Last November ended a very long quest to acquire a very rare and valuable Sikorsky S-43 that was originally owned by Howard Hughes!  Howard purchased it in 1937 to fly around the world in an attempt to set a new record.  Unfortunately, CAA approval delays, the onset of WWII, and the arrival of a faster airplane forced him to set the Sikorsky to the side and use a Lockheed 14.  In 1938 he beat the existing world record by flying around the world in less than four days (91 hours) and enjoyed a ticker-tape parade through New York City for his efforts!

Howard Hughes’ new Sikorsky S-43 at the factory outfitted with long-range tanks!

After the War got underway, he was forced to sell the airplane to the government for the war effort and was in the process of doing so, as soon as he completed some water testing with it for the HK-1 (Spruce Goose) project.  Due to a miscalculation in weight and balance, the airplane was involved in a water-landing accident that sent it to the bottom of Lake Meade, killing two and almost killing Howard.  He paid to have it salvaged, apparently got the title back, and spent A LOT of money rebuilding it.  After the war, he used it to fly many of his starlet girlfriends around.  He last flew it in 1952 where it then sat for decades in a Houston hangar under guard.

Recovered S-43 after the landing accident on Lake Meade!

To my knowledge, there are only three S-43’s left in the world.  Howard’s, a Pearl Harbor veteran owned by the Smithsonian, and a static one at the Pima County Air Museum.

Pima County Air Museum being delivered by the trucker that will now move mine!

I first saw the airplane at the Oshkosh Fly-In in 1994 while demonstrating my four-engine Short Sunderland flying boat.  I couldn’t help but make a mental note that, one day, I would love to acquire it!

And . . . who wouldn’t?

Sikorsky while owned by Ron Van Kregten, who purchased the airplane from the Hughes company.

Fast-forward from 1994 to 2006 where I was attending the Monroe Institute in Virginia.  It was my third of ten programs studying out-of-body experiences and exploring worlds within myself with sound technology.  One day I will publish a book of my journey’s called The Journey Never Ends!  (In case you’re wondering . . . no, it did not involve any drugs and, for the record . . . I’ve never done any recreational drugs in my life!)  In one exercise, we were briefed to “go meet other people.”  To my surprise, Howard Hughes showed up and during a short conversation he said, “He knew I was interested in his Sikorsky S-43 and he would HELP ME GET IT!”

The person that had acquired the airplane from the Hughes Company and restored it back to flying condition was Ron Van Kregten, who purchased it in the early 1980′s but had since passed away.  Several years after my Monroe experience, I made a point to go visit the airplane south of Houston, TX with the pilot and the agent.  It was now for sale but the price was waaaaay beyond my ability to afford at the time.

There was a spare wing for the airplane in California that I later went to see.  There, I met the executor of the estate, who just happened to be the brother of the widow, who had also since passed.  I made a point to tell the executor my grand vision for Fantasy of Flight in the hopes it might help gain some ground in acquiring the plane.  I also told him about my experience with Howard Hughes at the Monroe Institute and that, if it was meant to be, he should, “Look for a sign!”  I had no idea what form this might come in, if at all, but felt compelled at the time that I was supposed to mention this.  I got the names of the heirs and later sent them autographed copies of my first children’s book along with some other information about Fantasy of Flight.

Outboard wing panels for a complete spare S-43 wing in California!

Fast-forward four more years to September 2012.  I was invited to Houston for a press conference for the Wings Over Houston Airshow, where I was being honored as the 2012 recipient for the Lloyd P. Nolen Lifetime Achievement Award.  I made it a point to reconnect with the agent selling the airplane and we drove down to see it.  It had not flown in seven years and needed work.  The engines and props had been overhauled but were off the plane.  The economy had since tanked and had been in recession for several years.

Another overseas party was in the process of making an offer with the intent of taking the airplane overseas as an investment.  Probably for good.  None of us wanted to see that and, within a month, I found a way to come up with an offer that made sense for both of us.  We cut a deal.

