The age-old yearning for flight has at its heart the desire to conquer the randomness of our individual fates. Pilots aloft enjoy the momentary illusion that destiny and destination are one—that throttle and compass can indeed chart the course of their fortunes. The idea seduces amateur and professional alike (see “Air Command,”), yet its spell is short-lived: The pull of gravity prevails, wheels touch ground again, and life draws the voyager back into its terrestrial currents. In the case of Howard Robard Hughes Jr., however, flight and fate remained strangely intertwined.
The renowned billionaire movie producer, aviator, and hypochondriac had compelling cause to take wing early. Orphaned at the age of 18, he inherited his father’s firm, Hughes Tool Co., best known for a self-sharpening drill bit that transformed the oil industry. Hughes’ actor/writer uncle, Rupert, would oversee the youth’s 75 percent ownership of the company until the latter reached the age of 21, and it was perhaps his influence that persuaded Hughes to drop out of Rice University in favor of a career as a Hollywood filmmaker.
The young mogul’s fascination with film ignited his passion for planes. After establishing the film division of Hughes Tool Co., the ever-multiplying branches of which would continue to parallel his whims, Hughes produced a number of successful films, but the title that would have the most lasting impact on the Texan impresario was Hell’s Angels (1930), which Hughes directed himself. Starring an undiscovered blonde named Jean Harlow, this tale of World War I fighter pilots would inspire Hughes, who earned his pilot’s license during the filming, to found the Hughes Aircraft division of Hughes Tool, into which he would funnel tens of millions of dollars to pioneer new aerospace technologies. While his cinematic and avionic careers did overlap, the former would gradually fade to black, though Hughes did take a hiatus from airplane design in 1941 to devise the half-cup bra worn by his then-latest discovery, Jane Russell, in The Outlaw (1943).
Hughes Aircraft’s original mission was to convert military craft into racing planes that would enable Hughes to establish a new record for airspeed by building “the fastest plane in the world.” His team of crack engineers required 18 months to complete the racer, whose glistening aluminum fuselage earned it the nickname “Silver Bullet.” On the morning of September 13, 1935, in Santa Ana, Calif., the H-1’s (or Hughes #1) Pratt & Whitney R-1535 engine would propel the craft to speeds of up to 370 mph, achieving an average of 352 mph after eight passes and besting the record by 38 mph. Hughes was so carried away by the H-1’s performance that he neglected to monitor his fuel, which ran out, forcing him to belly-land in a field.
This victory prompted a spate of daredevil feats, including two record-breaking transcontinental flights, the halving of Lindbergh’s New York-to-Paris time, and a three-day trip around the world in a Lockheed 14. With the advent of World War II, however, Hughes Aircraft transitioned from a narcissistic exercise into a commercial concern, winning military contracts to develop a photoreconnaissance plane, the XF-11, as well as a “flying boat” to transport matériel across the Atlantic. Delays in the design
of the latter—a 320-foot wooden cargo carrier that weighed 400,000 pounds and cost $18 million— had attracted criticism in Congress, where some suggested that Hughes was defrauding the government. The end of the war rendered the H-4, or “Spruce Goose,” unnecessary; still, to exonerate himself, Hughes flew the plane in Long Beach Harbor for one mile in 1947 to demonstrate that, indeed, his company had built a working vehicle. It never flew again.
This scrutiny—as well as a lawsuit that forced him to sell his 75 percent stake in Trans World Airlines (TWA) for half a billion dollars—intensified Hughes’ already mounting paranoia. He increased the dosages of painkillers he had been prescribed after he crashed the XF-11 prototype in the late 1940s, and spent much of his time seated, naked, in a white leather chair at the center of bare white hotel rooms in Beverly Hills and Las Vegas (his “germ-free zone”), watching movies. In his deteriorating state, aircraft served as his sanctuary: Specially outfitted Boeing jets transported him on rounds from the Bahamas to Mexico, from Los Angeles to the Bahamas. Although he had walked away from at least four plane crashes during his lifetime, he would never disembark from one of these flights. In 1976, destiny, if not gravity, caught up with Howard Hughes: Emaciated and disoriented, he died of heart failure at 30,000 feet aboard a jet bound from Acapulco to a Houston hospital.