By Nathan Pfau, Army Flier Staff WriterApril 6, 2018
FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- The U.S. Army Aviation Museum houses some of the most impressive pieces of Army Aviation history, but if it weren't for the efforts of one man, many artifacts in the collection might not exist.
Retired Lt. Col. William A. Howell, the U.S. Army Aviation Museum's first curator, had the wherewithal to preserve Army Aviation's past, and even though at the time he was working on a shoestring budget, he knew that each aircraft that came through the Army's inventory, experimental or otherwise, had a story to tell, said Bob Mitchell, current museum curator.
"He had the foresight to say, 'These aircraft are significant. We need to save an example of these,'" said Mitchell. "I can't say enough about the guy -- we wouldn't have much of a museum without him. All of those one-off crazy aircraft, like the XH-51 and the XV-1, and all of those prototypes and oddball (aircraft), we have because of him."
One of the earliest pieces that Howell acquired, and one that Mitchell said is the most important aircraft in the collection, was the very first XH-40 prototype helicopter, which was the precursor to the UH-1 Huey.
The XH-40 ushered in the age of the turbine-engine helicopter, which helped to shape modern rotor-wing Aviation, said Mitchell.
"There were four of them and they were all (to be) destroyed, but he grabbed that one and he parked it," said the curator. "They stored it outside and put it in an old wooden building, and then nobody saw it for decades. But because of his efforts way back then, we have that artifact -- that treasure of the American people -- sitting out there on our floor."
Howell had a long history in the Army and was a master Aviator with more than 5,000 flight hours, 312 of which were in combat. He was qualified to fly 14 different airplanes and eight different helicopters by the time he became the first curator, which made him perfect for the job, said Mitchell.
Born in Climax, Georgia, in 1919, Howell grew up in a pretty rocky existence, said the current curator. In order to escape that life, he enlisted into the Army in 1938 where he joined as field artillery and was assigned to the 62nd Field Artillery Regiment.
Although he exited the Army in 1941, he re-enlisted after the attack on Pearl Harbor and had quite the storied career, said Mitchell. He was given orders and deployed to North Africa during World War II, and upon returning from the war applied for flight school.
In 1946 he graduated flight school and throughout his career he went on to become an instructor pilot, teaching Aviators across the world, including Korea during the Korean Conflict in 1951.
His most notable assignment was when he was selected to become the first presidential pilot for then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957, as he became the commander of and set the standards for the Executive Flight Detachment.
"He had a huge task ahead of him (as commander of the first Executive Flight Detachment), and he had to make all of that happen," said Mitchell.
Howell retired from the Army in 1963, but continued to serve as a contractor until he was approached to become the first curator of the U.S. Army Aviation Museum -- a job he wasn't initially interested in, Mitchell said.
"The commanding general at the time convinced him to take the position because of his qualifications," he said, adding that the first museum was converted from an old, wooden fire station.
From the museum's humble beginnings in an old wooden building, to the current 120,000 square-foot facility, it's because of Howell that the museum's collection is as vast as it is, said Mitchell.
"Without him, we wouldn't have all of the (noteworthy) artifacts that we have today," he said. "Sure, we'd have Cobras and Hueys, but we wouldn't have things like the first Huey prototype made, and that's significant."