I couldn’t believe it.  Whether anyone believes that Howard helped me acquire the plane or not . . . one thing was for certain . . . I was now the proud owner of his Sikorsky!

Proud New Owner!

Last January (2013), with several of my aircraft guys in tow, we visited the airplane in Houston with the intent to see what it was going to take to make the aircraft ferriable for a flight back to Florida. After inspecting it for several hours, we realized we were going to spend a lot of time doing repairs, put the airplane at risk flying it home, only to take it apart once we got there to do it right.  It didn’t make sense.  I made the decision to take it apart in Houston and truck it home.

If you’re interested, here’s a link to a Youtube clip we did of our trip –

At this point, the story of the Howard connection could have easily ended.  But it didn’t . . . and soon got even MORE bizarre.  The information to follow, I only recently became aware of.

While out of town on a trip, the executor of the Van Kregten estate happened to be in Florida for a wedding and stopped by to drop off the logbooks. Remember, this was the brother of the widow and the person I told to “look for a sign” if somehow I was meant to end up with the airplane.   When he stopped by, one of my aircraft guys showed him around Fantasy of Flight.  At the end of his tour he said he wanted to share a story about his involvement with the airplane and what he knew about how the previous owner came to acquire it, which I followed up on and talked to him directly.  This is what he told me -

Ron Van Kregten, the owner, was a pilot and an avid car collector.  In the late 1970’s and into the early 1980’s he had a reoccurring dream.  In this dream, he said a man, that he thought could have been Howard Hughes, beckoned him to, “Look at this plane!”  In another dream, he was told to “Buy it!”  Some time later, he was thumbing through a magazine and saw an advertisement for Howard’s Sikorsky S-43, which was now for sale by the Hughes company.  IT WAS THE SAME PLANE HE HAD BEEN SHOWN IN HIS DREAMS!  

He bought it.

Ron and pilot Jess Bootenhoff got the Sikorsky flying with a crew in Houston and at some point flew it to the Watsonville, CA airshow in 1992 and to Oshkosh in 1994.  That was one of the years I had my four-engine Short Sunderland Flying Boat there.  We tried to arrange to hook up and fly together in the fly-by pattern but, unfortunately, they had an engine problem. 

In 2008, I came to visit him (the executor) in California to look at the spare wing and express my interest in acquiring the plane.  This would have been about two years after my experience with Howard at the Monroe Institute and my initially visiting the Sikorsky in Houston.  He remembered me telling him about my experience at the Monroe Institute with Howard and the comment that he was going to “help me acquire the plane.”   He also remembered me telling him that, “If it was meant to be, he should look for a sign!”  (At this point, I knew nothing about Van Kregten’s dreams or the experience of the executor to follow.)

Eventually the executor’s sister (Ron’s widow) passed away and the cars were sold off.  The only thing left was the airplane, which had not been kept up and now needed a lot of work.  The executor flew to Houston to come up with a plan of how to dispose of the airplane and settle the estate.  At some point, he found himself sitting in the airplane in the Houston hangar wondering what he should do.  (He mentioned that he meditated and had also, like me, had previous  out-of-body experiences.)  In the plane, in a meditative state, with BOTH EYES OPEN, he “reached out” to his dead sister and brother-in-law for some guidance.  All of a sudden the airplane began to “glow inside” and there, sitting in front of him in the airplane . . . was his DEAD BROTHER-IN-LAW facing him with a smile . . . AND a tall man wearing a hat facing away . . . that he sensed was HOWARD HUGHES! 

He took this as a sign that I WAS TO END UP WITH THE AIRPLANE!

Sikorsky S-43 in flight by Phil McKenna in all her glory!

