Kermit Weeks and his team from Fantasy of Flight in Polk City, Florida, spent about a week in Texas earlier this month disassembling the 1937 Sikorsky S-43 that Howard Hughes commissioned for a record-breaking around the world flight attempt. Although Hughes ended up using a different plane for the record attempt, and in fact crashed this one, he had it rebuilt and luxuriously-refitted and used this machine for many years as his personal aircraft, shuttling business associates and Hollywood Starlets alike in it’s leather and mohair lined confines.
The Sikorsky had been sitting in a hangar, un-flown since 2001, with its engines removed. While it was a tempting prospect for Weeks to get the plane reassembled and fly it back to Florida, he intelligently decided to disassemble it and have it trucked instead, figuring getting it patched together to fly, only to disassemble it again for the restoration in Florida was extra work and was taking a risk flying a plane with possible unknown issues.
Over the course of disassembly, a number of problem areas were discovered, which made the decision to ship the plane overland seem more and more like a correct one. Minor corrosion and seam separation were discovered at several points on the hull, and some major galvanic corrosion had set in where the steel radio mast mounted to the aluminum wing center section. Wiring within the plane looked to be from the 30s-40s with significant deterioration in the insulation. While it is possible the plane would have made the ferry flight, Weeks has indicated he’s glad he decided not to attempt it.
The disassembly taking place in an non-air conditioned hangar in Texas, and in June posed some challenge as did separating parts that likely had been mated for nearly 70 years, but Kermit and his team were more than up to the task, wielding hacksaws and grinders where necessary and giving Weeks ample opportunity to demonstrate his hands-on approach to aircraft mechanics.
The engines were already off the plane when the team arrived, so it was just a matter of getting the wings and floats removed, though to say “just” when referring to a procedure as labor-intensive as this is is the height of understatement, with wiring and control surface linkages that all need to be disassembled and carefully labeled for the plane’s restoration and eventual reassembly. The wings themselves were removed by crane and custom cradles were fabricated to truck the wings and fuselage to the Fantasy of Flight where the real work will begin.
The plane will be restored to airworthy condition as well as seaworthy. As Weeks put it: “I didn’t buy this airplane to NOT put in the water” We will continue to follow the restoration of this rare aircraft with a storied past and keep you posted on the progress towards its planned amphibious debut.