Budd Davisson, Private Pilot, Jan, 2003

Early Morning Run

A Twin Beech freighter can say sooo much!

I can set my watch by it. Sometimes we’ll be on our morning walk or I’ll be sitting here at the computer when I hear it clattering over. It’s 0645 and I don’t need to look at a clock to know that. If that worn old D-18 Twin Beech is overhead, that’s what time it is.

A Twin Beech is nearly impossible to misidentify, even in the dark of a winter morning. Those two 450 P & W’s sing a duet that includes an interesting harmony comprised of sympathetic vibrations and intertwined propeller shock waves with throaty exhaust stacks providing back-up. It’s a round motor sympathy we all know and, even though it’s not a tune we can hum along with, a part of our mind rides along with it until it’s out of earshot.

This particular Twin Beech is a freighter and that’s all the description that’s necessary. With that single word, “freighter,” the airplane’s place in aviation culture is accurately described, its condition is hinted at and its mission defined. I have seen it in the air dozens of times as it drones along on a 330 degree magnetic course, angles seven, and I had a mental image of it even though I had never seen it up close.

One day I spotted it on the ramp at the “big” airport, Sky Harbor, and it was exactly as I imagined. It was sans paint, its aluminum was that dull sorta-silver aluminum becomes out here in the Southwest as the sun bakes it. The cargo door was one of the bigger varieties and even from a distance you could see reflections of wear around the door and the cowlings where uncaring hands had touched it time and again until they left the indelible marks that identify working airplanes. After a while all Twin Beech freighters develop a patina born of use—small dings, dull metal, scrapes and a generally working class feel that says its days of carrying three-piece suits to business meetings are far behind it.

What I can’t see as I cock an ear for this particular early morning run is the pilot. Each time I hear the airplane I project an image on my mind’s eye of the flight deck and each time the image is different. Even though the chipped control yokes and worn instrument panel are the same, the face of the pilot changes. Sometimes it’ll be a young man eager for flight time and willing to work for practically nothing as he adds multi engine time to his logbook. He doesn’t plan on doing this forever. As soon as he has enough time and finds a slot with the airlines, he’ll be gone and another young face will take his place to begin the same process all over again. Every part of the airplane, with the possible exception of a few hoses and the spark plugs, is older than those who fly it.

Sometimes, as I mentally poke my head through the door of the cockpit flying overhead, I’m met with a grizzled old character, unshaven, a stogey clamped in his teeth. This pilot looks like the airplane. He has the same patina, the same worn edges to his look and his personality that come only from decades of blue-collar flying. He has literally been there and done that. He’s had a lifetime of flying clapped-out, poorly maintained airplanes into the jaws of weather-hell just so yesterday’s checks make it to the bank on time. Or so a bunch of little plastic parts make it from vendor to manufacturer so they can continue making their totally meaningless widgets. He’s had engines quit, radios go up in smoke. He’s ignored the frozen flak of ice being flung into the fuselage from propellers that were doing their best to keep the airplane in the air. He’s not being paid much and never has been. But he’s flying. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

As I listen to the R-985’s disappearing in the distance, I wonder which of my pilots is flying her. I wonder if the morning will come when I glance up and realize its 0700 and the old Beech hasn’t made her run yet. And she never appears. When that morning comes, it’ll be sad. Hearing that old airplane is a great way to start my day and it’s a comforting reminder that there are still tiny corners of our world where tradition still wins out over progress.

As I’m typing this line, it’s 0645 and she’s overhead singing her song. This time a new thought dances through my mind—I wonder if they need another pilot.