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Howard Hughes' Sikorsky at Brazoria County Airport, Texas
Jesse Bootenhoff settles into the same seat from which legendary aviator and eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes once planned to fly around the world.
"For its day, when it was built, everything was first class," Bootenhoff said from the thickly padded pilot's seat in the cockpit of the amphibious Sikorsky S-43. "He had movie stars like Gail Russell and Greta Garbo on here, and he would fly people to Houston and have business meetings on board."
The fuselage boasts wide, tan leather seats, a tall aisle and a large, four-compartment drink dispenser. The 10-ton "flying boat" features a full kitchen, bathroom and teak wood walls. You can still see many of the original instruments installed when the twin-engine, heavy-gauge aluminum plane was built in 1937.
The smell of leather, age and mechanical parts mixes with mustiness and memories inside the propeller-driven aircraft. Bootenhoff, 76, a retired Delta Airlines pilot now living in Alvin, Texas, said that it's just a few tweaks away from being air-worthy.
Outside, the only access to the plane is through a hatch on top, near the rear of the massive machine. The giant wings join in the middle and look like a single wing, sitting atop of the craft and spanning 86 feet, holding the 1,200-hp piston engines.
Round porthole windows line both sides of the plane, and landing gear extends from each side like two giant locust legs. On one side of the nose is painted "Pilot Howard Hughes, 1937 S-43 Sikorsky," and on the other, the names of the five pilots who've flown the plane, including Hughes and Bootenhoff.
"It's a unique machine," he said, almost reverently. "It's in good shape, and people come from all over the United States to see it."
At 54 feet long and about two stories tall, the Sikorsky is the largest of three planes in a 10,000-sq.-ft. hangar at the Brazoria County Airport.
It also is certainly one of the most remarkable in the opinion of airport manager Jeff Bilyeu.
"Fascinating," said Bilyeu, who's been in Brazoria County more than a year but had not climbed into the tightly locked Sikorsky until just recently. "This is aviation history. I had no idea this existed when I got here. It was one of those out-of-the-blue surprises."
Hughes' personal plane
The reclusive Hughes died in April 1976, his passing surrounded by as much mystery as his life.
It's no secret the plane's fuselage once was all fuel tank, rigged to hold 2,100 gallons for the magnate movie producer's trip around the globe.
"He bought the Sikorsky in 1937 to fly around the world," Bootenhoff said. The story goes that WWII short-circuited the attempt, which Hughes never did make. Hughes had the fuel tanks removed and the inside decorated with the top amenities of the day. The Sikorsky was one of the shining stars in the aviation aficionado's fleet and is the only one of its kind still in operable condition.
"It's the only flying one in the world," Bootenhoff said. "There's a non-flying replica in a Tucson, Ariz., museum."
Hughes' final flight in the Sikorsky came in the early 1950s when he took it across the country, making numerous stops to refuel the 300-gallon tanks that allowed just less than three hours in the air at a time. His last stop was home in Houston.
"He kept the plane at Hobby under guard and never flew it again," Bootenhoff said. "He would take it out and hold business meetings in it, but he never flew it after that."
California entrepreneur Ronald Van Kregten bought the plane after Hughes' death. Van Kregten and his wife have since passed, and the plane now is owned by their estate. It likely will be sold soon. The plane is now worth between $5 million and $24 million, depending on who's asking.
"It's Howard Hughes and his reputation," Bootenhoff said. "Something is only worth what someone will pay for it, and this was Howard Hughes' personal plane."
Off the ground
Amenities such as individual lights and a small, round, adjustable air conditioning vent at each seat help make the plane impressive, said Doug Banks, Brazoria County base manager for Air Logistics. He's one of a handful of people who've toured the plane in the last few years.
"This was high-tech when it was made," Banks said in a hushed tone, peering from the galley into the black-painted metal cockpit featuring a pair of escape hatches over the pilot and co-pilot seats. "I'd love to fly it. You had to be quite affluent to even get this close to Hughes back then."
Bootenhoff doesn't claim to have known Hughes, but he has flown the enigmatic entrepreneur's aircraft slightly more than Hughes did. When he first took over the log book, it registered 499.1 hours. It now has about 1,000, he said.
In late 1974, the engines were removed for overhaul along with the wings. The craft was trucked to the La Porte Airport, where it was stored in a hangar until 1988, when it was moved to Wolfe Air Park in Manvel.
Van Kregten had crews reassemble the plane, and Bootenhoff's involvement with it was chance. He kept a Cessna 310 at the La Porte hangar and overheard a conversation between the airport manager and Van Kregten, who wanted the plane trucked to California.
"I opened my big mouth and said, 'Ron, why don't you just put it together and I'll fly it out there for you?'" Bootenhoff laughed.
In 1990, Bootenhoff moved the craft to a hangar at Houston Southwest Airfield near Fresno, Texas. He flew the plane to a few shows around the country, including California and Florida. Its last flight was in May 2001, when Bootenhoff made the 12-minute trek from Fresno to Angleton.
"We kept it here because he had me to take care of it for nothing," he said. "Well, and I get to fly it."
Flying high again
Bootenhoff hasn't had the plane in the air since 2001, but said the Sikorsky could be ready for its next trip on short notice.
"It could be made flyable again without too much trouble," he said. "Somebody just needs to spend the time and money to get it going. And that's the plan right now, I think. It will make it easier to sell if it's flying."
He hopes the historic plane will be used and not placed in a museum, which was the fate of Hughes' most-famous plane, the gargantuan, wooden Spruce Goose. That plane, with a wingspan of 320 feet, is in its own hangar at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in Oregon, according to information at www.SpruceGoose.org.
When that time comes for the Sikorsky's final flight from Angleton, Bootenhoff will be more grateful than sad that it flew into his life.
"It'll be a real fond memory," he said, looking from the cockpit into the galley. "I've been there and done that. I've never taken a nickel for flying it. I do it because it's a piece of history, and aviation is what gave me such a beautiful life. I'm sure it's not flown its last. I feel pretty confident I'll see it in the air again."
Reprinted with permission from the Texas Department of Transportation, Spring 2009 "Wingtips" feature.