Howard Hughes’ Top Ten

Wealthy beyond measure and weird beyond belief, Howard Hughes was an aerospace leviathan.

Hughes’ first record-setter was a Boeing 100A, a civilian version of the Army’s P-12B pursuit aircraft. In January 1934 Hughes won the Sportsman Pilot Free-For-All at the Miami, Florida All- American Air Meet, averaging 185.7 mph over a 20-mile course. (Chas. E. Bulloch/NASM (SI Neg. #81-16961))
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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 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.

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.

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