Howards

Meet the THE RE­SPECTABLE SIDE OF THE FAM­ILY, DE­SCENDED FROM A RACE­PLANE.

Air & Space Smithsonian - - In The Museum - By Mark Hu­ber Pho­to­graphs by Jim Koep­nick

there ever be, another hu­man be­ing as in­ter­est­ing as Benny, as in­tel­li­gent, as ex­as­per­at­ing, or as lov­able.”

Ben Odell Howard was one of those “grease-stained en­trepreneurs,” in the words of Time re­porter Paul O’neil, who learned by do­ing dur­ing the golden age of avi­a­tion in the United States—an era of races and records be­tween Charles Lind­bergh’s 1927 At­lantic cross­ing and the early 1940s, when air­plane mak­ers’ shops sprouted in small towns and air ex­hi­bi­tions drew crowds 50,000 strong. Al­most all of the golden age en­trepreneurs, wrote O’neil, “had ab­sorbed what they knew of aero­nau­ti­cal science by tin­ker­ing with Jen­nies and Stan­dards as barn­storm­ers and by

build­ing, and risk­ing their necks in, later mod­els of their own.” In­stead of en­rolling in flight school, Howard read a book on how to fly, then bought a sec­ond-hand Stan­dard bi­plane and quickly crashed it. (His pas­sen­ger died in the crash.) When Howard got out of the hos­pi­tal, he “made a deal,” as he put it, with a flight in­struc­tor. He later raced Roscoe Turner and Wal­ter Beech and beat them both.

To­day, some 200 Howard air­planes re­main on the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s reg­istry, but only a few dozen are fly­ing. Of those, most have un­der­gone ex­ten­sive restora­tion. Re­build­ing just a set of wings for a Dga-15—wooden frame, ma­hogany ply­wood, and fab­ric—can be an eight-month, $100,000 ad­ven­ture; over­haul­ing the big, nine-cylin­der, 450-horse­power Pratt & Whit­ney R-985 Wasp Ju­nior en­gine can tack on up to another $50,000; add to this up­dat­ing the elec­tri­cal sys­tem, reweld­ing and re­cov­er­ing the me­tal-tube fuse­lage, new paint and in­te­rior, and a few mod­ern con­ve­niences such as an elec­tric fuel pump and new ra­dios, and the to­tal can soar to $250,000—or a lot more.

“You’d be count­ing your bless­ings if you were just a quar­ter-mil­lion into it,” says Jim Kreutzfeld of Castle Rock, Colorado. Kreutzfeld has had a hand in sev­eral Howard restora­tions and owns a 1940 DGA-15P. So does his brother Ken, an in­ter­na­tion­ally known Howard spe­cial­ist who owns K & M Restora­tions in Mar­ble­head, Ohio.

Work­ing with de­signer Gor­don Is­rael, Howard spe­cial­ized in very-lim­ited-pro­duc­tion rac­ing air­craft, the most fa­mous be­ing the DGA-6 also known as Mr. Mul­li­gan, win­ner in 1935 of both the Bendix dis­tance race and the Thompson tro­phy for closed-course rac­ing. In 1936, Howard crashed the air­plane near Crown­point, New Mexico, dur­ing his last stretch in the Bendix New York-to-los An­ge­les race, se­ri­ously in­jur­ing him­self and his wife Max­ine, known as Mike. As a re­sult of the crash, Howard lost a leg. Most of the Howard Foun­da­tion mem­bers who showed up in Siren learned about Mr. Mul­li­gan af­ter they be­came in­ter­ested in Howards, as op­posed to be­ing drawn to the brand be­cause of the racer. As col­or­ful as Benny Howard’s history is, his air­plane still sells be­cause it’s a damned good air­plane.

