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 Widely ignored, Prohibition was eventually repealed on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
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
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
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