Benny Howard

Benny Howard and His Darned Good Airplanes

Benjamin Odel Howard, better known as “Ben” or “Benny,” was born in Palestine, Texas, on February 4, 1904, just weeks after the Wright brothers' historic first flight. At age 19, Howard moved to Dallas and started working in the Curtiss aircraft factory where he soon bought a used biplane and a how-to-fly book.

Believing that the book taught him everything he needed to know about flying, Howard took to the skies—with disastrous results. He crashed his Curtiss during one of his first flight attempts, killing his passenger and seriously injuring himself. After recovering, Benny realized that it would be prudent to take some flying lessons. He eventually earned a commercial pilots license.

Determined to avoid formal education at all costs, Howard stumbled into the field of aircraft design when a Houston bootlegger approached him about modifying an airplane to include a cargo hold capable of holding 15 cases of illegal liquor. (This was during the early days of Prohibition—the era following the enactment of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that made the sale or production of alcoholic beverages a crime. Widely ignored, Prohibition was eventually repealed on December 5, 1933.)

The customer was delighted, proclaiming the “rum-runner” to be a “Darned Good Airplane,” and the name stuck—the initials D-G-A becoming the Howard aircraft trademark (although the reason was probably unbeknownst to the licensing authorities at the U.S. Department of Commerce!).

At 20 years old, Howard was flying an airplane he had designed and built himself – the DGA-1—accomplishing this feat with only the benefit of an eight-grade education with a half term of high school added for good measure. Benny, at the age of 26, was competing in the smallest racing aircraft ever constructed—a plane he designed and built named Pete—which would eventually win five air races. Benny, an incorrigible scrounger, used material salvaged from aircraft wrecks and scrap heaps to build Pete—officially designated the DGA-3. The tiny white Pete, powered by a 90-horsepower (67-kilowatt) Wright-Gipsy engine, was flown by Howard to a third place finish in the 1930 National Air Races with a speed of 162.80 miles per hour (262 kilometres per hour).

The early successes of Pete convinced Benny Howard that there was a lot of money to be made in racing airplanes. However, competing aircraft were soon outclassing Pete, so Benny and his partner, Gordon Israel, started work on two new and larger aircraft—the DGA-4 and the DGA-5—a pair of look-alikes named Mike and Ike.

Mike and Ike were both low-wing, wire-braced monoplanes. Ike weighed a little less than Mike and its Menasco Buccaneer engine was set for a slightly higher octane rating, which may have made Ike the faster of the two aircraft, at least in 1932.

Ike was sponsored by the General Motors Chevrolet division and also flew under the name of Miss Chevrolet. Equipped with a special carburettor, the DGA-5 at one time held the world record for inverted speed (flying in an inverted position—particularly important for acrobatic or military flight). Never content, Howard was always modifying the DGA-4 and DGA-5 and the two regularly traded the mantle of “fastest.”

Mike and Ike had wingspans measuring 20 feet 1 inch (six meters), fuselages of 17 feet (five meters) in length, and their cockpits were hinged on the side. The small cockpit was closed after the pilot was seated inside (level with the rudders), but a large hole accommodated the pilot's head. Thirty small ventilation holes drilled into the windshield provided fresh air, and the engine cowlings varied slightly between the two aircraft. 

Landing gear differed significantly. Mike used an internal, shock absorbing system with large wheels to meet a certain racing specification. Ike featured a unique tandem landing gear of two small wheels covered by a single wheel fairing on each leg, originally designed as a joke, but ultimately proving quite successful. Later, handling problems while on the ground forced the replacement of both planes' landing gear with a more conventional single wheel SPAATs (Skin Penetrating Agent Applicator) penetrating nozzle design.

Soon to follow was the DGA-6, known as Mister Mulligan, which won the 1935 Bendix (flown by Gordon Israel) and Thompson Cup air races. Unfortunately, Benny Howard and his wife “Mike” were almost killed when Mister Mulligan, leading in the early stages of the 1936 Bendix Transcontinental Race, experienced a propeller failure flying over New Mexico. Both Howards recovered from the serious injuries resulting from the crash, but Benny tragically lost a leg in the accident and Mister Mulligan was destroyed.

A four-seat aircraft, tagged the DGA-8, was introduced in 1936 to capitalize on the publicity generated by Mister Mulligan, to be quickly followed in 1937 by the DGA-9, powered by a 285-horsepower (213-kilowatt) Jacobs L-5 engine. The success of Mister Mulligan also led to the formation of the Howard Aircraft Corporation on January 1, 1937, to produce commercial versions of the now-famous DGA cabin monoplanes, each custom-built by Benny Howard and Gordon Israel.

The DGA-11, powered by a nine-cylinder 450-horsepower (336-kilowatt) Pratt & Whitney Wasp Junior radial engine, was purportedly the fastest four-seat civil aircraft of the late 1930s, able to achieve a top speed of about 200 miles per hour (322 kilometres per hour). A favourite of the high society and Hollywood circles, the DGA-11 cost about $16,500 in 1938—a princely sum for the time. A slower and less costly version, the DGA-12, used a 300-horsepower (483-kilowatt) Jacobs engine.

Production of the Howard Aircraft Corporation from 1936 to 1939 totalled about 30 aircraft. In 1940, Howard developed the DGA-15, building about 40 of the four/five-place aircraft, powered by one of three different engines.

The onset of World War II signalled the end of the Howard aircraft line. The U.S. Navy procured about 525 modified DGA-15s for use as the DG 1-3 Nightingale air ambulance, the GH-1 utility transport, and the NH-1 instrument trainer aircraft. Exceptionally roomy and high-powered, the modified DGA-15 was also difficult to fly and quite unforgiving—earning the unwanted nickname of “Ensign Eliminator.” The U.S. Army Air Corps also acquired a variety of Howard aircraft (DGA-8, DGA-9, DGA-12 and DGA-15) as utility aircraft.

After producing several of the most famous racing aircraft of the Golden Age of Aviation, the Howard Aircraft Corporation ceased production in 1943. Pete, Ike and Mike are still in existence—Mike is currently displayed as part of the aircraft collection of the Western Reserve Historical Society of Cleveland, Ohio, while Pete is the only Golden Age racing plane still flying with original parts. They are three of the last survivors of that colourful period, an era exemplified by Benny Howard and his Darned Good Airplanes.