The ‘Aviator’s’ plane lives on as a boat

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The fuselage of Howard Hughes’ Boeing 307 is a nautical curiosity named Cosmic Muffin

The fuselage of Howard Hughes’ Boeing 307 is a nautical curiosity named Cosmic Muffin

Dave Drimmer’s Cosmic Muffin is definitely “tubular.” It is an airplane fuselage, and it is also pretty awesome — a combination that turns heads as the converted airliner motors down Fort Lauderdale’s Intracoastal Waterway as a 56-foot motoryacht of sorts.

Once Howard Hughes’ flying penthouse, Cosmic Muffin is a Boeing 307 Stratoliner stripped of wings, tail and landing gear, and retrofitted with a hull and twin 50-hp Yamaha 4-stroke outboards. Drimmer bought the plane/boat in 1981 as a liveaboard. It had a bar and galley, head and shower, a cabin with a berth and a saloon, and it seemed the perfect bachelor pad, except it lacked engines and had to be towed everywhere. Over the years locals have seen it docked, among other places, in Lauderdale’s famous Las Olas Isles liveaboard district and on the Intracoastal Waterway.

Today Cosmic Muffin is tied up behind Drimmer’s home in Citrus Isles. It does occasional gigs at civic and aviation events as a historical curiosity, and rents out as a dockside cocktail lounge. (It still has the bar and head, and seating for entertaining.) Clients host Howard Hughes or Jimmy Buffett theme parties on it at their docks.

Drimmer is a Parrothead (a Buffett aficionado), but Muffin has other Margaritaville connections. She has a key part in Buffett’s 1992 fictional tour de farce book, “Where Is Joe Merchant?” Drimmer says Buffett apparently spotted Cosmic Muffin, then unnamed, at a dock while sea-trialing a sailboat in Fort Lauderdale. In the book the vessel gets a name — Cosmic Muffin — and becomes heroine Desdemona’s boat as she searches for rock star Joe Merchant. Being a plane, it also will be the rocket ship she hopes will one day spirit her off into space to visit the aliens she has been in contact with.

Drimmer paid $7,500 for the plane-boat. “During the early years that I owned the boat as a liveaboard, I didn’t go anywhere on it,” he says. “It leaked. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it.”

The notoriety it received from the Joe Merchant book changed all that. In 1994 Buffett sold the movie rights to the book, and Drimmer began to see the vessel as a potential movie star and a bankable property. He replaced the hull, spiffed her up, fitted her with 9.9-hp Yamahas (which he replaced with 50-hp outboards five years later), and named it Cosmic Muffin. Drimmer, a printer by profession, figures he has spent $200,000 refurbishing the boat. In the end “Joe Merchant” never saw the light of day as a movie, so once again he’s wondering what to do with Cosmic Muffin. “The boat is still a work in progress,” he says. “I ran out of money years ago.”

A bit of an amateur historian, he has dug up photos and history about Cosmic Muffin — both as a plane and a boat — and has tried to restore the cockpit to as near the original configuration as possible, keeping the original throttles, steering yokes and many of the original gauges.

Aviation pioneer Hughes acquired the plane in 1939 as part of his purchase of TWA. It was one of just 10 built before World War II shut down their production. A variant of the B-17 Flying Fortress, the Boeing 307 was the first commercial pressurized aircraft. The only other surviving 307 is at the Smithsonian’s NationalAir & SpaceMuseum at DullesInternationalAirport. Originally powered by four 900-hp engines, the 307 could fly 220 mph, though top speed now is 15 mph.

Drimmer says Hughes was planning to break his own round-the-world flight record when WW II interrupted his plans. He later commissioned design pioneer Raymond Loewy to fashion a new penthouse-style interior for it, with help from movie star Rita Hayworth. After going through several owners, the aircraft landed at Fort Lauderdale airport, where in 1964 Hurricane Cleo damaged its wings and tail wheel, ending its flying days.

The plane was headed for the scrap heap when realtor and pilot Ken London bought it in 1969. Unable to restore it to flight, he converted it to a boat and launched it in 1974 with a hull and twin V-8 inboards. When Drimmer bought it, Cosmic Muffin was again in sad straits. A later owner had died, the boat had languished on the hard in disrepair, and the yard held a lien on it for storage fees.

With its twin 50-hp outboards, skipper Aaron Kiss, a former charter boat captain, says Cosmic Muffin can just about turn on a dime if there’s no wind or current, but in a breeze it can be a bear to maneuver because the thin aluminum skin is so light and the superstructure is so long and catches the wind. “The keel is 3 feet deep,” he says. “We had to add a foot and a half to it.”

Piloting from the cockpit, it’s just about impossible to see what’s astern. He has to attach special mirrors when he’s doing tight maneuvers. “Driving the Cosmic Muffin is like driving a school bus blindfolded, backwards — and sometimes a little drunk,” he says.