Howard Robard Hughes, Jr. (December 24, 1905 – April 5, 1976) was an American business magnate, investor, aviator, entrepreneur, aerospace engineer, film maker and philanthropist. He was one of the wealthiest people in the world. He gained prominence from the late 1920s as a maverick film producer, making big-budget and often-controversial films like The Racket (1928), Hell’s Angels (1930), Scarface (1932), and The Outlaw (1943). Hughes was one of the most influential aviators in history; he set multiple world air-speed records, built the Huges H-1 Racer and H-4 “Hercules” (better known to history as the “Spruce Goose” aircraft), and acquired and expanded Trans World Airlines which would later on merge with American Airlines. Hughes is also remembered for his eccentric behavior and reclusive lifestyle in later life, caused in part by a worsening obsessive-compulsive disorder and chronic pain. His legacy is maintained through the Howar Huges Medical Institute.
Hughes was a lifelong aircraft enthusiast and pilot. At Rogers Airport in Los Angeles, he learned to fly from pioneer aviators, including Moye Stephens. He set many world records and commissioned the construction of custom aircraft to be built for himself while heading Hughes Aircraft at the airport in Glendale. Operating from there, the most technologically important aircraft he commissioned was the Huges H-1 Racer. On September 13, 1935, Hughes, flying the H-1, set the landplane airspeed record of 352 mph (566 km/h) over his test course near Santa Ana, California (Giuseppe Motta reached 362 mph in 1929 and George Stainforth reached 407.5 mph in 1931, both in seaplanes). A year and a half later, on January 19, 1937, flying a redesigned H-1 Racer featuring extended wings, Hughes set a new transcontinental airspeed record by flying non-stop from Los Angeles to Newark in 7 hours, 28 minutes and 25 seconds (beating his own previous record of 9 hours, 27 minutes). His average ground speed over the flight was 322 mph (518 km/h).
The H-1 Racer featured a number of design innovations: it had retractable landing gear (as Boeing Monomail had five years before) and all rivets and joints set flush into the body of the aircraft to reduce drag. The H-1 Racer is thought to have influenced the design of a number of World War II fighters such as the Mitsubishi Zero, the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 and the F8F Bearcat; although that has never been reliably confirmed. The H-1 Racer was donated to the Smithsonian in 1975 and is on display at the National Air and Space Museum.
On July 10, 1938, Hughes set another record by completing a flight around the world in just 91 hours (3 days, 19 hours), beating the previous record by more than four hours. Taking off from New York City, he continued to Paris, Moscow, Omsk, Yakutsk, Fairbanks, Minneapolis, and continued to New York City. For this flight he flew a Lockheed Super Electra (a twin-engine transport with a four-man crew) fitted with all of the latest radio and navigational equipment. Hughes wanted the flight to be a triumph of technology, illustrating that safe, long-distance air travel was possible. In 1938, the William P. Hobby Airport in Houston, Texas, known at the time as Houston Municipal Airport, was renamed Howard Hughes Airport, but the name was changed back after people objected to naming the airport after a living person.
He also had a role in the design and financing of both the Boeing 307 Stratoliner and Lockheed L-049 Constellation.
Hughes received many awards as an aviator, including the Harmon Trophy in 1936 and 1938, the Collier Trophy in 1938, the Octave Chanute Award in 1940, and a special Congressional Gold Medal in 1939 “in recognition of the achievements of Howard Hughes in advancing the science of aviation and thus bringing great credit to his country throughout the world.” According to his obituary in The New York Times, Hughes never bothered to come to Washington to pick up the Congressional Gold Medal. It was eventually mailed to him by President Harry S. Truman.
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Huges H-1 Racer
The Hughes H-1 was a racing aircraft built by Huges Aircraft in 1935. It set a world airspeed record and a transcontinental speed record across the United States. The H-1 Racer was the last aircraft built by a private individual to set the world speed record; every aircraft to hold the honor since has been a military design.
The H-1 Racer at the National Air and Space Museum
The H-1 first flew in 1935 and promptly broke the world landplane speed record with Hughes at the controls, clocking 352 mph (566 km/h) averaged over four timed passes. Hughes apparently ran the aircraft out of fuel and managed to crash-land without serious damage to either himself or the H-1. As soon as Hughes exited the H-1 when he crashed it in a beet field, his only comment was: “We can fix her, she’ll go faster”. At the time, the world seaplane speed record was 440 mph (709 km/h), set by a Macchi M.C.72 in October 1934.
