This past December 2004 marked the release of a new movie called The Aviator, which is directed by Martin Scorsese and based on the pre-1950s life of Howard Hughes. Although it’s an entertaining film, it probably raises more questions than answers for those interested in the reality of Howard Hughes’ life as an aviator.
He was truly an enigma to all who were his peers, and he’s still an enigma in the collective American psyche. Here was a man who set four world records for straight-line speed, cross-country and around-the-world flights. He developed and flew three radical, ground-breaking new airplanes. A man with a steely determination and tremendous resources, he pushed to completion any vision that captured his imagination, crushing any obstacle or person who stood in his way. He was a man who demanded complete loyalty from any of his subordinates or friends. Yet, on an impulse or whim, he would abandon a project or turn away from a relationship and never look back.
Much has been made of Hughes’ aberrant behavior in his later life. What is less known is that he was a brilliant innovator, conceptual designer and competent pilot, eager to delve into all aspects of aviation. If there’s any doubt about his ability as a pilot, it can be laid to rest simply by sitting in the cockpit of the H-1 Racer and observing the difficulties of landing or taking off in the airplane. With its tall, narrow gear, the airplane would want to swap ends at any moment of inattention.
In the aviation world, form follows function, which is a dictum for aircraft designers. Most airliners look similar because they share the most efficient shape to haul hundreds of people at subsonic speeds. The Racer (which was the name that Hughes always referred to, with the H-1 designation added by the press) was designed in the days when speed required a sleek and slippery shape. There’s an old saying that quips, “If it looks good, it will fly good.” Like most aphorisms, it has a core of truth, and the H-1 illustrated that. Hughes wasn’t interested in designing and flying just any airplane. He wanted to set records and prove to the world that he was more than just a rich playboy and movie mogul.
Hughes’ stated goal was to “become the fastest man alive” and set a new land-airplane world speed record. This distinction is important, since the fastest plane at that time was a seaplane, the Macchi-Castoldi MC.72, which in 1934, sped to an incredible 443 mph. (For comparison, the P-51 Mustang’s maximum speed at low altitude was 437 mph.) The MC.72, however, killed several of its pilots and had no practical application. The record that Hughes wanted to break was 314 mph, set on December 25, 1934, by Raymond Delmotte in a Caudron C-460. He was going to do it in an airplane of his own design that wasn’t just a racer; it was also an engineering prototype that influenced the radial-engined fighters of World War II. The long-sculptured cowling, drooping ailerons, split flaps, hydraulic landing gear, fire-suppression system and movable pilot’s seat were all years ahead of their time.
The original airplane took 18 months, 42,000 man-hours and $105,600 of Hughes’ money in 1935. Sixty-five years later, Jim Wright’s team at Cottage Grove, Ore., required four years and a seven-figure sum to re-create the H-1 and fly it again. In some ways, starting with a clean sheet of paper is easier, particularly in this case.
In 1935, Hughes accomplished his first goal by setting a speed record of 352 mph, and in 1937, a coast-to-coast record of seven hours, 28 minutes and 25 seconds in the airplane. The H-1 record wasn’t officially broken until March 30, 1939, by Hans Dieterle in a highly modified Heinkel He-100 V8 speeding at 464 mph. Hughes’ coast-to-coast record at a speed of 327 mph wasn’t broken until 1946 by Paul Mantz in a P-51.
There’s no doubt that Hughes was a good pilot, but his insistence on being his own test pilot created his downfall. Two crewmembers were killed, and Hughes almost died during a flight test, when his Sikorsky H-34 broke up on a water landing on Lake Mead in Nevada and sank to the bottom. The cause was a loading that put the airplane out of its normal weight-and-balance range. In the typical Hughes manner, he walked directly onto the airplane and did no preflight. He should have at least seen that a 100-pound toolbox wasn’t in its usual place. By taking two extra passes on his record-setting speed run in the racer, he ran out of fuel and dead-sticked into a beet field. The airplane was damaged, but he wasn’t injured. Somehow, he used his persuasive powers to convince the officials that this was just a forced landing, not an accident, which would have nullified the record attempt.
Although Hughes was obsessive about details, there was little discussion about planning, and only the most obvious failures were taken into account. Gene Blandford, his test engineer on both projects, says that Hughes would show up for a test flight and say to him, “Well, what are we going to do today?” Blandford would go over the procedures step by step, and Hughes would agree. But when they got in the air, Hughes would do something else. When questioned about it, he replied, “Well, I don’t like to do it that way.” This impulsiveness got him into serious trouble. The first flight of the XF-11, a twin-boomed reconnaissance plane with twin counter-rotating propellers on each of the two engines, was to last 45 minutes, carrying 600 gallons of fuel with the gear down. This was to be the first in a series of flight tests for the XF-11, an airplane that Hughes hoped to sell to the military. When Hughes arrived at the flight-line, he told the service crew to put in 1,200 gallons. Immediately after takeoff, Hughes pulled up the gear. The landing gear’s red warning light remained lit, indicating that the gear had not retracted. One hour and 20 minutes into the flight, the right rear propeller lost enough oil that it went into a reverse pitch. It was as though a barn door had opened on the wing. Now, the problems started to multiply. Hughes misinterpreted the XF-11’s sudden yaw as a structural failure. He struggled to maintain control of the airplane as it started a steady descent. Any attempt to communicate with his home base or chase plane was frustrated by being on the wrong frequency. When he finally admitted to himself that things were out of hand, it was too late.
