilities of two-pilot operations. I think Ron was counting quail out the window as I firewalled the throttles and brought the mighty 985s to takeoff power.
If you take off to the south at Monterey you don’t even have to turn to get to Paso Robles. I had my hands full tapping all the little gauges and dials and fiddling with the props and mixtures and lecturing about the degree of skill required to fly straight and level. At this time I think Ron was checking out some real estate across the road from Line School. We were going to Paso Robles because the school eked out some utility from our proficiency flights by using us to perform little logistical chores. In our case, we were to land at PRB and transport a couple of Chiefs back to Monterey. The weather was clear and fifteen and I found Paso Robles without benefit of electronics out in the middle of what seemed to be a light brown desert. I continued my lecture on how to land an SNB while demonstrating the plane’s innate porpoising tendencies. During this demonstration Ron established a firm grip on the glare shield and bulged his eyes as though he had seen a dangerous animal out of the side window. After a few S-turns through the sagebrush to demonstrate what could happen if the plane got away from you, we taxied up to the little shack that served as the Paso Robles Airport passenger terminal.
It was hot. We extricated ourselves from the SNB cockpit and eased ourselves down the steeply inclined taildragger aisle to the rear door. The concrete outside was like a grill. In the glare we made out some figures moving toward us from the direction of the terminal. They were our passengers.
This was in the days before exercise and diet became cool. In those days, in 1958, many Chiefs were, well, on the portly side. My guess was that our passengers went 220-240 each – around in there – and they each had B-4 bags as big as themselves. One of the things I hated about multi-engine flying in those days was the theory that the plane would lift anything you could stuff into it. It wasn’t some Happy Hour theory, it was THE NAVY’s THEORY, and if you ever flew the old P2V without jets you know what I mean; there are tire tracks across every rice paddy in Japan that was anywhere near a Naval Air Station.
Now, in Paso Robles, I was in the position of having to accept these behemoths and their leaden B-4s; I had doubts whether they could even fit through the DOOR. But I was with a Jet Pilot! If I started whimpering about things like gross weight and density altitude it would only confirm Ron’s low opinion of me. I realized I had become stodgy; I had forgotten how it felt to swagger around and kick tires; I no longer laughed uproariously when reading Grampaw Pettibone! But it was coming back! The feeling was coming back! Just being with a Jet Pilot was making me macho again! I kicked the Beechcraft’s tire and said let’s get this show on th’ road. Yeah! I felt my flight suit pockets to see if I had a cigar, and told Ron to get-on in the left seat before these two guys blocked the only door.
I don’t think Ron had ever flown a Beechcraft before. In true multi-engine fashion I insisted on a takeoff briefing and I told him that if anything “went wrong” that he should fly and I would take care of all the other stuff, implying that we multi-engine types had everything all planned out. I had never had any problem on takeoff even though I had by that time about five thousand hours. We lined up on the south runway and Ron opened the throttles. Ahead of us were about six thousand feet of blacktop, as I recall, so there was plenty of time to get our heavily-loaded SNB into the air, and the terrain was that California golden desert and low hills. We lifted off and got the gear up just as the engine on my side exploded. The nacelle was instantly enveloped in white smoke. I saw Ron casually working the controls and the plane stayed fairly straight while I quickly feathered the right engine. Then I started babbling to Ron a series of multi-engine myths about not turning into the dead engine and keeping the speed above such-and-such and that I would do this and that. Apparently none of these myths apply to Jet Pilots because Ron effortlessly started a shallow turn back toward the airport – we were maybe three-hundred feet AGL with all the powers we could get on the good engine. The Chiefs were undoubtedly tightening their seat belts and shaking their heads at each other while muttering things about pilots. I had a mental picture of being squashed against the altimeter by a B-4 bag. I went over the single-engine checklist seven or eight times as we finished the turn and Ron lined us up to land downwind on the runway from which we had just departed.
At that point I really went in high-speed panic mode and was waving my arms around the little cockpit like Don Knotts in a swarm of yellowjackets. I was yelling at Ron: don’t do this! Don’t forget to do that! I’ll do this! Get the gear! No! I’ll get it! You fly! Wait! No! Yes! Luckily for us Ron ignored all my instructions. He still had that little smile on his face like “What’s so hard about this?” He made a smooth landing, downwind, extra fast, and we rolled all the way to the end of the runway before we stopped. Since taxiing a taildragger with one engine is somewhat difficult (I was afraid to say so, because Ron might have done it easily) we shut down and crawled outside. The “terminal” was a little dot on the horizon and it wavered in the heat as we walked toward it. When we got there guy behind the counter was amazed that we had walked all the way in from the end of the runway and hadn’t seen any snakes.
That’s how the SNB paid me back for thinking bad things about it. It was ignominious! Crushing! The only really challenging thing a multi-engine pilot can look forward to is an engine failure on takeoff. We plan for it. We look forward to it like kids for Christmas. We dream about it. And on my very first one I wasn’t even flying the plane! It was at max gross weight on a hot day – the PERFECT kind – and I wasn’t even flying the plane! Some Jet Pilot with a little smile was in the left seat and he acted like it was NOTHING! I was babbling like an idiot and throwing checklists all around the cockpit and the Jet Pilot – Caldwell – just did a one-eighty and greased the overweight Beechcraft down like it was some kind of amusing little pastime for him.
I had lots of time to think about it, because I went from Monterey to a seaplane tender and spent two years before the mast. When I could get ashore to fly, you can guess what would be waiting for me at Naha, or Alameda, or Atsugi: the tin twin; the Kansas Kangaroo. The Navy had a million of ‘em.
* Letter to Pat Francis for the ‘The Brown Shoes,’ November 19, 1995. © 1995.