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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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.


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