By Di Freeze
Early in his 50-year history in aviation, Durrell U. Howard, better known as Dee Howard, came up with a clever advertising slogan: “If you don’t have Dee Howard Thrust Reversers, what’s stopping you?”
Internationally recognized for his development and certification of aircraft safety and performance improvements, such as jet engine thrust reversers, it’s obvious that not much has “stopped” Howard, who has patents for many inventions and has worked with or mentored some of the most well known names in aviation.
In recent years, Howard has been recognized for his accomplishments in several different ways. In November 2000, he was inducted into the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame, of which he currently serves as a member of the board of directors.
In March 2002, he received the prestigious Charles Taylor Master Mechanic’s Award from the Federal Aviation Administration, for more than 50 years of dedicated service. In September 2002, at the National Business Aircraft Association Convention in Orlando, Fla., the Nordam Company acknowledged Howard and Etienne Fage for their advancement of jet engine thrust reverser design. They did so by announcing the Nordam Dee Howard/Etienne Fage Scholarship Award, which will be given annually to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, of Daytona Beach, Fla.
“Etienne Fage was one of the original supersonic Concorde development engineers,” explained Howard. “We had a joint venture on the fan jet engine thrust reversers. When I sold the Dee Howard Company, Nordam bought the Dee Howard Thrust Reverser Division. They were so pleased with the advanced technology that they endowed Embry-Riddle with the scholarship.”
While at the convention, the president of Embry-Riddle asked Howard to speak at the university.
“I told him I’d be glad to do it, but that I was a seventh grade drop out,” said Howard. “He said, ‘That doesn’t make any difference. Your developments in aviation are interesting enough.'”
In November 2002, Howard arrived at the university as the guest speaker of their Legends in Aviation and Aero Space Distinguished Speaker Series.
“I was treated royally,” Howard said. “No one at the college seemed to think anything about my lack of formal education. They were aware of other people who, instead of a formal education, had gotten an education in their work. I started from the beginning, telling them how it started, and about the most interesting development programs.”
Howard was born in Los Angeles on May 26, 1920, to a father from Buffalo, N.Y., and a mother from San Antonio, Texas. It wasn’t long before the family moved to the Lone Star State.
“I probably wasn’t more than a year old. There’s an old saying that Texas girls always bring who they’ve married back to Texas,” he says with a laugh.
Howard’s father was very capable of doing whatever needed to be done, including becoming a well-respected auctioneer. However, Mr. Howard would die before he turned 50, after having a massive stroke. After his father’s stroke, young Howard had to drop out of school to go to work.
Howard remembers the hard times that came with the Stock Market Crash in 1929.
“I was old enough to remember people jumping out of the buildings when they lost everything in the stock market,” he said. “As a little kid, I thought, ‘Well, that’s crazy, just because they don’t have any money.’ We didn’t have any money, but we were not about to jump out the window because of it.”
He also remembers the up-and-down times in his own family, and jokes that the family moved every time “the rent came due.”
“That isn’t entirely true,” he laughs, “but we had a lot of upsets when I was growing up. I went to 10 schools to get through the seventh grade.”
Of his father, he says he was “a good Christian person with good principles,” who gave him a lot of excellent advice.
“He said, ‘Son, there’s one thing you don’t want to do; the worst thing you can do is kid yourself,'” said Howard. “One time, when I was 11 years old, I saw him doing what he said not to do, and said, ‘This is not good. He’s kidding himself.’ He wound up without a job because of it: ‘Don’t kid yourself’ made a lasting impression.”
Throughout his years in research and development, Howard lived by that principle.
“I’ve worked with a lot of people who fooled themselves into believing, as the saying goes, ‘When you are hard pressed for an answer, any answer will do.’ I never fell prey to that,” he said.
Howard might not have been born in Texas, but having grown up in San Antonio, he is “proud” to think of himself as a Texan. He remembers working during the early recovery years of the Great Depression, in the automobile and trucking industry, and doing different jobs to earn money. Most of the temporary jobs came and went quickly.
“You were expendable,” he said. “You worked in a body shop some place, where they needed a little extra help. A week later, they didn’t have any work, and you were gone. I worked in machine shops; I drove wreckers.”
Howard remembers that his father was a good mechanic.
“We grew up around that type of an environment, so taking to the tools was an easy thing for me to do,” he said.
