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