When you are restoring a vintage aircraft, it can be quite a challenge to meet self-imposed deadlines. Presley Melton of North Little Rock, Ark., knows this only too well as the owner of a 1943 Howard DGA-15P.
“It was a basket case when I bought it eight years ago,” he explained when we caught up with him at Sun ‘n Fun in Lakeland, Florida. “For the first five years, not much work was done on it. But once we got it going, it took three years and three months to see it in the shape that you see today.”
When the restoration began in earnest in 2006, Melton planned to have the airplane ready to show at Sun ‘n Fun 2009. “When that deadline passed, it became AirVenture 2009. That deadline passed as well. We finally got it done for Sun ‘n Fun this year,” he said. “The airplane had just two hours on it before we flew it the five-and-half hours to Florida.”
“I take very little credit for the stretching of fabric and turning of wrenches,” Melton said. “Two retired engineers, Jim Marlar and David Bunning, did most of the work. I did the chasing of parts. You could say that I was the general contractor and they were high quality sub-contractors.”
Melton noted that his neighbors at the North Little Rock Airport (ORK) were very helpful when a tool needed to be borrowed or a particular part had to be tracked down.
“The Howard Club was also very helpful,” he said. “For vintage restorations there is plenty of support, but you have to look for it. People will just talk your head off and tell you everything they know. Many times the support comes from friends of friends of friends. Pretty soon you are talking to a total stranger on the phone who will spend 45 minutes with you or send you a photo or drawing that you need.”
The airplane is a taildragger. When it is on the ground and taxiing, there isn’t much forward visibility.
“It does have more visibility than a Stearman, which I also fly,” said Melton, adding,“but the pilot’s view to the right is blocked, so you still needed to do serpentine taxing.”
Wingspan measures 38 feet, while the length from spinner to tail is 25 feet, 8 inches. That puts it on par with its contemporaries, so finding hangar space to accommodate the Howard isn’t much of a problem.
The interior of the airplane walks a fine line between vintage and modern practicality.
“My goal was to design an interior that looked old the day we finished it,” he said. “It is brown leather with some tweedy fabric. I didn’t want to use anything trendy, because I want the airplane to still look good 30 years from now. The headliner is aircraft quality material but not stretched, so with a screw driver we can take the headliner down and access the working parts of the airplane.”
The instrument panel also is a mixture of new and old.
“We chose not to go back to the original Howard panel completely,” he said. “We decided to go with modern six pack instruments, but when we sent the instruments to the factory to be refurbished we asked them to make them look old. The only two modern instruments on the panel are the digital fuel flow indicator and the outside temperature gauge.”
The Howard is powered by a 450-hp Pratt and Whitney R-985. “I was drawn to it because what I knew about them through history is still true today,” said Melton. “They are extremely reliable and parts are readily available. Compared to other aircraft in its class, such as the Stinson Gullwing or the Fairchild 24, it pulls you down the pike a little bit faster.”
The yoke of the Howard is large and heavy. It’s necessary because the airplane, which has a gross weight of 4,500 lbs., takes a fair amount of control pressure to maneuver, especially when you need to get the tail up for takeoff.
“It lifts off at about 65 mph and you hold it in ground effect to get some airspeed, then climb out at about 110 mph,” he said. “It’s not necessarily the best rate of climb, but it is comfortable and gives you good visibility over the nose.”
One of the most striking items in the cockpit is the way the heavy yokes curve and join the panel on sort of a shelf.
“The yokes are supported by sort of an art deco column that takes up a lot of room, so the only place to put radios is on the left side of the pilot’s yoke,” Melton said, noting, “We added a Garmin stack with a Garmin audio panel, Garmin 430, and another comm only and Garmin transponders.”
The Howard DGA variants were produced from the 1930s to the 1940s by the Howard Aircraft Factory. DGA stands for Damn Good Airplane. Advertising of the day described riding in a Howard as “motorcar comfort” and that is what it feels like when you are sitting in the back seat of one of these magnificent machines.
Melton’s airplane rolled out of the factory in 1943, one of approximately 205 purchased by the Navy as a NH-1 instrument trainer.
“This airplane didn’t have a bench back seat when it came out of the factory,” he said. “The back compartment was taken up by a single back seat and a complete set of flight controls and instruments for the instrument student and a set of blackout curtains. He would sit there in the dark. The airplane had to be modified to make the main fuel tank smaller to allow for the back seat controls to go down through the floorboards and tie in with the rest of the controls. I’ve always wondered what the two guys in the front seats did.”
It was retired from the military in 1946 and spent time in Alaska as a bush plane before it came back to the lower 48. Melton bought it from an owner in Anacortes, Wash.
If you make the air show scene, you will probably see him and his prize-winning Howard. “This is primarily a ‘fun to fly, go to air shows, take your friends for rides’ airplane,” he said. “It’s meant to be on display.”