Howard remembers that when he was a teenager the WPA was rebuilding the old terminal at Stinson Field, where he hung out. Stinson Field is now the oldest continuous operating airport in the United States.
“I’d wash and polish airplanes and do all kinds of things for a ride,” he said. “That’s where I wanted to be.”
But, when he began seeking employment, a job in aviation wasn’t easy to find. Finally, Howard was able to get on with Braniff Airlines as a baggage handler in San Antonio.
“At that time, my father was very ill, but they were able to travel,” he said. “Before the war started, they thought they’d go back to California, where they thought things would be better.”
True love struck when Howard was still a teenager. At 18, he married 16-year-old Georgiana.
“In order to do more for my parents, we moved to California,” he said. “I worked for an Oldsmobile dealer in Glendale, and then finally got on with Western Airlines as a junior mechanic. I burned the midnight oil studying, took the FAA examination, and received an aircraft and engine mechanics license.”
When, the war started, Howard decided to take his wife and baby home to Texas.
“I was sure that I would be going into the service,” he explained. “However, when I returned to San Antonio, I was able to go back to work for Braniff, as a mechanic this time. When I went down to sign up for military duty, they asked, ‘What do you do?’ I told them I was an airline mechanic. They said, ‘You go back. We know where you are. We’ll get you when we want you.’ Eventually, I was drafted and put into the Air Force Enlisted Reserve, and sent back to Braniff for the duration of the war, because there was a shortage of airline mechanics.”
During the war, Howard worked two shifts a day—one for Braniff and one working for himself on private airplanes. The two shifts meant that he sometimes didn’t get much sleep. He also performed maintenance on aircraft, trading work for flying lessons. After the war, he continued flight training to get his twin-engine and other ratings. He loved test flying the private aircraft he worked on, when allowed to do so.
Howard found that working for the airlines was a long, slow climb to the top. With the war over in 1946, at the age of 26, he saw his chance to move up the ladder when he joined the newly formed Slick Airways. One of the first post-war all cargo airlines, Slick Airways had 10 new surplus C-46 cargo airplanes, which were public-use military airplanes that needed FAA certification.
“I went to work as a mechanic, and wound up in charge of airframe overhaul and modification,” he said.
Howard greatly enjoyed working with the engineers to certify the airplanes.
“I took to engineering like a duck to water,” he said. “I was doing what I enjoyed doing most. Bill Lear used to say that I had a natural intuitive feel about how things should be done.”
That, however, is for later in his history. After the aircraft had been certified, the new cargo airline’s only business was New York to Los Angeles, round trip, so the company relocated to Burbank, Calif. Howard decided to stay in San Antonio and start his own business.
“I had saved up a little money, so I built a small building on the ramp, and started Howard Aero, at San Antonio International Airport,” he said.
His first employee was Ed Swearingen, who would later go on to live his own success story. Founded in 1947, Howard Aero, Inc. was very successful. But there is a little more to the story than that.
Stationed at the airport was a medium bomber, a Douglas A-26 that had formally been owned and sponsored by industrialist (pen maker) Milton Reynolds, and flown by William P. Odon, who twice broke Howard Hughes’ prewar round-the-world speed record. A San Antonio oil company, who used it for personal transportation, owned the “Reynolds Bombshell.”
“We were maintaining that airplane,” Howard said. “At Kelly Field, they had aircraft surplus parts sales. We bought a whole A-26 fuselage for spare parts for my customer. It didn’t cost but about seven hundred dollars, and in it was a set of dual controls. What we didn’t know at the time was that the A-26s that went into combat had only one set of controls, in the left side, for the pilot; the only way the nose gunner could get into the nose was by not having any controls in the right side. The aircraft used for pilot training had dual controls. So, whenever those airplanes were used for executive transportation, there was a great demand for the dual controls.”
As the story continues, in Mexico City lived a wealthy businessman and aviation aficionado who loved airplanes and had two A-26s. One day, the pilot of one of the aircraft taxied in and said they knew the “Reynolds Bombshell” was hangared there, and they had hoped to find out where to get dual controls. Howard said he happened to know where they could get some, and they agreed on an installed price and two weeks to complete the work.
When the A-26 aircraft were used for carrying passengers, they would bolt the bomb bay doors safely closed so they couldn’t be opened, Howard said.