He ended up crashing into two houses in the Beverly Hills, Calif., area. The airplane was torn apart and caught fire. Hughes staggered out of the cockpit onto the wing and fell to the ground. His life was saved by a neighbor, Marine Sgt. William Durkin, who pulled him away from the airplane. The accident investigating board agreed that the primary cause was a propeller malfunction. They noted, however, that if he had followed the original plan, he would have been on the ground before the failure occurred. He also was criticized for not using the special radio frequency, retracting the landing gear, not knowing the correct emergency procedures, failing to correctly analyze the problem and not starting his emergency landing when sufficient altitude was available. Hughes’ aerodynamicist, Carl Babberger, said, “The airplane was designed with plenty of capacity to take it. If he had cut that engine or cut the power, he could have come down nicely. He got spooked on that one.”
The resulting 35-day stay in the hospital led him to become addicted to painkillers and steroids. When combined with his obsessive-compulsive behavior and his somewhat arrogant attitude, the drug addiction started his long downhill slide into dementia. Even though Hughes had his weak moments, don’t ever question his courage. He built a second XF-11 and ran it through the required military tests. Again, he almost died when he pushed a full-stall test to the point where it resulted in a 10,000-foot split-S maneuver. Yet when an FAA test pilot asked him why he doesn’t hire somebody else to do his test flying, Hughes replied, “Why should I pay somebody else to have all the fun?”
Years later, Lockheed’s famed chief engineer, Kelly Johnson, and test pilot Milo Burcham were treated to Hughes’ idea of fun when he stalled the Lockheed Constellation using full power. Johnson was appalled by the event. “It was the only time that I’ve seen zero airspeed on this big an airplane. It had so damned much thrust that the airplane was just hanging on the props. Hell, I knew that in the recovery, we wouldn’t have much control over what the airspeed was going to be, so I hollered, ‘Up flaps! Up flaps!’ so he wouldn’t exceed the flap speed.”
Burcham brought the flaps up, took over the airplane and recovered. It may be the only time that someone took control of an airplane away from Hughes.
In general, Hughes’ idea of fun was quite different from that of his employees’ idea of amusement. One of his workers recounted, “I heard that Howard needed designers and so I went down to his shop to apply. He interviewed me for a few minutes and said, ‘It looks like you can do the job. When can you start?’ ‘When do you want me?’ ‘How about today?’ I talked him into the next day. He was like that—making many of his decisions on instinct or feelings about someone.”
“Howard didn’t buddy around with his crew,” remembers John Newbury, a designer hired by Hughes to work on the Racer project. “There was little personal contact. He did give a few parties with good food and champagne when significant goals were reached. Everyone was searched before they left the property. You couldn’t get a ballpoint pen out of there. Howard was paranoid about someone stealing his ideas.
“The Racer’s design was at least 20 years ahead of its time. Although the Mitsubishi Zero looked quite similar, it was 80 mph slower. There was no way, however, that Howard’s design could be mass-produced as a production-line fighter.”
The most famous design for which Hughes is known was the HK-1, a huge flying boat commonly known as Spruce Goose. The idea germinated from Henry Kaiser, who wanted to build a huge airplane that was capable of lifting enormous loads of personnel and materials over the ocean to supply our troops in Europe. In spite of resistance from many quarters, Kaiser and Hughes managed to obtain a contract to build a 200-ton airplane. It had to be made of wood, since metal supplies were unavailable for a project of this size. By the time the airplane flew in 1947, the war was long over, but Hughes was determined to prove its worth. It would only take one flight for him to recover at least some of the many millions of dollars that he had invested in this project. So on November 2, 1947, the world’s largest airplane was towed into Long Beach Harbor in California for what was ostensibly publicized as a series of taxi tests.
The tests took place in a circus-like atmosphere. Thousands of onlookers were onshore, in boats and in planes, encircling the harbor. Besides the crewmembers on board, Hughes had invited selected members of the press. After two successful runs with the flaps up, most of them departed to file their stories.On the next run, however, Hughes requested flaps 15. On this run, at 75 mph, the sound of waves slapping the bow suddenly ceased. They were airborne! For a number of seconds, at about 70 feet, the huge airplane was in the air and came to a smooth touchdown.
The HK-1 flew! Or did it? That depends on the definition of flight. In engineering flight-test terms, this would be considered to be a liftoff. It would be considered a first flight if it circled back to a landing. Also, the HK-1 never got out of ground effect. So is an airplane really flying when it’s stuck in ground effect? Take your pick.
But did Hughes intend to make that famous flight? I doubt that the question will ever be fully answered. Even the crewmembers disagree on their opinions, and Hughes, in his own enigmatic way, managed to leave the question open to interpretation. After the flight, he was directly asked if he meant to take off on that run. Hughes replied, “What do you think?”
Crewmember David Grant’s best guess was that with flaps at 15 degrees, the airplane lifted off sooner than Hughes expected (or maybe he wanted it to happen), and then, he just accepted it as a fait accompli. In any case, it was the best-recorded, most famous short flight in history. Transcripts and movies of the Spruce Goose flight were repeatedly shown, and they continue to be showcased, even to this day. So with any luck, you can probably see the flight for yourself and make your own decision about that controversial flight and the legendary aviator who flew it.