In 1970, parts from the orig­i­nal Mul­li­gan were sal­vaged from the crash site and used as pat­terns to build three repli­cas, each a lit­tle dif­fer­ent from the oth­ers. The first crashed in 1977 dur­ing a speed run over Tonopah, Ne­vada, killing builder Bob Re­ichardt. A sec­ond replica was built by Jim Younkin of Spring­dale, Arkansas, in 1985. (Younkin, who in­vented a solid-state au­t­o­gyro sys­tem, got his first air­plane ride in a Ford Tri­mo­tor in 1934 and is the fa­ther of the late Bobby Younkin, an air­show leg­end. He was a kid when Howard crashed the orig­i­nal.) His replica, pow­ered by a Pratt & Whit­ney R-1340, took more than 8,000 hours to build and is dis­played at the Arkansas Air Mu­seum. Younkin also col­lab­o­rated with a friend, the late Bud Dake of Creve Coeur air­port near St. Louis, to build three Mul­li­coupes, loosely based on Mr. Mul­li­gan but with the smaller R-985

en­gine and a mod­ern steel-tube fuse­lage. In 2009 Howard en­thu­si­ast Bruce Dick­en­son of Santa Paula Air­port in Cal­i­for­nia built a hy­brid of a DGA-6 and a DGA-15 that he called the DGA-21. Howards seem to at­tract what might be called a sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of “grease-stained en­trepreneurs,” a gang of Diyers who stayed true to avi­a­tion af­ter the world moved on.

Howard used Mr. Mul­li­gan as the tem­plate for a se­ries of air­craft de­signed for the gen­eral public. The four-seat DGA-8 that emerged in 1936 was the first in a fam­ily that used the same fuse­lage but dif­fer­ent en­gines. Howard sold 18 DGA-8S, pow­ered by the Wright R-760; seven DGA-9S with the Ja­cobs L-5; four DGA-11S with the Pratt & Whit­ney Wasp Ju­nior; and two DGA-12S with the Ja­cobs L-6. Be­tween 1936 and 1939, the com­pany built a to­tal of just 31 in the se­ries.

The DGA-15 was a dif­fer­ent story. Launched in 1940 and de­signed to com­pete with the cabin-class sin­gle-en­gine busi­ness air­craft of the day—air­planes like Beechcraft’s B-17 Stag­ger­wing and the Stinson V77 Re­liant—the air­craft sold well un­til the U.S. en­try into World War II, when the fac­tory be­gan pro­duc­ing mil­i­tary vari­ants. Howard’s brochure for the Model 15 boasted of a rear seat with “mo­tor car com­fort for three” and a cabin with “sci­en­tific sound­proof­ing” and “only the finest broad-cloth and leather.”

Frank Rezich, 92, re­mem­bers build­ing the air­planes that had to live up to those prom­ises. At 17, he was the as­sis­tant to the fac­tory su­per­in­ten­dent. In 1940 Howard was a shoestring op­er­a­tion, with only 50 em­ploy­ees, in­di­vid­u­ally mak­ing air­craft to or­der for high-pro­file cus­tomers like Jimmy Doolit­tle and ac­tor Wal­lace Beery. “There was no assem­bly line, we did not build on a pro­duc­tion ba­sis,” says Rezich. “Cus­tomers would send a de­posit and we would start build­ing an air­plane.” Rezich re­mem­bers Howard as “in­tense, de­mand­ing, and a per­fec­tion­ist.” Be­fore re­leas­ing an air­craft for first flight, Rezich says, Howard would ex­am­ine the smooth­ness of the fin­ish; he’d run his hand over the fuse­lage, then “put his hand­ker­chief on top of the fuse­lage and see if it would slide down.”

IT’S NOT QUICK AND IT’S NOT CHEAP, but if you want the wings on your Howard re­stored, Marc Stam­sta is the man. He op­er­ates Max Aero in Hart­ford, Wis­con­sin, just down the road from Oshkosh.

His fas­ci­na­tion with wood wings be­gan at age seven, when he started as­sem­bling balsa wood air­planes. Now he does the real deal. “I’ve never been rich, so I’ve al­ways had to build my own air­planes,” Stam­sta says. “If you’re handy and you have a snow­mo­bile en­gine and a bot­tle of glue, it’s not that hard.”

Howards have been a good busi­ness for Stam­sta. He came away from Siren in 2014 with or­ders for three shipsets; that’s two and half years’ worth of work and around $64,000 each be­fore the cus­tomer adds fab­ric, paint, and hard­ware.

