This week, Kermit Weeks of Fantasy of Flight of Polk City, Florida will be heading to Texas with a crew of technicians to begin disassembly of Sikorsky S-43 N-440, once owned by Howard Hughes. Hughes had the plane built in 1937 for an intended record-setting around the world flight, but delays in flight approval from the Civil Aeronautics Authority (the progenitor of the Federal Aviation Administration), and the emergence of faster aircraft meant that he instead used a Lockheed Model 14 Super Electra for the successful record-setting attempt, circumnavigating the globe in 91 hours in 1938.
With the outbreak of the war, Hughes was under pressure to sell the S-43 to the government for the war effort and was scheduled to turn the plane over, once Hughes had finished using it, practicing touch-and-go landings on Lake Mead in preparation for flying the Hughes H-4 Hercules, better known as the “Spruce Goose.” N440 had an accident and sank to the bottom of the Lake. Hughes obtained title to the submerged craft and had it salvaged, spending an enormous amount of money to bring the craft back to an airworthy condition. The interior of the plane which had initially been “all fuel tank” for the around the world attempt was refitted with the most sumptuous accommodations possible with thick leather seating, custom cabinetry, lighting and every creature comfort and Hughes used the craft as a mobile boardroom ferrying business partners and movie starlets alike in it’s luxurious cabin.
Hughes made his last flight in the plane in 1952, though it remained under lock and key in a hangar at William P. Hobby Airport in Houston, Texas. Under Hughes’ direction, in 1974 the plane’s engines were removed for overhaul along with its wings. The craft was trucked, disassembled, to the La Porte Municipal Airport East of Houston, Texas, where it was stored in a hangar until 1988 when it was purchased from the Hughes estate by aviation enthusiast Ron Van Kregten who purchased the Sikorsky, reassembled it and brought it to flying condition, and campaigned the craft to air shows around the country.
Van Kregten passed away and the plane has not been flown since 2001. Kermit Weeks had been negotiating the purchase of this plane off and on for several years, and in November of last year had reached an agreement on the purchase. Though Weeks originally intended on flying the plane from Texas to Florida, recognizing the unnecessary risk and additional work this would entail, the plane is now to be disassembled and shipped overland to Florida where it will be overhauled and join the scores of airworthy historic flyers in the Fantasy of Flight Collection.
Reportedly there are only three examples of the Sikorsky S-43 left in the world: this one, a Pearl Harbor survivor at the Smithsonian and a static display at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona.
Here’s a tour of this very special plane, conducted by Mr. Weeks last November: