The incredible history of Howard Hughes Stratoliner
Using the wings and fin of the B-17, one of the most successful bombers of the Second World War, the Boeing 307, launched in 1938, was the first pressurized airliner in the world to reach the operational stage. Opening a new era in air transport, the 307 Stratoliner could fly at around 26,000 feet. Its first flight took place on 31 December 1938, and the aircraft entered service with TWA on 8 July 1940, flying coast-to-coast in approximately 14 hours and 40 minutes, or two hours less than it took a DC-3 to fly the same route.
Having a length of 22.36 m and a span of 32.61 m, it transported up to 36 passengers (against 21 for the DC-3) at a cruising speed of 354 km/h, with a range of 3,846 km. Besides the prototype, only nine other airframes were built; of these, three S-307s were delivered to Pan American, which used them in flights to South America; five S-307Bs to TWA; and the remaining craft (also a S-307B) to billionaire Howard Hughes.
During the Second World War, the Stratoliners were impressed on the Armed Forces, thus becoming military transports with the designation C-75. During the conflict, they flew to South America and Europe. After the war, the TWA Stratoliners had their original four Wright GR-1820 Cyclone engines replaced by a more powerful (1,200 hp) variant of the Cyclone. They were then sold to Aigle Azur, from France, for operations in Indochina, and later on took part in the conflict in that area of the world.
Of the ten aircraft built, only two remain, one of which (c/n 2003) is still in flying condition. This aircraft was fully restored by Boeing, painted in the Pan American color scheme, and donated to the Smithsonian Institution, being presently displayed at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. The other airframe, which the author had the opportunity of seeing closely, is the one that belonged to Howard Hughes.
Cosmic Muffin From Executive Aircraft to Strange Boat
When he acquired TWA in 1939, billionaire Howard Hughes (whose life was recently portrayed in The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio) decided to transform one of the Boeing 307s that the airline had on order into his private aircraft, equipped with a bar, sleeping quarters, and a shower. Before isolating himself from the world due to mental problems, Hughes was a great aviation enthusiast, and used to take his friends and girlfriends on flights in the 307. With the aim of breaking the world record for an around-the-world flight, which he himself had established in 1938 with a Lockheed 14, Hughes had the 307 equipped with extra fuel tanks, but the start of WWII forced him to abandon the idea.
In 1948, Hughes sold the aircraft (which has only 500 flight hours on the airframe) to Texan oil tycoon Glenn McCarthy. In 1962, the 307 was acquired by Florida Jet Research, of Fort Lauderdale, and two years later was severely damaged by hurricane Cleo; the structure suffered badly, and the aircraft could fly no more. The aircraft was forgotten until the end of 1969, when it was acquired at an auction by private pilot Ken London, who paid just US$62. Wanting to give the Stratoliner a more fitting end than being dismantled and sold as scrap metal, London decided to turn it into a motor yacht. The tail and what was left of the wings were removed, and the aircraft was taken to a shipyard. Finally, in 1974, the batch, christened as The Londonaire, was launched. Three years later, London apparently sold the boat for US$77,000. The new owner did not manage to keep it operating, and left it in a shipyard. Later on a new auction took place, but there were no bidders.
In 1981, the shipyard published an advertisement in a local paper, offering the 307 for sale for US$8,500. David Drimmer, who at the time lived in a rented apartment at Fort Lauderdale, happened to be reading the paper looking for a new home, and the advertisement called his attention. I was looking for something palatable, and the idea of living in a boat seemed interested to me, he says. Even without any knowledge about boats, David decided that he wanted The Londonaire, and acquired it for US$7,500. When I said I would like to buy it, everybody said I was crazy, David says after all, he was an employee at a printing house and struggled to pay his dues, earning modest wages. A friend who was into nautical matters, my lawyer, and even my mother told me not to buy it, but I had made up my mind!, said David in an interview to a nautical magazine.
Having become owner of the boat, David rechristened it as the Cosmic Muffin the name was an idea of writer and composer Jimmy Buffet, who used the boat as inspiration for one of his tales. David had to work hard to restore the boat, and the first problem to be taclkled were leaks. The original pump, whose function was to drain the water overboard, was not working and needed to be replaced, as well as all electrical cables. At that moment, my priority was to keep it floating and making it inhabitable. Thirteen years later, having saved around US$150,000, David decided to face what he called the challenge of his life. He took the boat to a shipyard, under the supervision of two New Zealander friends, Jeff Gibbs and Doug Weir, both nautical designers and builders. In parallel, David founded Plane Boats, Inc., planning to use the Cosmic Muffin as an historical and educational attraction and seeking sponsors interested in using the boat as a promotional media. Davids investment has already gone beyond US$200,000.
Nowadays, the Cosmic
Muffin is anchored in the back of Davids home at Las Olas, Fort
Lauderdale, and is open for public visitation. All one must do is to previously
schedule your visit with the owner. On board T-shirts and souvenirs, with
the plane-boat as a theme, may be acquired. Anyone interested in hiring
the Cosmic Muffin for events or publicity may do so through the
Plane Boats Web site,