Hughes later implemented minor changes to the H-1 Racer to make it more suitable for a transcontinental speed record attempt. The most significant change was the fitting of a new, longer set of wings that gave the aircraft a lighter wing loading. On January 19, 1937, a year and a half after his previous landplane speed record in the H-1, Hughes set a new transcontinental speed record by flying non-stop from Los Angeles to New York City in 7 hours, 28 minutes and 25 seconds. He smashed his own previous record of 9 hours, 27 minutes by two hours. His average speed over the flight was 322 mph (518 km/h).
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The Huges XF-11 was a prototype military reconnaissance aircraft, designed and flown by Howard Hughes for the United States Army Air Force. Despite promise, the XF-11 suffered a crash that nearly killed Hughes. The program never recovered from this setback.
The Hughes XF-11 during a 1947 test flight
The first prototype, tail number 44-70155, piloted by Huges, crashed on 7 July 1946 while on its maiden flight. An oil leak caused the right-hand propeller controls to lose their effectiveness and the rear propeller subsequently reversed its pitch, disrupting that engine’s thrust, which caused the aircraft to yaw hard to the right. Rather than feathering the propeller, Hughes elected to make an emergency landing on the golf course of the Los Angeles Country Club, but about 300 yards short of the course, the aircraft suddenly lost altitude and clipped three houses. The third house was completely destroyed by the fire resulting from the crash and Hughes was nearly killed. The crash is dramatized in the 2004 film THe Aviator.
The second prototype was fitted with conventional propellers and flown on 5 April 1947, after Hughes had recuperated from his injuries. This test flight was uneventful and the aircraft proved to be stable and controllable at high speed. However, it lacked low-speed stability as the ailerons were ineffective at low altitudes, and when the Army Air Forces (AAF) evaluated it against the XF-12, testing revealed the XF-11 was harder to fly and maintain, and projected to be twice as expensive to build. A small production order of 98 for the XF-12 went out but the AAF chose the RB-50 Superfortress, and Northrop F-15 Reporter instead, which had similar long-range photo-reconnaissance capability and were available at a much lower cost. The production order was cancelled. When the United States Air Force was created as a separate service in September 1947, the XF-11 was redesignated the XR-11. The surviving XR-11 prototype arrived at Eglin Air Force Base in December 1948 for operational suitability testing.
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Huges H-4 Hercules
The Hughes H-4 Hercules (also known as the “Spruce Goose“; registration NX37602) is a prototype heavy transport aircraft designed and built by the Hughes Aircraft company. The aircraft made its first and only flight on November 2, 1947, and the project never advanced beyond the single example produced. Built from wood because of wartime restrictions on the use of aluminium and concerns about weight, its critics nicknamed it the “Spruce Goose,” despite it being made almost entirely of birch rather than spruce. The Hercules is the largest flying boat ever built and has the largest wingspan of any aircraft in history. It survives in good condition at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, USA.
Hughes H-4 Hercules on its only flight
During a break in the Senate hearings, Hughes returned to California to run taxi tests on the H-4. On November 2, 1947, the taxi tests began with Hughes at the controls. His crew included Dave Grant as co-pilot, two flight engineers, Don Smith and Joe Petrali, 16 mechanics, and two other flight crew. In addition, the H-4 carried seven invited guests from the press corps and an additional seven industry representatives. Thirty-six were on board.
After the first two taxi runs, four reporters left to file stories, but the remaining press stayed for the final test run of the day. After picking up speed on the channel facing Cabrillo Beach, the Hercules lifted off, remaining airborne at 70 ft (21 m) off the water and a speed of 135 miles per hour (217 km/h) for around a mile (1.6 km). At this altitude, the aircraft still experienced ground effect. Having proven to his detractors that Hughes’ (by now unneeded) masterpiece was flight-worthy, thus vindicating the use of government funds, the “Spruce Goose” never flew again. Its lifting capacity and ceiling were never tested. A full-time crew of 300 workers, all sworn to secrecy, maintained the plane in flying condition in a climate-controlled hangar. The crew was reduced to 50 workers in 1962, and then disbanded after Hughes’ death in 1976.