Howard Hughes with plane.
Credit: NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
He did survive, but from then on at a slower speed, at a lower altitude. "This man was sadder, the eyes duller," wrote Hughes biographer Richard Hack. "A spark of rebellion lost in a memory of naivete, where youth knew no fear and paid no caution." The germophobia that would rule his later life, originating from a case of syphilis he'd contracted in the late '30s, intensified during his slow recovery from the crash. The mustache he grew to hide the scars couldn't chase away his memories of the crash, of his fierce fall from the sky. Within a year the man who'd had sex with Lana Turner on an airplane floor while the plane flew on autopilot began retreating into unlit hotel suites, negotiating business deals on the phone while lying naked in the bed. But he had one last glory to go.

November 2, 1947. The day dawned gray, blustery, crisscrossed with winds. Docked in the Long Beach, California, harbor, Howard Hughes's Flying Boat, in its first public viewing, dwarfed everything around it: the bulky freighters in the harbor, the navy ships at the nearby Long Beach Naval Base pier, the yachts lined up for a jaunty view, the press tent onshore where reporters sat behind black Underwood typewriters or megaphone telephones, trying to describe the monster in their midst. Its tail was the height of an eight-story building. You could fit apartments in the wings. There was room for 750 passengers. It would take the average person more than a minute to walk the wingspan. Hughes steered the plane out into the open water with 30 of the reporters on board, as well as his engineering crew. This was to be a test taxi run of the Flying Boat – just a staid cruise along three miles of saltwater, nothing more. Hughes's chief engineer, Rae Hopper, had warned the boss not to get carried away. "We found a stress error in the aileron operating mechanism," he told Hughes. It was fixable, he said, but it would be best not to fly until the repair was made. Hughes promised.

"Howard," asked a UPI correspondent, "are you going to fly the boat today?"

"Of course not," Hughes replied.

After the second taxi run, at 90 m.p.h., he let most of the reporters disembark in a small boat – all except a radio newsman from L.A. and a few writers. "It's 50," the newsman announced over the air, reporting the plane's speed, "50 over a choppy sea. It's 55. More throttle. It's 60. It's about 65. It's 70." And then, what no one expected: The Flying Boat, sighing and creaking, rose from the sea and flew. For one mile, seven stories above the water, the Spruce Goose hung in the air, its startled crew scrambling for safety, until Hughes laid it back down in the water just over a minute later. No one has ever determined for certain if Hughes meant to fly that day or not. Some think the plane got away from him, that it rose up from the water accidentally, a wooden monster aching deep in its timbers to fly. Others think Hughes wanted to show the senatorial "shit-asses" in Washington that he'd been right all along, to slap the smug disbelief from their faces and prove what he'd snapped at reporters following a hot exchange with the investigating committee: "I don't build cluck airplanes." Or perhaps the boy in Hughes simply couldn't resist. "I like to make surprises," was all he told the radio man, with a wide and lingering grin that even the Flying Boat couldn't dwarf.

In a sense, it was the last real grin for Howard Hughes, the last good time. The Flying Boat never flew again. Hughes mummified it in a humidity-controlled hangar in Long Beach, at an annual cost of a million dollars; only after his death did the plane re-emerge into the light, when it was disassembled, then painstakingly pieced back together at the Evergreen Aviation Museum, in McMinnville, Oregon.

Perhaps Hughes sensed, on that brief stone-skip over the water, that the plane was unsafe, that the wood would never hold, or maybe he had known all along that this time he'd reached too far, that his ambition had finally collided with reality. In a sense, the world's longest, greatest boyhood ended that day, replaced, soon enough, with the long, blackening descent into paranoia and obsession. Twenty-nine years later he died, unconscious, high in the air, aboard a plane headed to Houston.