She’s a classic from 1944, has only 1700 hours since new and still has the original prop. Alan Fergus tells us about the latest addition to his collection.
The high wing Howards were designed by Gordon Israel and Benjamin Howard and was one of the early experimenters in aircraft design in the late 1920’s and early ‘30s. He designed several low wing racers and had his eyes firmly set on the Bendix and Thompson trophies. These were races with large prize money that were intended to foster innovation in aviation and Howard used the proceeds to set up his business, the Howard Aircraft Corporation.
The progenitor of the DGA 15P was the first high wing racer he built. It was called “Mr Mulligan” and was designed to win the Bendix trophy, a cross country race. “Mr Mulligan” had a highly tuned 600hp Pratt and Whitney engine and had large fuel tanks which obviated the need for too many fuel stops. Howard (whose day job was an airline captain for United Airlines) won the 1935 Bendix trophy and Harold Neumann, flying “Mr Mulligan” won the Thompson trophy (a speed contest around pylons) in the same year. “Mr Mulligan” was thus the only aircraft to win both trophies in the same year. Given the size of the Howard, winning the pylon race was no mean feat.
“Mr Mulligan” was the only air racer from the 1930’s to evolve successfully into a commercial aircraft. The DGA 15P was the final evolution of “Mr Mulligan” and was somewhat wider and more spacious. It uses the 450hp Pratt and Whitney R985 Wasp Junior nine cylinder radial engine and kept the prodigious fuel capacity (122gallons) that helped “Mr Mulligan” take the Bendix trophy. DGA is an acronym for “Damn Good Airplane”.
The story of 45022
This particular aircraft was produced for the US Navy and was one of 500 built for the Navy by the Howard Aircraft Corporation of St Charles. They were used variously as general transports (designation GH-1, GH-2 (an ambulance version which took two patients and a medic in the passenger compartment, GH-3 (of which this aircraft is one) and the NH-1 which was a three pilot instrument trainer).
The first flight of this aircraft took place on September 3, 1944 when it was test flown by the factory. It was accepted by the US Navy on October 10, 1944 as Navy serial number 45022 and the preliminary remarks by Lt C E Clarke in the flight log record a stall speed of 61 knots and a max speed of 151 knots with a full load of 4500 lbs.
It was flown to Santa Rosa California and used for general transport and training until 1946 where after it was preserved for storage at Navy Air Station Alameda, California.
In 1947 it was depreserved and ferried to Buchanan Field, California for sale by the War Assets Administrator to Gene Hughes Drug Stores for the princely sum of $2000.
A month later the drugstore sold it to Eugene P Hughes of Sacramento, also for $2000. After recovering the fuselage and tail surfaces and installing a new windscreen the aircraft was sold in April 1953 to James Heenan of Live Oak California. In 1972 his estate sold the aircraft to DeHaan Aviation who shortly thereafter sold it to Charlie Best of Tucson Arizona who undertook a significant restoration of the aircraft, recovering the wings and fuselage and installing the IF avionics package that still works perfectly. Eric Lorenztzen of Hoboken NJ owned the aircraft from 1977 to 2003. It was hangared in Scottsdale Arizona. After 25 years in the Lorenztzen family the aircraft was sold to Charles Nickerson of Bonita Springs Florida. He had the engine and propeller (both still original to the airframe) overhauled and redid the interior in 2004. In 2006 it was sold to Thomas Zuber of Valley, Alabama, a retired US Navy helicopter pilot.
Alan Fergus acquired the aircraft from Tom Zuber in November 2010 and had it packed into a container for shipment from Florida to Cape Town.
It arrived in Cape Town in early January 2011 whereafter it was reassembled by Agsprayers in Malmesbury and allocated the registration ZU-FLN under the veteran category. The first flight of five hours proving flights took place on February 15 with retired SAA captain Dick Henry at the controls.
The aircraft is currently located at Stellenbosch and will be used for general flying and commuting to the owner’s holiday house in Clanwilliam.
It is believed that this aircraft is the first of its type in South Africa and is a superb example of what is rapidly becoming a rare sight even in American skies. The condition of the aircraft clearly shows the level of care lavished by only six owners in 65 years.
Flying the Howard
Flying the Howard is a pleasure- it is extremely stable and the controls are well balanced. With the Wasp Junior it has plenty of power, even when fully laden. It accommodates four people and luggage in comfort with a cabin reminiscent of a Pullman carriage.