As a side story, during the executor’s tour of Fantasy of Flight, he took some pictures of his visit and downloaded them onto his laptop.  He mentioned to me that, during his tour, he noticed “lots of spirits” around the place!  Later, when he went to show his friends the pics of Fantasy of Flight on his laptop, they were all “zapped.”  He remembered they were still on the camera SD card but when he went to check, they were gone as well!  During the wedding, he took lots of pictures on the same SD card and later when he went to download them to his laptop, the Fantasy of Flight pictures were both ON HIS LAPTOP AND THE SD CARD!  

He told me, “He felt the spirits of Fantasy of Flight had been playing with him by removing and adding back the photos!”  It was then that I told him we’ve known the Fantasy of Flight was crawling with spirits for years and, so much so, we’ve done over a dozen “Night Flight” Paranormal investigations with the paying public with great results!

He told my employee after his tour that he felt comfortable with his decision to sell the airplane to me and realized that Howard’s Sikorsky “ended up where it was meant to be!” 

How’s that for pretty cool and bizarre?

Welcome to my world!

Kermit

For about a year now I have been working with an archivist I hired to try and organize all the stuff I’ve saved over the years including; pictures, trophies, artifacts, clothing, etc.

One of the great finds were in slides my father had taken when I was a little kid that I had NEVER seen before.  He was an amateur photographer and passed away in 2006.  My mother was always worried about what to do with all the slides that he took . . . about 100,000 of them!

Since I now had an archivist on staff, I stepped up to the plate for the family and brought everything up from Miami to Fantasy of Flight.  My car was totally loaded with every seat packed to the ceiling.

My Suburban loaded down with my Dad’s slides! The picture is of his mother who used to entertain the troops singing and dancing in WWI like Bob Hope did in WWII.

My dad took a lot of nature photography, animals, and artistic scenes and made a calendar for many years with his best pics.  I knew there would be a lot of those types of pictures but was hoping for some family shots as well.  I was not to be disappointed!

Here’s a shot of me as a baby.  I had never seen picture until now!

There were a good number of other great shots that I had never seen before of me and my family.

Here, a young Kermit plays Peek a Boo for Dad the Cameraman!

Recently, we brought everything I had saved from everywhere to one spot and began the process of trying to organize things in some fashion.  I can’t believe all that I’ve collected over the years and now realize I will need more space to properly store it.  It’s amazing how seeing items can bring back a flood of memories.

I will continue to collect stuff for my personal archives as well as for Fantasy of Flight and am beginning to think there will always be job security for my archivist!

Kermit

I recently had the opportunity to fly a beautiful Albatros reproduction in the Shuttleworth and Duxford Airshows just outside of London. My good friend Gene DeMarco from TVAL (The Vintage Aviator Limited) invited me to fly it while he flew an Re-8.  His boss Peter Jackson had them both built for an undisclosed trade with the RAF Museum at Hendon.

Flying a TVAL built Albatros destined for the RAF Museum  (Photo by Keith Wilson)

By the time I got to England, Gene and the mechanics had assembled both aircraft and we soon were test-flying them over the English countryside.

Gene in the Re-8 and me in the Albatros over the English Countryside!  (Photo by Keith Wilson)

We got to stay in a wing of the Shuttleworth Mansion, which was owned by Richard Shuttleworth, who began collecting and flying vintage airplanes prior to WWII.  Unfortunately, he was killed during the War but his collection continues to be displayed and they fly shows during the summer months.

The Shuttleworth Mansion!

I had visited the Shuttleworth Collection many times in the past but had never been to one of their shows!  This was to be a first of memorable proportions!

We flew a Sunday Show at Shuttleworth and then the following weekend at Duxford about 20 miles away; home of the Imperial War Museum.  The airplanes were still technically owned by The Vintage Aviator Limited but, much to the delight of the local aviation enthusiasts, Peter had offered to let them fly for the public before they actually changed hands.

Gene and I in front of the Re-8 about to go on a sortie!

