Howard Hughes with plane.
Credit: NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
In the air, he was straining at the upper limits of aviation, aiming higher, longer, faster. In '37 he'd refitted his H-1 to be a long-distance flyer and taken off on a cross-country hop – a grueling flight during which his oxygen mask failed, his radio malfunctioned, and clouds blocked his view of the landscape below all the way from Arizona to Pennsylvania. Despite his travails, however, he'd slammed the coast-to-coast speed record with a time of seven hours, 28 minutes, and 25 seconds.

But America was too small a morsel for Hughes's appetite; he wanted the world. On July 14, 1938, at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, he eased himself into the cockpit of a Lockheed 14 – a twin-engine passenger plane that he'd customized himself (including stuffing the plane's wing and fuselage recesses with 80 pounds of ping-pong balls so it might float in an emergency) – and waved out the window to the thousands of spectators who had come to see him off on his latest aerial expedition: a round-the-world flight in which Hughes intended, as always, to break the current speed record, but also to prove to the world that transworld flying was not the sole province of ripsnorting daredevils. The flight path would take him across the Atlantic to Paris – Charles Lindbergh's fabled route – and then over to Moscow, to a remote pair of outposts in ice-glazed Siberia, on to Fairbanks, Alaska, then Minneapolis, and back to New York. It was a startlingly ambitious plan, and the only other man to have accomplished such a flight, the one-eyed Wiley Post, wasn't going to try again – he had died during a recent flight over Alaska.

Even the takeoff was risky: With 1,500 gallons of fuel weighing down the plane, it wasn't certain that the Lockheed could fly. As it lumbered down the runway, the plane went rolling past the pavement and straight into a muddy field beyond, bouncing and bumping like an out-of-control Buick. The crowd gasped. The plane was too heavy. Hughes wouldn't make it. Oh shit. Oh shit, Howard Hughes was going to – The plane heaved aloft with all the gracelessness of a bear rising from its winter nap. Just barely, barely, Hughes had pulled it off. On the ground, hundreds of hats were thrown willy-nilly into the air, falling back to the earth like the ticker tape that would greet Hughes upon his successful (and, of course, record-breaking) return just under four days later. Soaring across Long Island Sound the day of his departure, Hughes dipped the wings toward the Fenwick, Connecticut, home of Katharine Hepburn, his latest movie-goddess conquest, then pointed the plane toward Paris. It must have felt good to be Howard Hughes on that summer evening, watching the earth curve before him, endlessly blue, the Atlantic's whitecaps like crystals of sugar, like sweet dust on his boyhood dreams.

Those dreams – geeky notions of newfangled machinery, lurid fantasies of sweat-dappled starlets, and barn burner visions of rocket-fast flights – had led Hughes to innovate, innovate, innovate. By 1946 his advances in film (more tits, more action) and aviation (Hughes Aircraft, the company he'd spun from Hughes Tool Company, was consistently pushing the frontier of air travel), along with his controlling shares in Trans World Airlines and other scattered business ventures, had pumped Hughes's net worth to $520 million – a considerable fortune today but a flat-out megafortune then. Yet for all his visionary breakthroughs, the one that landed him in the pantheon of American icons was his radical concept of what it meant to be a businessman. Until Hughes, the term "industrialist" evoked an image of a portly old man smoking a thick cigar in a room lined with leather-bound volumes. Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie: These were men who made money, accrued money, who were defined by the staid harrumph. of their money. Hughes, on the other hand, even when he became America's first billionaire in 1964, never seemed overly concerned with the crispness of wealth – only with what his money allowed him to do. As the original "adventure capitalist" (to crib a phrase from Hughes's philosophical heir, Brit billionaire Richard Branson), Howard Hughes redefined what it meant to be a businessman in the same way Leo Fender redefined the guitar when he electrified it. "Over the years," an airline industry contemporary of Hughes's, Charles J. Kelly Jr., wrote in 1963, "almost everyone has tried to explain Hughes's behavior in complex psychiatric terms. My opinion is quite simple. I think Howard Hughes has grown old without changing his little boy's fascination for airplanes, movies, and girls." Hughes, in short, was the business world's first rock star.

