Hal Wighton’s Luscombe pays homage to the famous racer
When pilots dream, they often dream about airplanes and missions they’d like to fly. One of the most popular daydreams is to imagine yourself an air racer of the 1930s, flying a famous machine like the Howard DGA-6 “Mr. Mulligan.”
Hal Wighton of Bloomer, Wis., decided to indulge his dreams in 1985 when he painted his 1939 Luscombe 8A to look like “Mr. Mulligan,” the pioneering racing plane designed by Ben Howard and Gordon Israel.
Wighton’s dream began in 1973 when he learned to fly in his brother’s Luscombe 8A. In 1975 he decided he needed a Luscombe of his own, and took his life savings — earned from his job as an intern in Seattle — and used it to buy the vintage airplane from James Eichor in Espanola, N.M.
“It was sitting in the sand at 7,000 feet in the desert, with numerous coats of paint on it, like an old row boat, but to me it looked like the ‘Spirit of St. Louis’ itself,” he said.
“I didn’t know what a title search was back in those days,” he continued. “There was just a handshake and a check was involved. Then Mr. Eichor showed me what density altitude was all about. We flew patterns that afternoon, and I left the next day. The two days spent flying back to Seattle was a great adventure.”
Now that he had a Luscombe of his own, Wighton started making those long trips he dreamed about. In 1977 he flew his plane — painted in a typical post-war design, “which was a mistake,” he said — to Oshkosh for AirVenture.
“It was parked next to Harold Neumann’s Monocoupe. On the nose it said ‘Harold’s Little Mulligan,’” Wighton recalled. “I decided to paint the Luscombe like Harold’s Monocoupe next time it needed to be painted.”
Wighton is well-versed in the heritage of “Mr. Mulligan.”
“The ‘Mr. Mulligan’ was a scaled-up, clip-wing Monocoupe with a big Pratt & Whitney on it,” he said. “The grandfather of a good friend of mine convinced Gordon Israel to do this. They used to sit around near Port Huron, arguing aerodynamics. Israel (who later became a engineer for the Grumman Aircraft Manufacturing Corp.) went to Benny Howard and ‘Mr Mulligan’ was born. It is perhaps the most famous of all the pre-war racers and is the only one to eventually go into production with some modifications as the Howard DGA which, of course, stood for ‘Damned Good Airplane.’”
The original Mr. Mulligan captured both the Bendix and Thompson trophies at the 1935 National Air Races. Unfortunately, the airplane’s career was short lived. In 1936, while competing in the Bendix Race with Ben Howard as pilot and his wife, Maxine, as co-pilot, the propeller broke. The airplane crashed on the Colorado Plateau in northwestern New Mexico. The plane was destroyed, but the Howards survived, and although Ben Howard lost a leg in the accident, he went on to design other aircraft.
In 1985, when his Luscombe needed paint, Wighton had a friend of a friend in Cambridge, N.Y., repaint it with the same scheme as the “Mr. Mulligan.”
“The nose art and landing gear wording I copied from photos of ‘Mr Mulligan,’” he said. “They were turned into decals by Fred Hayner, also in Cambridge. He did nose art for the 8th Air Force in Europe in World War II. His nickname from those days was ‘Hayner the Painter.’”
Wighton noted that Hayner painted Robin Olds first P-51, “SCAT IV.” “The greatest moment of all my years at Oshkosh was shaking Robin Olds hand a year or so before his death,” Wighton recalled.
Wighton isn’t the first pilot to be enamored with “Mr. Mulligan.”
In 1985 Jim Younkin, owner of Historic Aviation in Springdale, Ark., built a replica of the famous DGA Howard right down to the paint scheme.
Both Younkin’s replica and Wighton’s DGA-inspired Luscombe are regular visitors to AirVenture. In fact at last summer’s AirVenture, the Younkin replica and Wighton’s airplane were parked a few rows apart in the Vintage area. So many people walked from one airplane to the other that a path had been worn into the grass. Some people were wondering which one was the real “Mr. Mulligan.”
A gentleman of roughly the same vintage as the Luscombe led a small parade of people back and forth between the airplanes, pointing out the differences between the Howard DGA replica and the Luscombe. The Howard has a round motor design with a Pratt & Whitney R1340 under the bumped nosecowl. The Luscombe has 65-hp Continental motor and the classic wedge-shaped cowl. Both airplanes sport a white paint job with logos for the original aircraft’s race sponsors.
The Howard Mr. Mulligan is beefy from all angles. The Luscombe Mulligan has a thinner, smaller profile, so much so that one visitor remarked that the Luscombe was cute, reminding her of a little boy wearing his father’s football jersey.
The cute factor is fine with Wighton, who calls flying the Luscombe a treat.
“Every trip is an adventure,” he mused. “There’s the weather, sleeping under the wing, in hangars, under the stars, or in tin shacks under a rotating beacon during a hail storm. Being treated to atmospheric and geological beauty that can’t be described nor photographed. There’s meeting interesting and friendly people all over the country, gaining an amazing perspective on history and geography. Those trips have gotten the Luscombe and me to fly low and slow over all lower 48 states except Oklahoma and Arkansas.”
For those up on their aviation history, the “Little Mulligan” gets a nod and a smile. Pilots who are unfamiliar with the Howard Mulligan often ask if the Luscombe is a racer.
“That’s when I get to tell them the story,” said Wighton. “It tickles me when someone comes up and says they’ve seen the plane here or there before. It’s a fine flying little plane, and it’s taken me off the earth for thousands of hours and let me see our country from the best vantage point there is.”