Gene had the capability of taking up “tail gunners” and gave a number of rides to the mechanics and volunteers at Shuttleworth and the RAF Museum, which is something they rarely get to do.  Of course, I took every opportunity to fly the Albatros to give them the exerience of what it must have been like in WWI with an enemy aircraft bearing down on them. 

Gene and I give Re-8 riders the experience of a lifetime!

Gene and I both brought several GoPro cameras each and used them on every flight, changing locations many times to get different perspectives.  There were plenty of other cameras in the air and on the ground and we all got a chance to share photos as well as video footage.

A gunners view from the Re-8!  Fortunately for me, he was out of ammunition at the time!

The original Mercedes engine used in this Albatros was supplied by the RAF Museum.  Since the airplane was not meant to continue flying, they kept as many original parts in the engine that might have been replaced.  Consequently, it tended to leak a bit of oil and I always took several rags with me flying, continually having to wipe the windshield down soon after takeoff.

An oily windscreen is not helpful when engaging the enemy!

It was a great experience and a lot of fun doing photo missions and dogfighting with Gene.  During the actual shows, we would alternate following each other for the crowd in a figure-eight pattern.  Unfortunately for Gene, he could not take a passenger (tail gunner) with him during the actual show flights so, he was pretty much a sitting Duck for the Albatros!  :-)

An easy kill!

One gorgeous evening I spotted a giant hot air balloon overhead at about 2000 feet.  We were about to fly anyway, so I took off early and started climbing with two cameras rolling; one on my tail and one on my right strut, both looking forward.  It turned out to be a ride balloon owned by Richard Branson with about 15-20 people in the basket!  I had never seen such a big balloon and made several passes around it, sometimes with it in my sights.

I purposely didn’t venture as close as I would have liked but found out later the waving guests enjoyed every minute of it.  Without a parachute, I was a lot happier when I got back down to a lower altitude!  Later, Gene and I found out we had both made the Virgin Balloon website!  I sent them several shots from my “gun cameras,” including this one, which they later posted.

Bagging my first balloon . . . and a Virgin one at that!

One of my more memorable flights was a photo mission over the original WWI Airship Sheds at Cardington.  This was a Restricted Area and we had to get special permission to fly over them.  I can only imagine this had to be the first and only time this ever happened!

Not only did I get the opportunity to shoot down the Re-8 many (actually many, many times) but I also got to shoot down a balloon and bomb enemy Airship Sheds!  The Kaiser would have been proud!

Over enemy Airship Sheds at Cardington (Photo by Darren Harbar)

One fun thing that happened was that, at some point, one of the Shuttleworth pilots showed up with a ponytail hat; obviously as a subtle joke poking fun at mine.  Several tried it on for pictures and by the time we got to Duxford it was not so subtle, as most of the pilots were now wearing them.  Here’s a shot after one of the pilot briefings!

Ponytail Row!

While I’ve heard that “imitation is the most sincere form of flattery,” I think there was some plain fun going on here as well.  One thing is for sure . . . they’ll be talking about those two crazy Americans that showed up adding some spice to their airshow season for quite some time!

I did a lot of Facebook posting while I was there and was surprised to discover during my visit that my “Most Popular City” was London, England!  Too cool!

Did I have a good time?  I think this picture says it all!

 

One happy Albatros Pilot!

Kermit

I am very fortunate to have recently acquired an airplane I’ve had my eyes on for a number of years . . . a Sikorsky S-38!

Sikorsky S-38 currently sitting in Amsterdam!

This particular airplane was built up by Buzz Kaplan and Born Again Restorations in Owatonna, Minnesota with an original upper wing and original tail booms.  They had previously built one for the late Sam Johnson who re-enacted his famous father’s trip in it through South America looking for the Carnuba plant, which was used to make Johnson’s Wax.  Since they had all the jigs, and had come up with original parts, they built this second one and painted it in the colors of Osa Johnson’s famous zebra-painted S-38.

