Lots of heads turned when Ryan Mohr, chief pilot for Phillippi Equipment Co. of Eagan, Minnesota, landed Lady of the Night, one of the firm's Howard 500 heavy twins at Henderson Airport on Saturday evening and moved it into the static display. It’s the first time that the historic aircraft has appeared at NBAA. Dee Howard's masterpiece marked the bold end of an era when World War II piston engine aircraft and their derivatives were the mainstays of the Fortune 500 fleet.

"I never get tired of flying it, it's always a challenge," says Mohr. “It has speed, power and you see a lot of scenery at typical cruise altitudes.” Mohr’s regular job is flying Boeing 737s for a major U.S. air carrier, so he's accustomed to flying at 39,000 to 41,000 ft. "Howard 500 also has excellent control harmony, nicely balanced control feel with manually actuated ailerons and hydraulically boosted rudder and elevator."

Little more than a half-century ago, Leroy Grumman decided to challenge piston engine business aircraft manufacturers by introducing the Gulfstream [later Gulfstream I], a clean-sheet, pressurized turboprop that could climb as high as 30,000 ft., cruise as fast as 280 to 300 kt. and fly as far as 2,000 nm at 250 kt.

Grumman's move was a figurative slap in the face to Durrell Unger "Dee" Howard of San Antonio, the famed modifier and converter of surplus Lockheed twins. Most other heavy-piston twin modifiers threw in the towel, but not Howard.

In response to Grumman's challenge, Howard launched development of a Lockheed PV-1 Ventura derivative, stretching the fuselage 48 in., adding larger-capacity wet wing tanks, fitting a couple of 2,500-hp Douglas DC-6 spec R-2800 radials, adding panoramic windows and cabin pressurization and converting the bomb bay to an underfloor baggage compartment. The resulting aircraft would cruise as fast as 335 kt. but it normally cruises at 200-265 kt. while burning 1,200 lb. per hr.

Howard believed he could sell Howard 500 for $565,000, about half the cost of the Gulfstream. He was sure no one would pay more than $1 million for a business aircraft.

But the Grumman ironworks was flush with cash from its military aircraft contracts, so it could push the Gulfstream into production four years ahead of the Howard 500. Its late entry into service wasn’t the Howard 500's only handicap. It’s the most challenging aircraft ever flown by ShowNews, but that also makes it the most fun.

"It has the weight of a DC-3, but half the wing area and twice the horsepower," Mohr says. "P factor on takeoff and very limited rudder authority at low speed mean you have to lead the power on the left engine over the right by 15 to 20 in. MAP to keep it on centerline. After speed increases and the rudders become effective, you can marry the throttles." Then, acceleration is brisk through 98 kt, average rotation speed. The V2 one engine inoperative takeoff safety speed is 111 kt, but Mohr says there's zero margin for error. The props have auto-feather, but the pump takes 10 seconds to move the blades to full feather, seemingly an eternity when the pilot is holding full opposite aileron and rudder until the aircraft begins to accelerate through 130 kt. At that speed or higher, the aircraft becomes much more controllable.

Lady of the Night has a distinguished history as the 12th of 17 Howard 500 aircraft that were produced. It originally was purchased from Dee Howard by Dr. Forrest Bird, who flew it himself for several years. Later it was sold to Duncan Baker, who used it in support of his oil company's travel needs. Then it sat dormant in a hangar in the UK for a couple of decades.

Howard 500 aficionado, collector and operator Tony Phillippi discovered the aircraft about eight years ago and immediately negotiated a purchase agreement. The aircraft has been even more of a project that Phillippi’s first Howard 500, N500HP. It was plagued with oil leaks, engine fires and several other major squawks.

After restoring the aircraft to superb mechanical condition, Phillippi had it painted and completely refurbished the cabin while retaining Dr. Bird’s original interior layout.

"My father cautioned me never to buy anything I wanted and never to sell anything I needed. When I first saw the big props of the Howard 500 through the hangar door, though, I was hooked."

Howard 500 is on display this week at Henderson Airport. Mohr beams when he talks about the aircraft, speaking about it as though it were a human member of his extended family. "I can’t give it too much attention or its big sister, N500HP [Phillippi's other flying Howard], will get jealous."