Walking up to the Howard, one realises the size of the aircraft- it stands over 9 feet high and you struggle to touch the underneath of the wing. Entry is through a hinged door on the starboard side. The pilot sits very high and on the ground the conventional undercarriage configuration makes the passengers feel they are in reclining seats. The beefy Pratt and Whitney radial is fully enclosed and the polished spinner and propeller gleam in the sunlight- on this aircraft (S/N 993, one of 500 built for the US Navy, the engine and propeller are the originals fitted when it left the factory 67 years ago in 1944).
After pre-flighting, the propeller is turned through nine blades – then it is mixture full rich, throttle cracked, and the wobble pump on the centre console is pumped to bring the fuel pressure up to 3 to 5 psi. Prime for ten seconds with the electric fuel primer and set magnetos to “Both”. The engine rumbles to life after a few blades and the characteristic cloud of white smoke is evidence that all is well with the radial.
As soon as oil pressure is up push the propeller control to full fine and then let the oil temperature build up to a minimum of 40degs before taxiing to the hold. As forward visibility is nonexistent you need to snake from left to right to check all is clear ahead (Pitts and Harvard pilots will know the feeling).
Then the run up – check the CHT (at least 110deg) and set RPM to 1600- then cycle the propeller twice (all the way back, not just a few hundred RPM) and check the RPM returns to exactly the same point each time. Then build up RPM to 2000 and check mags left and right, temps and pressures, alternator charge rate, carburettor temperature and back to slow idle. Set the fuel selector to front tank (used for take off and landing). During the taxi cycle through all three fuel tank positions to check they are all feeding. There is a single fuel gauge with a three way selector – this selector also shows the oil level (8 gallons capacity). The three fuel tanks are all located in the belly of the aircraft.
Line up and at this point set the tail wheel lock to “steerable” (unlocked allows it to caster freely) – advance the throttle to 32 inches MP (max. allowable is 35.5 inches but she’s an old lady…), propeller max is 2300 RPM. At sea level she accelerates briskly and the tail comes up at about 50mph. Suddenly you can see ahead! Keeping her straight on the runway is easy with the ample rudder authority. Lift off is at 70 mph and she climbs away easily – bring the prop back to 2000 RPM and the manifold pressure to 30 inches for the climb out. Keeping an eye on CHTs and oil temperature you are soon at cruise altitude.
Cruise settings are 26 inches MP and 1850 RPM and the engine purrs along at this setting gulping 25 gallons per hour- cruise speed is approximately 170 mph with top speed being recorded in the manual as being 200mph – VNE is 270 mph. The fuel tanks are used in the following order- rear (18 gallons) first, then main (74 gallons) and then front (34 gallons), always using the front tank for take off and landing.
The all moving elevator is trimmed by means of a handle set in the roof between the two front seats- clockwise for nose down and anticlockwise for nose up. It is very sensitive – a dial on the sloping lower dash shows the trim position.
Whilst not aerobatic the Howard is agile in the air, no doubt due to her heritage as an air racer although Alan says he would give pylon racing a miss …
Stalls are a non event with the aircraft stalling at 65 mph – the aircraft just mushes with no tendency to drop a wing.
Approaching the airfield for landing one needs to slow the aircraft down well ahead of time- with all the fairings it is quite slippery and flap extension speed is 108 mph- the electric flap motor allows any setting from zero to 45 degrees maximum. A handy dial tells you the flap position although a visual check always helps. Howards have acquired a reputation of being tricky to land- this is mainly due to the undercarriage which does not have oleos – rather it has a single compression strut on each leg and these only absorb the landing once- after that the aircraft weight (all 4350 pounds) rests on some very stiff “taxi” springs. If you don’t make a soft landing your next bounce is directly onto the taxi springs and you will crow hop along the runway in a most undignified manner- or worse… If you decide to take power and go around- the compression strut will extend during the circuit and give you another chance to restore your dignity.
Alan and test pilot, Dick Henry experimented with three pointers and wheelers and have come to the conclusion that a wheeler works best- approach at 90 mph, touch down at 80 mph and keep the stick forward to glue her down- the tail stays up all the way to about 35 mph before gently dropping – once the tail wheel is on the ground the speed bleeds off very quickly and having vacated the runway set the tail wheel lock to “unlocked”.
After taxiing back to the hangar, shutdown the radial by idling for at least 60 seconds at 1000 RPM, set 1600 RPM and then pull the propeller back to full coarse, then mixture to idle cut-off , mags and master off.
Alan says that a flight in the Howard is like stepping back 70 years in time, to what is known as the Golden Age of aviation.