Although good blue­prints are avail­able for the DGA-15, thanks to its mil­i­tary her­itage, the process of re­build­ing Howard wings is ar­du­ous and com­plex. For each set of wings, Stam­sta says, “there are 8,000 to 10,000 parts, if you count the gus­sets. Each rib alone has 60 com­po­nents. And I have to han­dle each part about 10 times; pick­ing the boards, run­ning them on the CNC [com­puter nu­meric con­trolled router], hand sand­ing it, glu­ing it, hand sand­ing some more, var­nish­ing, and hand sand­ing again. And that’s be­fore I at­tach the ma­hogany ply­wood cover.”

This is the age of car­bon fiber, but Stam­sta thinks wood is still the best ma­te­rial for wings. “A tree flexes in the wind for 600 years. Now you add more ad­he­sives and epoxy to that wood and you re­ally have some­thing. These re­built wings will easily last 100 years.”

Howard wings em­ploy a va­ri­ety of woods; ash in the wing strut area, bass­wood, ma­hogany ply­wood, birch ply­wood, and Sitka spruce. The spruce is be­com­ing pricey in the wake of ac­cel­er­ated de­mand from for­eign buy­ers, about $100 a board foot. For­tu­nately, the stronger and cheaper Dou­glas fir is an ac­cept­able sub­sti­tute.

Max Aero is a one-man op­er­a­tion, but Stam­sta says he usu­ally has help from “the old guys who hang out at the Hart­ford air­port.” “IT’S THE BEST RIDE OUT THERE,” says Dennis Lyons, a for­mer Amer­i­can Air­lines pi­lot who prefers the Howard to the Beech Bo­nanza he owned ear­lier. “It’s not as fast as the Bo­nanza and it’s more chal­leng­ing to land, but it rides tur­bu­lence bet­ter.” Lyons and his wife Su­san have owned their blue DGA-15P, named Archibald B, for 10 years. Lyons says he can fly it from the air­port near their home in San Miguel, Cal­i­for­nia, to Chicago with just one stop for gas.

“You know this air­plane doesn’t know whether it’s 1945 or 1995 or 2015,” says Lyons. “Fly­ing across Wy­oming, noth­ing down there, you get the same feel­ing as the guy who first flew it.”

“I’m not in­ter­ested in go­ing any­where fast,” says Mike Mer­ritt, of Ken­ne­saw, Ge­or­gia, owner of a 1944 DGA-15P, who re­tired af­ter spend­ing 20 years in the Air Force and later work­ing as a civil­ian test pi­lot for Lock­heed Martin. He’s flown the F-117 stealth fighter and the F-22/A Rap­tor, but to­day he’s happy to poke along in his Howard at 130 knots—about 150 mph. For its time, Mer­ritt points out, the DGA-15 was pretty fast, with a top speed of 175 knots. “And ex­pen­sive—more than $17,000,” he says. “But it is very solid. It has a great use­ful load—you can re­ally put in four peo­ple and their lug­gage and go places. Range with full fuel is al­most 1,000 miles.”

The -15 has plenty of idio­syn­cra­sies, and land­ing it is not easy, even for pilots with lots of tail­wheel ex­pe­ri­ence. The main gear car­riage is fairly nar­row, and if you hit it hard there is no give. If you don’t nail your land­ing speed just right, you’re go­ing to bounce—rapidly. The only way to re­cover is to go around or move your feet on the rud­der ped­als faster than a bal­le­rina on hot coals. The best way to land a Howard is to pitch up into a per­fect three-point land­ing—much eas­ier said than done.

One rea­son Howards are so sta­ble, par­tic­u­larly in tur­bu­lence, is that there is no fuel in the wings to cre­ate an im­bal­ance. The gas is stored in a se­ries of three belly tanks that col­lec­tively can hold up to 151 gal­lons. The tanks have to be filled in­di­vid­u­ally, and gassing a dry Howard can take up to 30 min­utes. “A curved filler tube is used to get to the top of each tank,” Mer­ritt says. “You have to pump in the fuel slowly or it will spit it right back out at you.” Un­less the air­craft has been mod­i­fied with a mod­ern elec­tric fuel pump, on startup you pump fuel to the en­gine with a me­chan­i­cal “wob­ble pump.” Mer­ritt rec­om­mends land­ing and tak­ing off with the se­lec­tor switched to the for­ward tank, the one clos­est to the en­gine.

