Once again, a new wave of attention has focused the spotlight on one of America’s most brilliant and mysterious aviation figures
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.