“The cabin entrance door that hinged down from the floor of the cabin had steps on it,” he said. “The passengers would enter the airplane using the steps on the door. Once in the airplane with the door closed, the steps would fold flat, allowing the passengers to move around on top of the door. On this aircraft the door was poorly designed, and dangerous.
“I told Ed, ‘Someone is liable to fall out of this airplane.’ So, just out of concern for the owner’s safety, we totally rebuilt it, with all new latches and hinges to make it work right. When the pilots came to get the airplane, they said, ‘We’re not going to pay for this.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute. I was afraid your boss was going to fall out of the airplane. There is no charge for the work.’ A week or two later, I heard the drone of an A-26 taxiing up, and out comes the wealthy business owner. He wanted to meet ‘an honest gringo.’ He had never met one.”
Out of the favor came a great friendship and the desire for an airplane that the wealthy businessman could stand up and walk around in, which would fly at 300 mph, and make nonstop trips, such as Mexico City to New York.
The Super Ventura
“We looked around and the only airplane that really fit that bill was the Lockheed (PV1) Ventura bomber,” he said. “The Lockheed Lodestar was a passenger-carrying airplane. Lockheed made a medium bomber out of it, for Great Britain, as a sub hunter. When the war started, they didn’t go to Great Britain. They used them elsewhere. They had a large passenger cabin; the baggage compartment under the bottom was where the bomb bays were.
“It was the only medium bomber that had any room for passengers. When you converted it back to a passenger-carrying aircraft, you had a roomy cabin designed originally for passengers. I told him about it and said it was the only airplane that looked like it had the potential. He said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ I said, ‘You’re talking about two or three million dollars to get a program like that engineered and do everything you would have to do to get an FAA certification, and make a good flying airplane out of it!'”
The businessman told Howard that he would do a joint venture with him, and was willing to put in three million dollars.
“It didn’t seem to bother him any,” said Howard. “I said, ‘Do you want me to have my lawyers…’ He said, ‘No. I don’t trust lawyers. I trust you.'”
And, that’s how Howard got started in the airplane manufacturing business by doing somebody an unexpected favor.
Beginning in the early fifties, the manufacturing division of Howard Aero built over 100 Super Venturas. It was a busy and tough time for the rapidly growing company, which had a major crisis when the financial backer of the Super Ventura program was killed in an aircraft accident.
“We hadn’t begun production on the Super Ventura when he had his untimely accident in another type of aircraft,” explained Howard. “That left us holding the bag for the funds that we were not going to receive. We were able to talk a bonding company in New York in to giving us performance bonds, so we could receive progress payments from our clients. We went through tough times, but everybody that bought an airplane got one, and we never missed payroll.”
The Howard Super Ventura set the pace for high-performance executive aircraft. The Howard 250, 350 and 500 models followed. The Super Ventura and Howard 500 were produced on an assembly line in the same manner that new aircraft are manufactured. The Howard 500 was FAA certified as an all new, pressurized aircraft.
The popular Howard-produced aircraft were considered the “class act” for modified post war, high-performance business aircraft. More than 200 of the various models of the Lockheed aircraft were produced and flew with an enviable safety record; not any of the Howard aircraft were ever involved in a passenger fatality. And, the company gained a strong and loyal customer base, which helped in the hard times.
“They liked and trusted us,” Howard said. “The fact that we did it the way things ought to be done kept us going. We became an industry leader in the heavy aircraft interior business.”
Howard became involved with a project that would lead to many others. He became acquainted with Bill Lear through Ed Swearingen, who, at one time or another, worked for both Howard and Lear.
“Bill Lear moved to Geneva, Switzerland, with the idea he was going to build the first executive jet business aircraft,” Howard said.
In Switzerland, when he decided it would be built in the United States, Lear would call Howard and ask, “Dee, where am I going to build this airplane?”
“I said, ‘Well Bill, I think you’re going to build it in Wichita,'” Howard said. “Well, he had a real reaction to that, because he was a new kid on the block trying to get into the airplane building business. He didn’t want to be where all the guys who were already building airplanes were. He didn’t want to be looked down on.”
In the early sixties, Lear came to San Antonio to have Howard build the mock up of the first Lear Jet for him, with the probability of building the aircraft in San Antonio.