The airplane was owned by Tom Schrade, who had actually flown it across the Atlantic several years ago using the tailwinds as his reserve fuel.  He enjoyed flying the last three airshow season’s all around Europe.  I just happened to be in England at the time while he was buttoning up the airplane  for the winter.  He told me he was thinking of putting the plane up for sale and I jumped on a plane the next day to Amsterdam and we cut a deal!  The whole thing seemed to unfold like destiny!

Interior of the S-38

Martin and Osa Johnson were famous explorers in the early part of the last century and captured the imagination of the general public.  They were probably the first-ever documentary film makers.

The Johnson’s Sikorsky’s in Africa circa 1934-1935

Since I was fortunate to have already acquired Dick Jackson’s beautiful Sikorsky S-39 painted in the giraffe colors of Martin Johnson’s S-39, it was another confirmation that seemed like destiny!

My S-39 restored by Dick Jackson over 40 years and 40,000 man hours!

Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia describing the Johnson’s exploits -

In 1932 the Johnsons learned to fly at the airfield in Osa’s hometown of Chanute, Kansas. Once they had their pilot’s licenses, they purchased two Sikorsky amphibious planes, a S-39 ”Spirit of Africa” and S-38 ”Osa’s Ark”.  On their fifth African trip, from 1933 to 1934, the Johnsons flew the length of Africa getting now classic aerial scenes of large herds of elephants, giraffes, and other animals moving across the plains of Africa. They were the first pilots to fly over Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya in Africa and film them from the air. The 1935 feature film “Baboona” was made from this footage.  

Their route in 1934-1935!

When everyone else was killing animals for sport and trophies, the Johnson’s were educating the general public about their plight and trying to save them.  Someday . . . their story needs to be told in a major feature film!

The plan is to disassemble the plane using one of the original builders, ship it back to Owatonna, and reassemble it.  I’m not sure when I might bring it to Fantasy of Flight but it will be late Spring or early Summer as I’ve got to figure out where I’m going to put it!  It might make sense to take it to the Oshkosh Fly-In next summer on the way to down to Florida.

The S-38 is an amazing addition to the collection and, now joining the S-39, represents two great historic airplanes together on display.  Now all we need is a great script, a director, some funding, and I’m off to Africa!

Kermit

 

I recently got the shipment of my first printing (5000 copies) of my new illustrated children’s book The Sprit of Lindy just in time to sell them at the Reno Air Races!

Putting out signs to promote sales at Reno!

The new book includes characters from my first book All of Life is a School and two new ones – a Dehavilland Mailplane named Geoffrey D. H., and Lindy, who represents the Spirit of St. Louis.

In the story, the characters hear about the Prize for the first plane to fly non-stop between New York and Paris and decide to build a plane that will do it.  As with the first book, we all learn a valuable life lesson by the end.

Aside from taking some artistic license with the Lindy being built by airplanes at Fantasy of Flight in Florida, it is actually very historically accurate in many of the details, including “Lindy” being visited by spirits that helped guide and encourage him at a very low point on his Journey.

My set-up in the entrance of the Main Merchandise Tent!

I decided not to sell books at Reno the last two years because I wanted to get my new book out.  I had already sold over 500 All of Life is a School books a year there for two years and wanted to come back with something new.

While I also sold a number of All of Life is a School this year, most of the sales were for The Sprit of Lindy and I bettered my total sales from previous years; selling over 600 books!  I also had 100 each of the Puff and Zee plush, which were very popular and totally sold out!

Ready for action with books and plush!

The artwork is great and I am VERY proud of how this new book came out.  I included some questions on the back that are chronological to the story where the readers can not only have fun discovering the answers, but learn a little history in the process.

I you have a cute kid, know a cute kid, or ARE a cute kid, you can order The Spirit of Lindy online at https://www.fantasyofflight.com/store/index.asp?cid=9

Kermit

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