Tony Hulman’s Beechcraft 18 airplane
While researching the recent “500” Platolene gasoline story, the author found an interesting letter written in February 1972 by the company’s general manager, J.W. Connelly, to the chairman of the Carmi Illinois airport expansion committee. Originally based in Hulman’s hometown of Terre Haute Indiana, at the time Platolene 500 headquarters was based in Carmi a small Illinois town 125 miles southeast Terre Haute.
Platolene 500 Inc. was one of many local businesses that supported the long-overdue extension of the city’s airport runway to 4,000 feet. Mr. Connelly’s comment was “two of our partners in this company, Henry Smith and Tony Hulman of Terre Haute Indiana, each have Beechcraft 18 airplanes. In the past they have used our present runway but they are very reluctant to do so because of only 2,700 feet of pavement.” It is worth noting that the recommended ground roll landing distance for a Beechcraft 18 was 2,800 feet. So what is the story behind Tony Hulman’s airplane?
The Beechcraft 18
The Beech Aircraft Company of Wichita Kansas began to produce the Beechcraft Model 18 in 1937, a “tail-dragger” design all-metal semi-monocoque construction and twin tail fins similar in appearance to the larger Lockheed Electra powered by that used twin radial engines.
Beech advertised to businessmen
Intended for use as a small airliner or as an executive aircraft, sales were slow and at the time of the United States’ entry into World War II in December 1941, only 39 Model 18's had been sold. As part of the war effort, more than 4,500 military versions of the Beechcraft 18 were built during WW II. Some sources state that over 90% of United States Army Air Force (USAAF) bombardiers and navigators during World War II were trained in Beech 18-type aircraft.
Tony Hulman’s plane
A typical Beech D18S cabin
Tony Hulman’s plane was a Beechcraft Model D18S, the first post-World War II version that debuted in October 1945 and featured seating for two pilots and six passengers with 5 feet of headroom in the cabin. The plane was powered by twin Pratt & Whitney 985 “Wasp Junior” nine-cylinder radial engines with gear-driven single-speed centrifugal type superchargers. The engines were rated at 450 horsepower each and used 99-inch constant speed propellers. The Beechcraft Model 18 typically cruised at 170 MPH, with a ceiling of 20,000 feet and a range of over 500 miles.
A Pratt & Whitney 985 in a Beech 18
A Pratt & Whitney 985 data plate
There were 1,035 Beech D18S planes built; the plane which would become Hulman’s was serial number A-223 completed on May 29 1946, the day before the first Indianapolis 500-mile race under Tony Hulman’s ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The mirror-like polished aluminum bodied plane was sold through dealer Interstate Airmotive to the Trailmobile Company of Cincinnati Ohio. The company which built over-the-road semi-truck trailers since 1915 kept the Beechcraft in the company’s hangar at Cincinnati’s historic Lunken Field until 1954.
During July 1954 the Beech 18 A-223 was sold to the Electric Auto-Lite division of Willys Corporation which manufactured 400 different automotive parts, including generators, lamps, horns, hubcaps, wiring, and seat adjustors. Electric Auto-Lite based in Toledo, Ohio the largest independent manufacturer of automotive electrical equipment was purchased by Ford Motor Company in 1961 after which Ford changed the division name to simply “Autolite.”
Under Ford’s ownership, the Autolite division expanded into auto racing particularly with spark plugs. Lloyd Ruby drove Lindsey Hopkins’ “Autolite Special” Offenhauser powered Epperly laydown roadster to an eighth place finish in the 1961 Indianapolis ‘500.’ In 1962, Autolite spark plugs won the Daytona GT Continental, the Daytona ‘500,’ and then swept the top three finishing positions in the Indianapolis ‘500’ as Rodger Ward and Len Sutton finished one-two for Bob Wilke with Eddie Sachs in third place in Al Dean’s ‘Autolite Special.’
Tony's plane restored
The Willys Electric Auto-Lite division sold Beechcraft D18S tail number N80242 to the Mead Corporation of Dayton Ohio in October 1954. Pilot Lloyd Fuller went along with the plane, just as he had with the previous owner as he had flown Beech A-223 since it was completed in 1946 at the Wichita factory. During Mead’s ownership, Tony Hulman flew on the plane, although according to an article in the October 1971 issue of Flying magazine, Fuller said Hulman “really didn’t care for flying.”
The tail of Tony's plane
In December 1963 the Mead Corporation sold the plane to Hulman & Company, pilot Fuller relocated to Terre Haute, and Hulman & Company built a new hangar on Hunt Road adjacent to Hulman Field (now known as Terre Haute International Airport). Under Hulman’s ownership, the tail number of the Beech was changed to N500 which remained until 1973 when it was predesignated N5QQ. Hulman & Company sold the highly-polished Beech D18S with blue trim in the fall of 1989. The plane’s current owner keeps the restored plane in Henderson Nevada.