Famous Aviators: Howard Hughes (1905-1976)
It’s been eighty years since one of aviation’s most colorful characters began his career as a racing pilot and aircraft manufacturer. In 1934, when he was twenty-eight, Howard Hughes nabbed his first racing trophy in a custom-modified Boeing 100A biplane. His next feats would be won in racers built by his own engineers at the Hughes Aircraft Company, with considerable input from Hughes himself.
Now mostly known for his late-life reclusiveness and eccentricity, Howard Hughes was a major figure in the early years of aviation as a pilot, manufacturer, and investor. This article, presented by Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology in Tulsa, Oklahoma, reviews the highlights of Hughes’s aviation career.
A Tragic Inheritance
Howard Hughes was the son of an engineer and inventor who had made millions off drill bits and machine components for the Texas oil industry. By the age of 12, young Hughes was earning media attention for his own feats of engineering: he had worked around his mother’s ban on motorcycles by devising motors for his own bicycle.
Sadly, both of Hughes’s parents would die before Hughes reached the age of 18. Because Hughes was underage, the fortune his parents left behind was to be held in trust by relatives until he came of age at 21. Howard was having none of this, and in an early display of the energy and command that was to make him a legend, went to court and won legal emancipation at the age of 19.
Newly enriched, he hired capable executives to keep his father’s tool company running, and went off to Los Angeles. It was here he would begin his major careers—first, as a film producer and director, and next, as an aviation mogul.
Hughes increased his fortune in the movie business, but it was the Hughes Aircraft Company, started in hangar space rented from Lockheed, which truly interested him. Hughes used his riches to hire the most talented engineers he could find, with the intention of building the world’s best sport racers.
He had personal input into many of the designs, and he certainly took on great personal risk as a pilot. The risk paid off: Hughes won his first racing trophy in 1934, and then went on to set an unofficial airspeed record of 352 MPH in 1935 in his own Hughes H-1 Racer. In January 1937, he set the trans-continental airspeed record, flying in an H-1 from LA to Newark, NJ in just under seven and a half hours.
Next, Hughes took on Wiley Post’s round-the-world flight record. He commissioned a specially modified Lockheed Super Electra for his attempt, and managed to complete his circuit in 91 hours (three days and nineteen hours). His flight was so fast that he landed in New York before pictures of his stops from other parts of the world were published in newspapers. The record made Hughes a national name, and he received a ticker-tape parade in New York City.
As the Second World War approached, Hughes became interested in creating aircraft for the military. The most infamous of these is the Hughes H-4 Hercules, a wooden flying boat nicknamed the “Spruce Goose” that only flew once. But his company also designed and tested a concept five-man bomber, the D-2. After much back and forth with the military, the D-2 became a two-man reconnaissance craft. The hangar containing the prototype D-2 was hit by lightning in 1944. Hughes’s next permutation of the design was the Hughes XF-11.
During a test flight of this aircraft in 1946, Hughes crashed in a Beverly Hills neighborhood, destroying three houses. He nearly died, but a Marine who lived nearby pulled him clear of the burning wreckage. Lasting damage from his injuries put an end to Hughes’s test flights, and may have contributed to the increasingly strange compulsive behavior of his old age. Certainly, he would suffer from chronic pain for the rest of his life.
The Hughes Aircraft Company’s time was now limited—not because of the failure of his military aircraft, but because of Hughes’s involvement with TWA. In 1939, Hughes had bought up most of the stock of TWA, becoming its main shareholder. Anti-trust laws prevented him from using Hughes Aircraft to provide planes for the airline. Hughes worked with Lockheed instead, helping to develop the Constellation, the world’s first pressurized passenger aircraft.
A pressurized cabin made higher-altitude flights possible—and flying at higher altitudes meant faster airspeeds. On April 17, 1944, Hughes himself flew a Constellation from Burbank, CA to Washington, DC. On the return trip, he stopped in Ohio to pick up Orville Wright. The last surviving Wright Brother took his final flight with Hughes, commenting that the Constellation’s wingspan was longer than his own historic first flight 40 years before.