Howard Hughes' Top Ten
Wealthy beyond measure and weird beyond belief, Howard Hughes was an aerospace leviathan.
- By Preston Lerner
- Air & Space magazine, November 2004
Chas. E. Bulloch/NASM (SI Neg. #81-16961)
(Page 2 of 5)
Cabin Class The Racer whetted Hughes' appetite for more records. To set an around-the-world mark, he bought the sole Douglas DC-1 but dumped it almost immediately for an amphibian, which he could set down on water in case of an engine problem. Hughes already had plenty of experience with a Sikorsky S-38. He bought a new Sikorsky S-43, a twin-engine amphibian that was 70 mph faster than the S-38.
The S-43 proved to be unsuitable for around-the-world duty, but Hughes continued to modify it until crash-landing in Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, in 1943. "The [center of gravity] was just way too far forward," says Bruce Burk, who started working for Hughes in 1937 and later oversaw his personal fleet. "If it had happened on the ground, you would have called it a ground loop, so I guess this was a water loop."
Two passengers died when a propeller sliced through the fuselage. Hughes, who suffered minor injuries, spent a small fortune to recover the S-43 and a larger one rebuilding it. The airplane eventually landed at the Hughes Tool Company in Houston, where it sat for many years before the Hughes estate sold it in 1977.
Hughes had not abandoned his around-the-world dreams, however; he next chose an airliner for the trip, a Lockheed 14 Super Electra, one of only four sold to private owners. (The rest went to airlines.) Although the Super Electra was too small to compete with the DC-3 in the airline business, its speed made it an around-the-world contender. Hughes commissioned Lockheed to equip a 14-N2 with two G-series Wright Cyclone engines. His crew added extra fuel tanks and copious navigation equipment. In 1938, after a trip that lasted nearly four days, Hughes and three crewmen returned to a New York City ticker tape parade. "All we did," Hughes disingenuously told reporters, "was to operate this equipment and plane according to the instruction book."
Mission completed, Hughes set his sights on the more advanced Boeing 307 Stratoliner, which mated the wings and tail of a B-17 bomber to the fuselage of the world's first pressurized airliner. He had the customary long-range mods, but by the time the airplane was ready for an around-the-world attempt, most of the world was embroiled in war.
In the late 1940s, Hughes hired industrial designer Raymond Loewy to spruce up the Stratoliner with a deluxe interior featuring a bar, kitchen, powder room, sleeping quarters, and other amenities. But Hughes still didn't like the airplane, so he sold it to ostentatious Texas oilman Glenn McCarthy, the inspiration for Jett Rink in Edna Ferber's novel Giant. McCarthy never paid Hughes, and the Stratoliner'dubbed "Flying Penthouse" by a later owner'had accumulated only 500 hours by the time it was badly damaged by Hurricane Cleo in Fort Lauderdale in 1964.
Five years later, the airplane was saved from the scrap heap by Fort Lauderdale pilot and realtor Ken London, who bought it for $69 and preserved most of the fuselage'including the cockpit'by transforming it into a houseboat. In 1981, Dave Drimmer bought it even though the Howard Hughes provenance sounded dubious. "I wanted the boat because it was funky and cheap, and if it was Howard Hughes' plane, well, how cool would that be?" he says. In 1994, while restoring the cockpit, he found the original Boeing data plate. Drimmer now rents out the boat for charters and tours (see www.planeboats.com for its history).
Hughes' ownership of a good chunk of TWA's stock gave him a vested interest in the development of airliners. In 1939, he sketched out the broad requirements for what eventually took form as the Lockheed 049 Constellation. The Constellation delivered high speed and great payload capacity in an elegant package featuring four neatly cowled engines, a triple tail, and a graceful dolphin-shaped fuselage. Beloved by pilots and passengers, it was the most refined airliner of its day, and it was ideally positioned for the postwar boom in intercontinental travel.