WEALTHY BEYOND MEASURE AND WEIRD BEYOND BELIEF, HOWARD HUGHES WAS a daredevil sportsman, legendary Lothario, Hollywood producer, Las Vegas mogul, and aerospace leviathan, a composite of myth and melodrama. No wonder he has inspired a cottage industry of biographies, memoirs, novels, and movies.
The latest Hughes biopic, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is titled The Aviator, which may seem surprising to all but aviation enthusiasts. Although Hughes is remembered these days mostly for a pathological late-life fear of germs, he was once world-renowned as a record-setting pilot, a patron of pioneering aircraft, and a principal architect of the airline industry.
"Howard loved the drama of flying," says Robert W. Rummel, who worked with Hughes as a young engineer and later as a TWA executive. "He was an outstanding pilot, and in the cockpit, he seemed to exult in the freedom of flight. Of course, he was an astute businessman, and making money was one of the things that motivated him. But he had a sincere and abiding interest in aviation, and I think it was his one and only true love."
Hughes owned countless aircraft, which he stashed all over the country and flew whenever he felt like it'or not at all. The following are the ones that played the most significant roles in Hughes' aviation affairs.
The Blue Streak Hughes went into the airplane business in 1934. At 28, he'd already produced and directed Hell's Angels, a film epic about World War I aerial combat, and he'd recently set a national speed record and won a race in a highly modified Boeing 100A biplane. Now he assembled a small team of employees into what would eventually become the Hughes Aircraft Company and embarked on the project that anchored his place in aviation history.
The company's first creation, the H-1, the 1B, or, his preference, simply the Racer, coupled noble proportions and graceful styling with leading-edge technology'many prop-heads call it the most beautiful airplane ever built. "The H-1 was an extraordinarily advanced example of what we would call a technology demonstrator," says aerospace historian Richard P. Hallion. "Monocoque stressed skin, flush rivets, hydraulic landing gear, and so on'for a guy who was just coming out of the box, if you will, it's a remarkable achievement."
Hughes harnessed the 1,000 horsepower of a Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp Junior to set an international speed record of 352 mph in 1935 before making a gear-up landing in a bean field. In 1937, fitted with longer wings, the Racer took Hughes from coast to coast in seven hours, 28 minutes, breaking the transcontinental record he'd set the previous year in a Northrop Gamma. Hughes never flew the H-1 again. It was retired to a Quonset hut in Southern California after a mere 42 hours of flight time.
In 1975, Hughes had the Racer restored and trucked to the National Air and Space Museum, where it resides today. In 1998, a cadre of enthusiasts led by Jim Wright of Cottage Grove, Oregon, arrived in Washington, D.C., to take detailed measurements of the Racer. With that data, Wright and company reverse-engineered a replica that was the world's most ambitious homebuilt (see "Silver Bullet," Apr./May 2003). In 2002, Wright set a new speed record with it. Tragically, he was killed and his replica destroyed when he crashed in Yellowstone National Park last year.
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."