August 1, 2013 - After World War II, Dee Howard built a business making plush executive airplanes out of surplus Lockheed bombers. While his conversions were popular, they lacked a few features Howard felt were required in a modern business aircraft.
So he created the Howard Model 500. Although it bears a striking resemblance to the wartime Lockheeds used in prior conversions, it is substantially an all-new airplane built in the company's San Antonio, Texas, facility. Seventeen were produced in a run that, most likely, was ended by the growing popularity of the turboprop and the jet in business aviation.
Only two flying examples of the type remain, and both, now owned by Tony Phillippi of Minneapolis, Minnesota, are here in the Vintage area.
Equipped with two R-2800 Twin Wasp radial engines, the Howard could reach 25,000 feet and achieve speeds of 350 mph. Its pressurized cabin is capable of maintaining sea level air density up to 16,000 feet.
Gear reduction for the propellers, a feature common on piston airliners of the '50s and '60s, kept cabin noise at a level that allowed normal conversation. Competitive executive transports of the day lacking the feature were much louder.
However, all that comfort and performance comes at a cost.
According to Hans Meyer, one of three pilots type rated to fly the Howards, each engine consumes 100 gallons of 100LL fuel per hour. Given the current cost of avgas, filling up the plane's tanks to their 1,500-gallon capacity can be an expensive exercise.
Phillippi was looking for a Howard to use primarily for business and personal travel.
"The green one (N500HP) came up for sale by its previous owner," Meyer said. Conditions were right, and he acquired it.
"The blue aircraft (N500LN) was over in England and was in very rough airworthy condition."
Over about two years, Phillippi had mechanics working on the plane to get it ready for a North Atlantic crossing. It arrived in the United States last October, enduring a harrowing fall North Atlantic crossing, complete with low IFR approaches.
Although not intended to be airliners, Howard built the planes to transport standards.
"There are lots of redundancies," Meyer said. For example, there are five different ways to lower the landing gear.
Regarding flying qualities Meyer notes, "They have their quirks, I guess. It is a 31,000-pound, twin-engine taildragger. As any tailwheel pilot can attest, there are a lot of rudder skills required. You have to know how to use your feet."
Rudder input is very important especially during the takeoff roll. Bringing two R-2800 engines from idle rpm up to 2,500 hp puts every left-turning force into effect.
"And they are there instantaneously. So you have to be ready on the rudders."
Landing can also be a challenge.
"It likes about 110 knots over the fence," Meyer added. "If you are any faster, you are going to float most of the way down the runway. If you are any slower than about 105 knots, you are going to fall out of the sky."
He and the other pilots operate the airplanes as close to an airline standard as possible.
"All the captains that fly the airplanes are pilots for major airlines," he said. "The copilots are all mechanics with pilot licenses. It is a two-pilot aircraft.
"We try to train and fly with the airline concept in mind since it is a big transport-type airplane. We have checklists and flows that you would see on any U.S. airline.
We have pilot flying and pilot monitoring duties. That is how we try to run the shop and that keeps us safe, and keeps both pilots in the game at all times."
As it is with any classic airplane, parts availability is a challenge.
"Like any other aircraft manufacturer, Howard would take another component, put their part number on it, and sell it as their own," said chief mechanic Brian Rygwall. "So if you need to find a motor, or an actuator, or something that has a Howard part number, you can't call Howard to cross reference it with a replacement part. Parts that are supposed to go on these airplanes are incredibly difficult to find."
Phillippi and his team do have a third example of the type at Anoka County airport. It is used primarily to supply parts for the other two, and Rygwall said it's unlikely anyone could find the resources and parts necessary to make that airframe airworthy.
The team has located the 14 other examples of the type. Most are not being preserved and likely will be lost to time.
One that was under restoration, and probably less than a year from flying again, was at New Orleans Lakefront Airport when Hurricane Katrina submerged it in saltwater.
According to Meyer, Phillippi's primary mission for the rare Howards, and for a Grumman Albatross he also owns, is first and foremost to share the airplanes with the public. Secondarily they are for business travel.
"Wherever we go we are happy to open up the airplane and let people see it," Meyer said. "The owner, the pilots, and mechanics are really proud of what we have been able to accomplish."
Both Howards are expected to fly in Saturday's air show.