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!


When people read the story of the first airline flight, they often wonder at the travel time of 23 minutes for a short trip across the bay. Why on earth would people pay for a 23 minute flight?

The reason becomes clear when you understand what travel options were available in 1914. Back then, there was no such thing as a “quick trip across the bay.” With no bridges and brand new automotive technology, a drive was an uncomfortable 20 hours! A somewhat more luxurious rail trip could range anywhere between 4 and 12 hours, and even the direct route across the water by steamboat would take you more than two hours.

Posted by on Wednesday, January 2, 2013
Filed in: Benoist 2014
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Benoist Visiting the Lark

The Duluth Aviation Institute is building their own replica of “The Lark of Duluth” which was the genesis of the Benoist Type XIV that we are replicating for the Benoist 2014 project, so we are comparing notes and swapping information with them as both projects progress. Their first flight will be about six months before ours, so we thought it would be good to drop in on them and check on their progress as 2012 draws to a close.

The Benoist project we’re building to recreate the 100th anniversary of the first scheduled airplane airline flight by Tony Jannus uses a six-cylinder two-cycle 75hp Roberts engine.

We know of only seven in the world and there are none to be purchased. This is one of two 4-cylinder 50hp Roberts engines I found and acquired.

We were able to borrow a six-cylinder engine from Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome that Cole Palen had acquired years ago to reverse-engineer. It had been in a crash and the case had been welded in several places.

Here’s a view of the back end with the gears for the single magneto, water pump and rotary valve induction tube.

The 75hp six-cylinder engine has two more cylinders (12 ½ hp per cylinder) than the 50hp four-cylinder and uses two of the same carburetors.

Here’s a rough cylinder liner casting on the left. The one on the right has been machined and the top partially cut out to check for proper thickness. It was actually too thin in one spot and the casting pattern had to be adjusted to compensate. Any bad parts and pieces can be melted back into the pot and used in a future attempt.

Here are steps from left to right in casting and machining the cast iron pistons.

Here are six connecting rods for one engine. The big end connects to the crankshaft with two bolts and another curved piece and the little end connects to a piston with a piston pin. Each assembly will go up and down in the cast iron cylinder liner twenty times a second!.

Here are lower crankcase halves. They were easier to make than the upper halves and were made first. The one on the right is from the borrowed original engine and the one on the left is newly made. The square tab at the lower left of each is where the magneto bolts on.

Here, the crankshaft is set up on a lathe for final machining. This started life as a 900 lb. solid billet. After much whittling down, and two sessions of annealing, it will end up weighing about 48 lbs.!

So what do you think of the progress so far?!

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!


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