The maze of amazing aircraft on static display at NBAA conventions always highlights the cutting edge of business aviation technology, but one of stars of the ramp on the market this year at Henderson Municipal Airport (HND) is more than 50 years old: N500LN, a meticulously restored HA Howard 500, sporting a recently completed interior refurbishment.
Its radial engines aside, this is no nostalgia act. The Howard 500 can go head to head with any turbine twin flying today, cruising at 350 mph, boasting a range of more than 2,200 miles and able to maintain a sea level cabin up to 16,000 feet of its 35,000-foot service ceiling. But who’s looking at airspeed, anyway?
“It’s not about getting there fast,” said Tony Phillippi, owner of N500LN. “Once you’re on that airplane, you’ve arrived at your destination.”
Parked on the Apex Aviation ramp here at HND, N500LN is one of only two airworthy Howard 500s in the world, and Phillippi owns both. “It was love at first sight,” he said, recalling his first glimpse of a 500 through “two inches of open hangar door” in 2001.
Made by Howard Aero of San Antonio, Texas, the HA Howard 500 aimed to be the first transcontinental executive airplane. A clean-sheet design, it nonetheless resembles the Howard 250 and 350, executive transports created from refurbished military variants of Lockheed Model 18 Lodestars and Venturas by Durrell Unger “Dee” Howard and his chief mechanic, Ed Swearingen. (Swearingen, of course, went on to become a notable aircraft designer in his own right, creating the Metro series twin turboprops and SJ30 light jet, among more than two dozen other designs; Howard, meanwhile, is not to be confused with Ben Howard of Howard Aircraft, designer of the Howard DGA.)
The Howard 500 first flew in 1959, but regulatory holdups delayed certification until 1963. By then, business users wanted turboprops, not pistons. Only some 17 of this, the last radial engine passenger transport manufactured in the U.S., were built.
“Turbines are a lot less work. It takes a lot of skill to maintain the R-2800 engines,” Phillippi said of the 18-cylinder, 2,500-hp Pratt & Whitney R-2800-CB17 Double Wasps. “You have to have your own staff–at least we found that’s the case.”
But for a sophisticated business aircraft, let alone a vintage specimen, the Howard 500 is relatively undemanding. “The maintenance is probably 15 to 20 hours for every hour of flight, if you’re flying 200 hours per year” as Phillippi and N500LN do. “It’s not prohibitive in terms of the ultimate cost,” he said. “We assign one guy to it, with a couple of helpers.”
Carrying up to 12 passengers, the light and airy six-foot, two-in standup cabin features Connolly leather seats, two divans, birds-eye maple cabinets and woodwork and blue carpet and curtains.
Phillippi, founder and owner of Phillippi Equipment in Eagan, Minn., uses the Howard for pleasure and business. In fact, just arriving in the vintage aircraft is often enough for him to seal a deal. “It’s probably the best salesman that we ever had. Let’s just say the ramp presence of the 500 is unbelievable,” he said. “We have great fun with it. It’s been as far south as Panama and as far north as the Arctic Circle. We fly low and count the antlers on the elk. I’ve never regretted having it for one moment. It’s an absolute hoot.”
On the Block Again
Built in 1962, N500L was owned in the 1970s by aviator and inventor Forrest Bird, and later based in the UK until Phillippi bought it in 2009. Following a complete restoration, the engines were replaced at the Red Bull Hangar-8 maintenance and restoration facility in Salzburg, Austria.
Phillippi feels an extra obligation toward guardianship, having become friends with the designer. “I went to see Dee Howard in San Antonio,” he said. “He was obviously on the backside of life, but still sharp, and he stood there with tears in his eyes and thanked me for keeping his airplane in the air.”
Nonetheless, N500LN is here as the first step toward finding a new owner. Said Jay Duckson, Phillippi’s friend and president and founder of aircraft brokerage Central Business Jets (CBJ) in Burnsville, Minn., “He has been thinking almost with dread that it may be time to pass the Howard legacy torch onto somebody who feels as passionate about these aircraft as he does.” CBJ, which usually deals in large-cabin jets, is representing the Howard. “It’s like a Mercedes-Benz dealer having the ability to sell a 1947 Gullwing Benz,” Duckson said. “It’s a true flying collector’s piece.”
No firm price has been put on N500LN. “It’s about finding the right people, so it can end up with the right family for the next 25 years.” said Phillippi. “It’s not just a piece of iron–; it’s a piece of history.”
Duckson estimates it will sell in “the mid-millions.” Toby Batchelder, CBJ sales and marketing agent added, “We fully expect the buyer to be part of the one-percent club who wants something no one else can own.”
At some point, Phillippi will also put his other Howard, N500HP, on the block. He owns two “project” Howards as well, though he has no plans to undertake the restorations. “Two is enough,” he said.
Though the Howard 500 wasn’t a success, Howard and the Dee Howard Company went on to create innovations like thrust reversers for business jets and pioneer executive airliner conversions, handling, for example, the modification of a Boeing 747-300 complete with a hospital operating room and an elevator for King Fahd of Saudi Arabia.
Whether you’re in the market for a vintage business aircraft or not, the Howard’s appearance here represents a unique opportunity to get an inside look at a business aviation treasure. “We love to have people who really appreciate this kind of history on board,” said Phillippi. “This is for the world to enjoy.”