“Bill found out that the San Antonio banks didn’t understand aviation,” Howard said. “The Lear Jet was the pioneering effort that established the feasibility of business-operated jet aircraft. Bill moved his operations to Wichita, Kansas, in 1962, where the banks were eager to do business, because it was airplane country.”
On Oct. 7, 1963, the first Lear Jet prototype took off. And, with great respect for each other’s accomplishments, Howard and Lear became good friends. Howard’s personal Lear Jet was in the jet fly over at Lear’s funeral in Reno, Nev., in 1978.
With the business aircraft market turning to turban-powered aircraft, it became clear to Howard that his future would be, in some manner, associated with jet-powered aircraft. Hoping to secure the future, he accepted an offer to sell half of the Howard Aero Company to a financial backer. In the deal, all of the investor’s funds would go into the company and Howard would loose voting control until certain milestones were achieved.
“I didn’t like the deal, but when you are going over the falls, you will hold your hand out to an alligator,” Howard said.
It didn’t take long for Howard to find out that losing control of his company was a bad mistake. At the end of the first year, on Friday the thirteenth, September 1963, he was minus the company he founded, and “rode off into the sunset.” Two years later, the new owners took the company into bankruptcy.
The Dee Howard Company
Down but not out, Howard started The Dee Howard Company in 1964, which soon became the industry leader in engineering and production of improvements for the emerging business and commercial jet aircraft market.
“I had picked myself up by the bootstraps,” Howard said.
The company was responsible for a number of inventions and supplemental type certificates. When the new business jets were first introduced, thrust reversers were not available for the CJ610 GE Jet Engine that was used in the Lear Jets and Jet Commander aircraft that, instead of a thrust reverser, used a drag chute for emergency stopping. That wasn’t, however, a very practical idea.
Although some might think that when hard pressed for an answer, any answer will do, Howard chuckles over an even worse scenario.
“Sometimes a bad answer is more acceptable than no answer,” he says.
Howard decided to do something about the problem. He developed and produced the thrust reverser for the GE CJ-610 jet engine, highly successful from a function and reliability standpoint, which launched The Dee Howard Company into the thrust reverser business.
With the introduction of the fan-jet engines for business aviation, Howard entered into a joint venture with a French company that had developed a fan jet engine thrust reverser that was not ready for production. The engineer who was responsible for developing the French thrust reverser was Fage who, with Howard, worked as a team to develop additional technology that advanced fan-jet thrust reverse technology, over competitive reversers produced by others.
The highly successful new concept fan-jet thrust reversers produced by The Dee Howard Company soon became standard equipment on a number of new business jet aircraft produced in the United States and internationally. The Dee Howard thrust reversers are still produced for new production fan-jet aircraft by the Nordam Company.
Dee Howard and James Raisbeck
The Lear Jet Mark II flight characteristic improvement, a noteworthy project developed jointly by Howard and James Raisbeck, improved the low-speed Learjet flight characteristics and short runway performance. The Learjet factory adopted the highly successful technology on new production aircraft.
Howard became acquainted with Raisbeck when he was working on the Mark II development for the Learjet at the factory, and Howard was building thrust reversers for Gates Learjet.
“Jim wasn’t making the progress that was expected. What he was doing to the Learjet to make it stall slower would also help it to perform better,” he explained. “We wanted him to be successful. Finally, I made a deal with Harry Combs to bring the test airplane and Jim to San Antonio to finish the program. We just wanted to help Jim complete the terms of his agreement with them. We did it and Jim and I worked together and became great friends.
“It worked and we got them going in a record short time. It wasn’t but a matter of a few months or so that we had things like they wanted. That was a very successful program—and it was very profitable. Then, Jim went up to Seattle. Of course, he’s done extremely well since then.”
The Dee Howard EX (Extended Range) Learjet Project
The Dee Howard EX (Extended Range) Learjet Project was accomplished when Howard decided to do an extensive in-flight, air-dynamic drag study to advance the speed and range capabilities of the Lear Jet aircraft. Howard achieved his goal by extensive in-flight air-dynamic drag studies that were more effective than the Lear Jet wind tunnel test conducted by others.
“The extended range mod on the Learjet was quite a deal,” he said. “We made a 23 percent improvement in the drag reduction on the airplane and the performance. The fan engines had just come in, and they were used on the Lear 35, but Learjet was still producing one made with the GE CJ610 and straight jet engines.
