Punta Gorda to Africa with love
EAST OF PUNTA GORDA — A story that almost defies telling involves a Vietnam veteran combat Huey helicopter mechanic originally from Vermont, his spunky daughter from Punta Gorda, and a successful, for-profit mosquito-spraying operation turned nonprofit, bent on eradicating malaria 5,000 miles away in western Africa.
The story begins with Richard Howe working last week on a lifelong ambition at the Spartan AirWolf Malaria Vector Control Research Institute office at the Shell Creek Airpark off U.S. 17.
Howe contracted malaria in 1967 while serving in Vietnam. He survived the debilitating disease, but the thought of its ravages never left him.
After discharge, Howe, an avid pilot since age 16, kicked around in several states, migrating south, finally landing a job as co-pilot aboard a B-25 Panchito, then a crop-dusting plane in Florida, now a venerable display aircraft each year at the Florida International Air Show at the Punta Gorda Airport.
In 28 years, Howe has sprayed for mosquitoes over 40 million acres in places like Palm Beach County and Indian River, Fla., near Vero Beach.
“Probably,” he smiles, “I’ve killed more mosquitoes than any other pilot in the world.”
The business he founded, Howe Enterprises, has been eminently successful financially, but not at all self-fulfilling to the tall, sturdy, candid, resolute Vietnam veteran, who, at age 69, wants something more out of his life.
He says unabashedly that in Florida,“all we do (in spraying for mosquitoes) is to make it safer for people to hold backyard barbecues on weekends, while in Africa, children (younger than) 5 die from malaria every 30 seconds.”
It’s the time in his life, Howe said, to turn the technology he’s learned to “real-world problems, to humanitarian applications.”
That’s where AirWolf comes in. It’s a nonprofit financed by proceeds from Howe Enterprises and run by Howe’s daughter, Nicole Howe Williams. Its principal mission, working through the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, is to battle malaria in Africa.
The AirWolf name was chosen, Williams said, because the wolf is a predator, and the airplane they’re rebuilding for service in Africa also will be a predator, seeking out the “bad guys” — mosquitoes spreading malaria.
Howe is by no means your average corporate type. He works from dawn to dusk in suspendered, baggy cargo pants, converting vintage airplanes to do his work, in the process patenting a spray system that converts droplets to less than the width of a human hair.
In Florida spraying, he pilots his pride and joy, a Huey helicopter, the same type of copter that dramatically rescued personnel from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam.
But his latest project is restoring a Cessna 0-2A — an aging airstrike weapon in Vietnam —
a unique, stubby, twin-tailed plane with one “push” engine at the rear of the fuselage and one “pull” engine up front. He will fly it himself 5,000 miles to Africa.
It has a historic combat past, painted black to support night operations over the Ho Chi Minh Trail and in Cambodia, where it took at least
12 rounds of enemy fire. It was last flown in combat by a Col. Bob Murphy, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars and 15 Air Medals.
And now this storied plane, affectionately named in Vietnam the “Midnight Duck,” born again in Punta Gorda, soon will be headed to save hundreds, possibly thousands, of young lives in Africa.
More information may be obtained through the AirWolf website,