Howard Hughes with plane.
Credit: NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Motionless, cloudless, and warm, bleached by the just risen sun, the morning air over Santa Ana seemed ripe for slicing. A man in a black suit and tie stood silently for a while, inhaling that ripeness, savoring the nerve-jangle of his expectations while surveying the landscape around him: in the distance, a billiard table-flat expanse of bean and beet fields flanked to the north by some mountains; closer in, a few roughshod plane hangars and a gray-blue landing strip; and, at the end of that landing strip, glimmering in the sunlight like beaten silver, a single-seat, single-engine airplane unlike any the world had ever seen. With its sleekly curved wing fillets, a polished aluminum exterior skin that, thanks to flush rivets and joints, felt as smooth as a woman's forearm, and with its bulbous, bell-shaped engine cowling evoking a foil-wrapped champagne cork, the plane seemed less a feat of engineering than a masterpiece of art deco design, a metallic dream come radiantly to life. The plane was called simply the H-1, and its creator and test pilot, squinting into the sun at Eddie Martin Airport, was a 29-year-old Texas millionaire named Howard Hughes. It was September 13, 1935 – Friday the 13th, if anyone cared to note – and Hughes, already tabloid-legendary for his fast living, was trying this morning to live even faster – faster, in fact, than anyone had ever tried. The calm California air had no idea what was about to burn through it.

Once inside the cockpit, Hughes buckled the straps of his leather helmet and slid on a pair of bug-eyed flying goggles. The airfield around him buzzed with flicks of movement: Technicians from the National Aeronautic Association, the organization that oversees airspeed records, were manning chronographs at each end of a three-kilometer course, to clock the speed of the H-1 as it came blasting over the fields, and several ground judges were waiting near a hangar. Three additional judges – an NAA official, a Hollywood stunt pilot, and the aviatrix Amelia Earhart (who'd just recently cracked the record books by being the first pilot to fly solo from Mexico City to Newark) – had already taken off in two observer planes, per NAA rules. Down on the tarmac Hughes's chief engineer, Richard Palmer, began hand-cranking the H-1's inertial starter; there was a fierce, escalating whine until Palmer engaged the engine. The plane's 14-cylinder, 1,000-horsepower engine coughed and sputtered, then caught, producing a low, throat-clearing idle, like the sound of a Harley-Davidson angrily kicked to life outside a biker bar. Tendrils of blue smoke skittered from beneath the engine cowling. As Hughes took off the H-1's rumble became a cannonading roar. On the ground, the judges and crew and spectators watched the plane rise, the sunlight like sparks on the whirring propeller. They watched Hughes fly north toward the mountains, turn the plane back toward the airfield, and yank down hard on the throttle to commence his first pass.

As Hughes skimmed the ground between the chronographs, less than 250 feet up, the H-1 was as close to a bullet as any machine had ever been. One year prior, on Christmas Day, a French aviator named Raymond Delmotte had set the world speed record by flying a Cauldron C-460 at 314 m.p.h.; Hughes, along with his crew of handpicked aeronautic engineers, had specifically designed the H-1 to shatter that achievement. And his first pass, at 355 m.p.h., succeeded; for those on the ground, unaccustomed to such velocity, it must have seemed as if the man were riding a lightning bolt. The NAA required four consecutive passes to award a record, and, circling the airfield, Hughes made those passes: at 339 m.p.h., 351, and 340 – and then, because he was having such a howlingly good time, at 350, then 354, 351. Hughes was having so much fun, however, that he neglected to keep an eye on his fuel gauge. Coming out of his seventh and final pass he had the throttle wide open and thus, when the engine died, the H-1 was at what would have been another record-breaking speed, perhaps 380 m.p.h. – but suddenly, in deadening silence, it was unpowered, with nowhere to go but down.

Hughes could have bailed out. He could have parachuted to safety while the H-1 spiraled to the earth in a bona fide blaze of glory. But he wouldn't have gotten the speed record that way, and, worse, he'd have lost the H-1 – his "beautiful little thing," he called it. He pushed the nose toward the beet field below him, lowered the rear skid, and braced himself for a disastrous belly landing. Those on the ground, having heard the engine go silent and expecting the worst, watched the H-1 quietly disappear behind a line of trees. A gruesome thud, then nothing.

When they found him, dead center in the beet field, Hughes was sitting atop the H-1, writing calmly in a small notepad. Despite some minor damage to its underside, the plane was intact. As for Hughes, even his tie was still impeccably knotted. Tucking the notepad into his breast pocket, he glanced up at the wide-eyed crowd that was circling him, spilling from cars and leaping off their running boards. "It'll go faster," was all he said. "It'll go faster."