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Hughes H-1 racer

TheHughes H-1 racer was developed to be the fastest landplane in the world. On September 13, 1935, Hughes achieved the design goal by flying the H-1 to a new world speed record of 352 miles per hour.

Spruce Goose splashdown

The Spruce Goose splashes down at the end of its first and only flight.

Hughes being greeted in New York after circling the globe

The Lockheed Model 14 Super Electra made a record for circling the globe -- in 3 days, 19 hours and 14 minutes with eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes piloting. One thousand police officers were on hand at New York's Floyd Bennett Field to control the throngs of people who showed up to greet Hughes.

Howard R. Hughes, Jr.--The Record Setter

Howard R. Hughes, Jr., one of America's most famous billionaires, was also one of the world's most important aviation innovators. One facet of his varied career revolved around his daring flights in the 1930s when he set several new aviation records. He also built one of the most important aviation manufacturing companies in history and was a major player in the growth and fortunes of Trans World Airlines. Through most of his life, Hughes was involved in aviation in one capacity or another but, of his many interests, flying was his greatest passion.

Hughes was born in Houston, Texas, in December 1905, to a wealthy family. Orphaned at 17, he dropped out of school to take control of the family business--the Hughes Tool Company, which had made a fortune thanks to a patent it held for a special oil-drilling bit. Although Hughes maintained control of the company, he quickly set out for Los Angeles to pursue two main goals--to become a famous movie producer and the world's best pilot.

Hughes combined certain aspects of his two dreams when he produced and directed the movie Hell's Angels (1930), a romantic vision of World War I aviators. The film took three years to make, cost $3.8 million to produce, and killed three pilots in the process. It also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography. During filming, Hughes had obtained his pilots license. As he continued to produce and direct films in the early 1930s, he also became quite an accomplished pilot.

To support his aviation ventures, Hughes created the Hughes Aircraft Company in Glendale, California in 1932. The company consisted initially of Hughes's own small team of designers and mechanics. Their mission was to build him the best racing planes in the world. The first aircraft they worked on and remodeled was an Army Air Corps pursuit plane. Hughes captured his first aviation prize in it at the All-American Air Meet in Miami, Florida, on January 14, 1934, while averaged 185 miles per hour (298 kilometers per hour) over a 20-mile (32-kilometer) racecourse.

Soon after, Hughes Aircraft built its first internally designed airplane--the H-1 racer. The H-1 was designed for speed, pure and simple; it was streamlining at its very best. On September 13, 1935, Hughes piloted the H-1 to a new speed record of 352 miles per hour (566 kilometers per hour) at Martin Field, near Santa Ana, California. The previous record was 314 miles per hour (515 kilometers per hour). Although Hughes had already achieved the record after a few passes over the airfield, he kept pushing, and the H-1 ran out of gas. Forced to make an emergency landing in a nearby beet field, Hughes walked away from the plane unharmed.

Unsatisfied with just one record, Hughes started concentrating on establishing a new transcontinental speed mark. High-altitude flight would be the key to achieving a new record, and because the H-1 was originally intended for only short flights at low altitudes, Hughes began shopping for a new aircraft. Fellow aviator Jackie Cochran, and a great racer in her own right, had the plane he wanted--a Northrop Gamma. However, Cochran was planning to use the Gamma in an upcoming Bendix Race, and she wanted to establish her own transcontinental record. But Hughes finally offered her enough money and she gave in. After refitting the Gamma with a different engine, Hughes took off from Burbank, California, on January 13, 1936, en route to Newark, New Jersey, and a new cross-country record. He made the flight in 9 hours, 27 minutes, 10 seconds, and bettered Roscoe Turner's previous mark by 36 minutes. Within two weeks, he had also set flight records from Miami to New York, and from Chicago to Los Angeles.

A year later, Hughes, disappointed that he had not beaten Turner's record by a wider margin, had redesigned his H-1 so that it could handle long distance flights at high altitudes. On January 18, 1937, he took off from Burbank in the H-1, which he had renamed the "Winged Bullet," en route to Newark and another record. Despite the fact that his oxygen mask failed, and he almost blacked out, Hughes set a new mark of 7 hours, 28 minutes, 25 seconds. The achievement secured him the year's Harmon International Trophy, for the world's most outstanding aviator.