“We made a deal with them that the current production Learjet would come from Wichita to San Antonio, where the extensive Howard XR modification was made, and then it would go to Tucson for completion. Their G Model Learjet was the Howard Extended Range Mod.”
The highly successful modification also advanced the XR Lear Jet performance by achieving extended range at mach .80, at a time when only the most efficient new swept-wing aircraft were able to achieve maximum range at such high speed.
Other Significant Projects
Significant projects included the extensive engineering and modification on a number of Boeing 747 aircraft for head-of-state customers. Howard’s first work of this type was engineering and modifying a Boeing 707 for Chiang Kai-shek.
“That was when he was being ousted from the U.N.,” said Howard. “It wasn’t as deluxe as the later ones.”
The hallmark accomplishment of this activity was a Boeing 747-300 for King Fahad of Saudi Arabia, which, according to Boeing Aircraft, was the largest, most extensively engineered and modified head-of-state aircraft ever accomplished. The aircraft still holds this record and is still in service in the royal fleet of Saudi Arabia.
“That airplane had a lift system,” said Howard. “The king rides up the lift system into the aircraft, and the lift system retracts into the airplane when not in use. It has an elevator going up three floors to King Fahad’s suite.”
In the ceiling of each room of the aircraft, says Howard, is a Mecca indicator.
“Whenever they pray, they want to face toward Mecca,” Howard explained. “When the airplane turns, the pointer turns, and they know wherever they are around the world, that’s the way to Mecca.”
Selling of The Dee Howard Company
Over the years, the Dee Howard Company had up to as many as 1,200 to 1,500 employees. In 1989, Howard sold his company to Italy’s Alenia Aerospace Group, which later sold the thrust reverser business to the Nordam Company.
Dee Howard Aircraft Maintenance L.P. was formed in the summer of 1998, after a private investment company, Code, Hennessy & Simmons, acquired The Dee Howard Co.’s aircraft maintenance operations from Alenia. These days, Dee Howard Aircraft Maintenance continues a longstanding relationship with UPS, and counts Northwest Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, America West, Boeing and Bax Global airplanes among their customers.
An Awarding Life
Howard believes that his life has been endowed with a lot of wonderful things that happened because he “did something good” for one person or another. Among those wonderful things are several acknowledgements.
He has been the recipient of a number of prestigious awards for achievement. In 1966, Howard received the FAA Aircraft Mechanics Safety Award, given for development of devices to improve aircraft safety. In 1988, he received the Queen’s Award from Great Britain for Technological Achievement for his contribution to the development of the Rolls Royce Tay Jet Aircraft Engine. He received the meritorious Service Award from NBAA for a lifetime of contributions to the advancement of aviation, in 1993, and the 1996 Master Entrepreneur of the Year Award in San Antonio, presented by Ernst and Young.
A few years ago, Howard founded River City Products, after feeling a compelling need to improve highway safety by making heavy, over-the-road vehicles directionally stable and less fatiguing to drive.
Howard discovered the primary reason for the lack of heavy vehicle directional stability that has been overlooked by the heavy vehicle design community. He has developed new technology that is destined to dramatically reduce heavy vehicle driving fatigue and improve highway safety.
Howard has his own museum, at his office just west of the airport, where exhibits of past Howard accomplishments are displayed, as well as some of his vast art collection, including one of the largest representation of artwork by Douglas Ettridge as well as work by Mel Brown and others.
A member of The Society of Automotive Engineers, he is also an avid classic car collector and consistent winner of classic car judging competitions for more than 30 years.
And, Howard, who says he is living proof that if you have luck, “anything will do for brains,” has definitely been lucky in love as well. Howard and his wife Georgie had a blissful marriage that produced a daughter, Deanne, who served as Howard’s secretary for a number of years, and a son, Lonnie, who is presently retired.
“We just had a wonderful marriage; we were perfect together,” said Howard. “My sweet little wife of 61 years passed away about three years ago and I thought I would never marry again.”
But Howard, now 82, was in for a pleasant surprise.
“I started going to dinner with someone that I was introduced to, and, in a short time, we got married,” he said. “It’s going on two years. She is just amazing.”
Betty, 62, says Howard, has operated her own modeling school, sold real estate and “has a dedicated family.”
“I’m just so happy,” he said. “She is just a doll, and as beautiful as she can be. I would have never believed that in one lifetime I could have been so lucky.”