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 3 of 5)
Hughes liked the Constellation so much that he bought 40 of them for TWA. But by the time they were built, the United States had declared war. TWA assigned the rights to its fleet to the Army Air Forces, which designated the craft C-69s: military transports. In 1944, Hughes and TWA president Jack Frye delivered the first Constellation to the military in person, sharing a new coast-to-coast record of a tick less than seven hours.
Hughes liked to claim credit for designing the Constellation, which so annoyed Lockheed design honcho Kelly Johnson that he justifiably demanded a retraction. "Eventually," Rummel recalls, "Howard agreed to say that he had conceived of the airplane while Johnson designed it. But privately," Rummell adds with a chuckle, "Howard told me that he had difficulty understanding the difference between conception and design."
The Black Period While Hughes was setting records in the 1930s, Hughes Aircraft was gearing up for the war effort. The design staff produced several concepts for the military competition won by the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Hughes then embarked on his own project, unfettered by military requirements. Designed at various times to be a pursuit aircraft, attack aircraft, and bomber, it turned out to be none of the above.
Like the P-38, the D-2 featured an unusual twin-engine, twin-boom configuration. What made it unique was that it was built of alternating layers of heat-treated wood veneers and epoxy resin glues. This so-called Duramold process enabled exceedingly smooth surfaces. Better still, wood was cheap and widely available. But brief test flights in 1943 exposed the airplane's flaws. "It turned out to be a dog," Burk says. "The ailerons were almost completely ineffective, so it had no lateral control." It was no great loss when the lone D-2 was destroyed in 1944 by a fire said to have been caused by a lightning strike.
By this time, the politically savvy Hughes had already secured a military contract for the XF-11, a larger, more powerful all-metal version of the D-2. Designed as a 400 mph, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, it was powered by a pair of turbo-supercharged Pratt & Whitney R-4360-31s driving two pairs of counter-rotating propellers. "It was a very highly developed, well-thought-out design," Hallion says. "If Hughes hadn't been so wrapped up in the HK-1 [flying boat], that airplane might have entered the inventory."
As it was, the XF-11 wasn't completed until the war ended. On the craft's 1946 maiden test flight, an oil leak caused the right rear propeller to reverse pitch, the engine lost power, and the airplane crashed in Beverly Hills, damaging some houses. Hughes, the only one injured, was pulled from the wreckage in critical condition. While he recuperated, a second XF-11 was assembled with conventional four-blade props. Nine months after the accident, Hughes successfully flew the airplane. It then passed into the hands of the Army Air Forces before being scrapped in 1949.
The Beginning of the End The D-2/XF-11 was an expensive failure, but Hughes' biggest flop'literally'was yet to come. Like many follies, this one initially seemed to make sense: Pair Hughes with industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, creator of the Liberty ships, to build a gargantuan flying boat to ferry 750 troops overseas. To save money and use a non-critical resource, the HK-1 would be constructed of wood, using the Duramold process. A government contract was signed in 1942, but thanks to Hughes' perfectionism and procrastination, the aircraft was still unfinished at war's end. "It dragged on and on and on and on until it was just another useless aircraft," Burk says. "But it sure kept a lot of people busy."
After Kaiser bailed out of the project, the airplane was given several names: H-4, Hercules, Flying Boat. Popularly, it was known as the "Spruce Goose"'a misnomer since most of the wood was birch'or "Flying Lumberyard." In 1947, it was the subject of Senate hearings into allegations of war profiteering. Exonerated, Hughes crowed to the press, "I designed every nut and bolt that went into this airplane…. I have stated that if it fails to fly, I will leave the country. And I mean it."