Still wanting more, Hughes decided to try to better his personal hero Wiley Post's trans-global record. The aircraft he selected for the flight was a Lockheed 14, a twin-engine passenger plane. Hughes guided the aircraft off of Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York, on July 10, 1938. He made Paris in 16 hours, 38 minutes, more than twice as fast as Charles Lindbergh had flown 11 years earlier. Then, on July 14, he and his four-man crew landed in New York in front of 25,000 cheering people. His new record of 3 days, 9 hours, 17 minutes, shaved more than four days off Post's previous record. Hughes received several honors including a Congressional Medal, the Harmon International Trophy once again, and a ticker-tape parade down Broadway. His trans-global flight marked the end of his record-setting days. In subsequent years, he would concentrate on designing and manufacturing military aircraft and exercising control of Trans World Airlines as its principal stockholder. His most famous aircraft was the Spruce Goose, the largest plane of all time, which made its one and only flight in 1947.

Despite suffering four plane crashes while testing his own aircraft during his career, Hughes ironically died as a passenger on a jet plane on April 5, 1976, while en route to receive medical treatment after years of self-neglect. Although Hughes set several air speed and distance records in his early years, those accomplishments were overshadowed in his later years by his poor business decisions, his attempts to manipulate the military aircraft market, and his personal eccentricities and reclusiveness. Still, in spite of some of his unscrupulous actions late in life and his eccentric and reclusive personality, he was in many ways a romantic at heart, and his aviation career, at least in the beginning, reflected his great love of the sky.

--David H. Onkst

Sources and further reading:

Note: Many books written about Howard Hughes have been written for their popular appeal and often are not considered reliable histories.

Barlett, Donald L. and James B. Steele. Empire: The Life, Legend, and Madness of Howard Hughes. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979.

Barton, Charles. Howard Hughes and his Flying Boat. Fallbrook, Cal.: Aero Publishers, 1982.

Brown, Peter Harry and Pat H. Broeske. Howard Hughes: The Untold Story. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.

Dietrich, Noah and Bob Thomas. Howard, the Amazing Mr. Hughes. Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publications, 1972.

Drosnin, Michael. Citizen Hughes. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985.

Hack, Richard. Hughes: The Private Diaries, Memos and Letters. New York: New Millennium, 2001.

Hatfield, D.D. Howard Hughes H-4 "Hercules". Los Angeles, Historical Airplanes, 1972.

Keats, John. Howard Hughes. New York: Random House, 1966.

Kistler, Ron. I Caught Flies for Howard Hughes. Chicago: Playboy Press, 1976.

Maguglin, Robert O. Howard Hughes, his Achievements and Legacy: the Authorized Pictorial Biography. Long Beach, Cal.: Wrather Port Properties, 1984.

Maheu, Robert and Richard Hack. Next to Hughes: Behind the Power and Tragic Downfall of Howard Hughes by his Closet Advisor. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992.

McDonald, John J. Howard Hughes and his Hercules. Shrewsbury, UK: Airlife, 1981.

O'Neil, Paul. Barnstormers & Speed Kings. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1981.

Phelan, James. Howard Hughes, the Hidden Years. New York: Random House, 1976.

Rummel, Robert W. Howard Hughes and TWA. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Serling, Robert J. Howard Hughes' Airline: An Informal History of TWA. New York: St. Martins/Marek, 1983.

Schwartz, Milton L. and Robert O. Maguglin. The Howard Hughes Flying Boat. Los Angeles: Rosebud Books, 1983.

Tinnin, David B. Just About Everybody Vs. Howard Hughes. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1973.

Educational Organization

Standard Designation (where applicable)

Content of Standard

National Council for Geographic Education

Standard 1

How to use maps and other geographic representations to acquire and process information.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 6

Students will develop an understanding of the role of society in the development and use of technology.