Plane & Pilot
Saturday, January 1, 2005

Howard Hughes

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

Howard HughesThis 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.
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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.


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