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 4 of 5)
Accordingly, the largest wooden airplane ever flown'20 percent larger than a 747'taxied into Long Beach Harbor in California later that year. While a crowd watched, Hughes rocked the eight-engine H-4 off the water and flew about a mile at the dizzying altitude of 70 feet. Thereafter, the HK-1 was kept ready to fly in a climate-controlled hangar. After Hughes' death (and torturous negotiations), the H-4 moved to a dome in Long Beach, where it became a tourist attraction. In 1992, it was disassembled and shipped to McMinnville, Oregon, where it was reconstituted as the centerpiece of the Evergreen Aviation Museum.
A Final Flirtation The Flying Boat was the last airplane the Hughes Aircraft Company built. In 1949, Hughes paid $250,000 to Kellett Aircraft for the rights to the XH-17, an experimental heavy-lift helicopter funded by the Air Force. Nicknamed the "Flying Crane" after Hughes Aircraft bought it, it was equipped with a 130-foot, two-blade rotor. Two Allison J-35 jet engines, modified by General Electric to act as compressors and designated TG-180s, fed compressed air through the hollow rotor blades to the tips, where fuel was ignited in burners to produce thrust. The rotors turned at a leisurely 88 rpm, but the effect was monstrous.
"Flames began to shoot out the tip burners, making a gigantic Fourth of July pinwheel," the Los Angeles Times reported in 1952, when Gale Moore made the first official flight off the Hughes runway in Culver City. "From 50 feet away, the whoosh-whoosh of the whirring blades sounded like hundreds of artillery shells in flight…. Then, with a great, bracing quiver, the helicopter raised itself from the ground, its four wheels at the end of its stork-like supports hanging free. The noise was numbing."
Moore accumulated 10 hours of flight time before the program ended in the mid-1950s. Although a follow-on Flying Crane program failed for lack of funds, helicopters turned out to be the key to a profitable future for Hughes Aircraft. Hughes himself, though, had no interest in rotary-wing technology, and the first flight of the XH-17 was the last time he visited the helicopter factory.
Hughes died on April 5, 1976. Fittingly, he was aboard a Learjet 25B at the time.
Sidebar: The Case of "The Aviator": Replicas and Mockups
For aerial coordinator Craig Hosking, the good news was the screenplay for The Aviator called for both flying sequences featuring Hughes Racer, the XF-11, and the H-4 Flying Boat. The bad news was that there were no flyable examples of these airplanes. So Hosking, a veteran of aerial extravaganzas ranging from Con Air to The Sum of All Fears, had to dig deep into his bag of cinematic tricks.
"We used every process known to man on this movie," he says. "And when that wasn't enough, we invented new ones."
The Miramax movie, which follows Howard Hughes from the late 1920s to the late '40s, posed a host of challenges. For example, for the opening scene--the making of Hell's Angels--Hosking and assistant aerial coordinator Matt Sparrow had to sweet-talk owners all over the country to amass a fleet of 15 World War I airplanes, mostly Fekker D.VII and Sopwith Camel replicas.