On an over­cast morn­ing, Mer­ritt takes me along for a ride. You en­ter the air­craft through a right-hand cabin door be­tween the sump­tu­ous rear bench seat and the front pi­lot buck­ets and nav­i­gate up the in­cline. On the in­stru­ment panel, one switch is marked “flare dis­penser,” sig­nal­ing the era dur­ing which the air­plane first flew. Howards could be fit­ted with an aft flare dis­penser, which il­lu­mi­nated the ground be­low for night land­ings on un­lighted grass strips. It also started more than just a few fires. Says Mer­ritt: “Py­rotech­nics and air­planes gen­er­ally don’t mix.”

For a sin­gle-en­gine tail drag­ger of this vintage, the Howard is a heavy beast—4,350 pounds—and speeds are higher all around—take­off, stall, cruise, and ap­proach—than those of many of its con­tem­po­raries. Taxi­ing side to side for vis­i­bil­ity re­quires deft throt­tle ap­pli­ca­tion, as the Howard’s rel­a­tively small rud­der needs a fair amount of blow over the sur­face to main­tain di­rec­tional con­trol on the ground.

Pe­riph­eral vi­sion is the lead sense re­quired on take­off; that is, un­til the tail wheel comes up at 50 mph and you get your first glimpse of one of the fea­tures that makes this air­plane spe­cial: that amaz­ing panorama out the wind­screen. At 70 mph, you’re air­borne, climb­ing at 1,800 feet per minute. Then you feel a sec­ond fea­ture, that amaz­ing sta­bil­ity:

Take your hands off the yoke and it just stays put.

Mer­ritt and I head north from Siren to Lake Su­pe­rior’s Apos­tle Is­lands, weav­ing be­tween the bluffs and beaches, bank­ing around the re­stored light­houses, and en­joy­ing the views from the el­e­gance in the air.

HOWARD OWN­ERS all have sto­ries about how they found their air­planes and the multi-year sagas of re­build­ing and restora­tion that fol­lowed. In 2001, cur­rent Howard Foun­da­tion pres­i­dent Pres­ley Mel­ton, a courtly, re­tired casket whole­saler from North Lit­tle Rock, Arkansas, found his 1943 DGA15P in pieces in Washington state. He didn’t know much about Howards; he just knew he wanted some­thing with a 450-hp Pratt & Whit­ney R-985 en­gine. Af­ter the war, the air­plane had been used by the tony Green­brier ho­tel in West Vir­ginia to shut­tle guests, then had a suc­ces­sion of own­ers from Alaska to North Dakota. When Mel­ton got it, it hadn’t flown since 1975. He had it trucked back to Arkansas. The show­piece restora­tion took un­til 2010, and Mel­ton freely ad­mits he ex­ceeded his bud­get, but his air­plane did win the 2010 EAA award for An­tique Re­serve Grand Cham­pion.

Craig Bair first saw a Howard when he was eight and vis­it­ing the Denton, Texas air­port, near Dal­las. “I thought: That is the coolest air­plane ever,” he says to­day. About 40 years later, he feels the same way. He bought his first Howard, a DGA-15P, in 1997.

When his fa­ther died in 2000, Bair sold the -15 to raise the money needed to buy his dad’s old Cessna 195. “As a kid, I grew up in that air­plane,” Bair ex­plains, and the thought of the 195 go­ing to some­one else was un­think­able. But, he says, “Af­ter I bought the 195, I missed the Howard—bad.”