Perhaps no incident in Hughes's life better illustrates this than the meeting he had in the summer of 1942. A shipbuilder named Henry J. Kaiser, convinced that the plague of Allied ships sunk by Nazi U-boats could be cured by his dream of giant "flying boats," bullied his way into Hughes's room at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. Hughes was in bed with the flu, strung out after a week of work on his latest film, 'The Outlaw,' for which he'd designed a cantilevered bra to amp up the already-amped-up cleavage of his star, Jane Russell. (This was Hughes, the engineer, at his most deliciously adolescent.) "Get up, man!" Kaiser told Hughes, storming into the room. "We've got a war to win." Hughes, unaccustomed to taking orders, didn't perk up until Kaiser explained his plan: He wanted Hughes to design the largest plane ever. Hughes signed on the next day. He couldn't help himself.

The idea truly was kid-simple, as if two schoolboys on bicycles had drummed it up rather than two brass-balled industrialists. What if boats could fly? How big could the biggest airplane be? How cool would that plane be? The nation's adults – meaning the government's War Production Board, who'd be buying the plane – frowned skeptically, but the nation was at war, and stymieing innovation could spell a public-relations tar pit. Reluctantly, the military signed on.

When Hughes revealed the bones of his design less than a year later, those same officials almost lost their breath. They'd expected a behemoth seaplane weighing maybe 145,000 pounds. Hughes had opted for a gross weight of 400,000 pounds. His design for this superplane, dubbed Hercules, called for a wingspan of 320 feet – imagine a football field flying sideways – with the cargo capacity to carry two Sherman tanks. Weirdest of all, Hughes would build the plane out of wood. Because wartime aluminum was scarce, the government wouldn't have dared allocate strategic metal to a cockeyed project like the Flying Boat. So Hughes worked around that obstacle: He'd use birch veneer. As they listened to the plans, the generals sighed, scratched their heads, shuffled papers. A 200-ton plane made of...plywood? It was as if Howard Hughes were designing a go-cart for King Kong.

Owing partly to the Flying Boat's loopy implausibility, the government tried to cancel its order numerous times; but Hughes cajoled and lobbied, and somehow kept the project alive, even garnering contract extensions as his Spruce Goose, as the newspapers later called it, kept taking longer and longer to complete. When aluminum rationing ended, and the government begged Hughes to scrap his ply-in-the-sky concept in favor of a metal plane, Hughes refused. Henry Kaiser bowed out, but Hughes, by now enjoying the challenges of a wooden plane, kept at it. Midway through construction, Nazi Germany surrendered, nullifying the need for a torpedoproof cargo vessel; still, Hughes kept at it. "I worked anywhere from 18 to 20 hours a day on this project," he told a Senate committee formed in 1947 to investigate his wartime contracts. "If I made any mistakes it was in working too hard." Even then, after being hauled before the newsreel cameras to defend what one senator called his "flying lumberyard," Hughes kept at it.

Even a scalding brush with death – and the early inklings of his eventual crackup – didn't sidetrack Hughes's determination. In 1946, while he was test-flying the XF-11, a high-altitude photo reconnaissance plane he'd designed for the air force, he suddenly felt the plane drag to the right. It felt as if "some giant had the right wing of the airplane in his hand and was pushing it back and down," he later said. He began losing altitude over Los Angeles: 2,000 feet over Venice Boulevard, a thousand over Pico Boulevard, with Beverly Hills looming straight ahead – and down. Unable to control the dying plane, which was tumbling from the sky at 155 m.p.h., Hughes shaved the roof off a Beverly Hills mansion before the plane spun sideways, slicing a utility pole and bouncing into an alley. When the first witness arrived at the accident site, he saw Hughes climb out of the cockpit and then crumple onto a burning wing. His bones were broken. His head was bleeding. His chest was smashed. A lung had collapsed. Doctors didn't expect him to survive the night.