Bair puts his ad­mi­ra­tion in automotive terms: The Cessna 195 is like a fam­ily sedan; a Howard, that’s a limousine. He found his sec­ond Howard two years ago in North Dakota. Although he once ran an air­craft restora­tion busi­ness and is a li­censed air­craft me­chanic, his day job kept him too busy to re­store the sec­ond Howard him­self. He took it to Howard spe­cial­ist Rick Atkins of Rag­time Aero in Plac­erville, Cal­i­for­nia. Two years and $400,000 later, Bair is the proud owner of what could be the finest ground-up restora­tion of a DGA-15P ever. Bair and Atkins con­sulted old Howard brochures and doc­u­ments to make the fi­nal prod­uct look like the orig­i­nal, right down to the pat­terns on the map pock­ets. While ev­ery­one else’s air­plane sat out overnight, Bair tucked his into a hangar. You re­ally can’t blame him.

Dennis Lyons was at Santa Paula Air­port one day when he saw a Stear­man bi­plane with a big Pratt & Whit­ney en­gine take off, then, not long af­ter, re­turn. “One of the cylin­ders on the en­gine was miss­ing, gone, not on the en­gine any­more,” re­calls Lyons. The pi­lot had flown al­most 15 miles back to the air­port with a cylin­der miss­ing. Lyons re­mem­bers think­ing, “I want to fly be­hind an en­gine like that.” A friend of Bruce Dick­en­son, Lyons knew about Howards and the big Pratt & Whit­ney that pow­ered them, and a short time later he bought one.

Alex Vick­roy wanted a Howard be­fore he could drive. In 2006, when he was 18, he saw an ad for one on floats in Trade-a-plane. Alex lives in Wis­con­sin; the air­plane was in Alaska. He tore out the ad and kept it—for six years—be­fore call­ing the owner, who still had the air­plane. By 2012, Vick­roy was a com­muter air­line pi­lot and had saved a lit­tle money. He went to Alaska, bought the air­plane, and flew it home. It still looks very much like the work­ing air­plane it was in Alaska for more than three decades af­ter re­ceiv­ing the Job­mas­ter cargo con­ver­sion and be­ing mounted to a pair of enor­mous Edo 6470 alu­minum floats. Vick­roy likes to fly it to his fish­ing cabin on Lake Su­pe­rior in On­tario, 40 miles from any­thing and ac­ces­si­ble only by boat…or float­plane.

When it comes time to visit Al Lund, Vick­roy taxis into Lund’s la­goon and parks next to his floate­quipped de Hav­il­land Beaver. Ev­ery­one else catches a ride from the air­port.

The lunch with Al is bit­ter­sweet. He’s dy­ing and ev­ery­one knows it. In less than five months he will be gone. He’s men­tored just about ev­ery­one in the Howard Foun­da­tion, and they have come to share a few laughs and say good­bye. Lund made his for­tune in a se­ries of busi­nesses, but in his study there is no trace of any of them. He is sur­rounded by mem­o­ra­bilia and pho­to­graphs of a life in avi­a­tion and of fam­ily. The two have been in­ter­twined as long as his chil­dren can re­mem­ber. Sev­eral of them are pilots and they can’t dis­cuss their fa­ther with­out talk­ing about air­planes. (At this year’s gath­er­ing, Al’s wife Lois opened the hangar to the club, and the fam­ily once again hosted the lunch and din­ner.)

Al tells me that his Howard parts stash is for the ben­e­fit of the foun­da­tion’s mem­bers and he doesn’t want any­one mak­ing money from it. He was one of serveral who pooled money and ef­fort to ac­quire the Howard DGA-15 type cer­tifi­cate in 2003, as­sur­ing that parts would be avail­able to keep the Howards fly­ing.

We go out­side on the deck over­look­ing the lake where ev­ery­one has gath­ered. It is a flaw­less sum­mer af­ter­noon—bril­liant sun­light, a few scat­tered clouds, and a light breeze. Painfully short, sum­mer in north­ern Wis­con­sin doesn’t get any bet­ter than this. Al sits down. The ra­di­als from the la­goon fire up. Al’s son Jim taxis out in the Beaver. Vick­roy pulls up along­side him in the Howard. Throt­tles ad­vance and the race is on. Vick­roy lifts a float first. Al Lund leans back in his chair. There is a glis­ten in his eye and he is smil­ing. For the DGA dis­ci­ples, it is a Damned Good Af­ter­noon.

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