Howard Hughes: The Man Who Flew Too High

Mj 618_348_howard hughes the man who flew too high
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.”This is not the picture that comes to mind, typically, when we talk about Howard Hughes. When we talk about Hughes, we almost always picture an infamous shambles of a man wrecked by madness or money or ambition or a toxic combination thereof, a Gothic, cobwebby freak fitting somewhere between ‘Citizen Kane‘ and the necrophiliac old maid in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” The vision conjured is that of a pale-skinned, demented bonesleeve of a man, wandering a penthouse hotel suite with fingernails long as vipers, trackmarks down his arms, and empty Kleenex boxes for shoes.

As pathetic as it is potent, this is the image of Howard Hughes that has tattooed itself on the national imagination – partly because it’s an accurate rendering of Hughes in his twisted twilight, partly because Hughes’s glories lay embedded too deep in the past for all but the oldest fogies among us to be able to recall them firsthand. But also, and more darkly, because the trajectory of Hughes’s bizarre decline satisfies something within us, some pinched, puritan strain of schadenfreude. At his peak, in that glam newsreel era between 1926, the year he stormed Hollywood, and 1947, when he finished and flew (however briefly) the Spruce Goose, that magnificently bloated airplane that would come to symbolize overambition, Howard Hughes was almost too much to bear: too rich, too handsome, too smart, too brave, too lucky, too goddamn everything. Every woman wanted him, as the old saw goes, and every man wanted to be him. Three decades later, in the wake of Hughes’s 1976 death and the subsequent revelations about his Gollum-esque old age, America let out a national cackle at Hughes’s long and secretive fall from grace. The man who had everything died with nothing. A rubber-stamp case of obsessive-compulsive disorder was swiftly spun into a national parable, with ministers using Hughes as a prop for sermons about the perils of greed. The bedridden Hughes became an icon representing the flip side of success, the anti-Horatio Alger.

All that may change this month, when Miramax releases ‘The Aviator,‘ a sweeping, blonde bombshell-strewn biopic – directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio – that exhumes the dashing Hughes of the 1930s and ’40s, when testosterone, not codeine, surged through his veins, and when his accomplishments, rather than his eccentricities, made him a household name. “He was a genius of his time,” DiCaprio says. “He paved the way for aviation as we know it today, made huge advances in satellite technology and helicopters, and was one of the first businessmen to go out to Las Vegas and start buying up hotels.”

Born in 1905 in Houston, Texas, Howard Robard Hughes Jr. grew up amid the scent of new money. His father, a former wildcatter in the Texas oil fields, struck it rich by developing a new drill bit for oil wells, one that could smash through the crusts of rock that had thwarted oilmen for years. Buoyed by sudden wealth, the elder Hughes commenced living large: traveling in a private railcar (with a separate car just for his wardrobe), decking out the Hughes home with European furniture, and sending young Howard, his only child, to top-tier private schools. But Howard didn’t take to schooling; an aunt once described him as “a wondering boy that had no thought for books.” All that truly intrigued the shy, awkward Hughes was mechanics: the innards of machinery, its bolts and nuts and gears, the way things worked. As a boy he built a radio transmitter, broadcasting his own radio show around a 15-block radius, and also a motorcycle, which he created by hooking a small engine up to his bicycle. When Hughes was 15, his father bought him a 10-minute ride on a Curtiss seaplane in New London, Connecticut; the boy was exhilarated, seeding a future obsession. A chance visit to a movie set when he was 16 – Hughes had an uncle in Hollywood – introduced him to the mechanics of filmmaking, which was like a lot of other mechanics, with the addition of beautiful women everywhere you looked. By the time Hughes’s father died, in 1924, just two years after his mother’s death, Howard Hughes – now the orphaned heir to a nearly million-dollar fortune – had already charted his life’s course. On the back of a Foley Bros. men’s store receipt, he wrote, “Things I want to be, 1. The best golfer in the world. 2. The best pilot. 3. The most famous producer of moving pictures.” Like a winning poker hand, the world lay spread before Howard Hughes – a world he meant to pass through by putting, fucking, and flying, not necessarily in that order.

By early 1938, when he was 32, Hughes had already accomplished much of his life list. He had a two handicap on the golf course, several world records in an airplane of his own design, and an outsize reputation in Hollywood as a director, producer, and playboy. He’d blown a giant wad of his money on a World War I aviation melodrama, Hell’s Angels – at a cost of $3.8 million, it was then the most expensive film ever made, due partly to the emergence of motion-picture sound technology midway through production (Hughes ended up firing his lead starlet, whose Norwegian face was perfect for silent films but whose vowel-soup of an accent rendered her troublesome in talkies), and due partly to Hughes’s petulant perfectionism. But, really, who cared about the money? Like his father, Hughes was living large. For the filming of ‘Hell’s Angels,’ he amassed a collection of 78 vintage planes – a greater air force than that of most countries.

Around the same time, his movie-magnate status was landing him in the sack with a jaw-dropping cast of Hollywood actresses that, it was rumored, eventually included Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, Jane Russell, Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth, and a 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor. With his pal Cary Grant as his wingman, Hughes spent the 1930s cutting a wide swath through Hollywood’s female populace; when he entered the Stork Club or El Morocco, starlets were his cufflinks. (This despite his secret preference for debutantes: “They’re better in bed and they buy their own flowers,” he told Grant.) “He was the ultimate collector,” a Hughes confidante once said. “Where others had stamps, Howard had girls.” He rarely bothered with elaborate pickup routines, opting instead to simply stare down his latest finds until they wilted and went home with him.

“He just looked at me, not saying a word,” an actress once recalled. “Don’t just pant in lust, Mr. Hughes,” another woman finally chided him.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.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.Personal Fleet: That magnificent man and his flying machines


The H-1 was conceived to be the world’s fastest plane – and it was, busting the airspeed record in 1935 and the transcontinental speed record in 1937. Among its many innovations: retractable landing gear.

Lockheed 14

In 1938 Hughes piloted this 12-passenger plane – to which he himself had added supercharged engines and a souped-up instrument panel – in a record-breaking round-the-globe flight.


Designed as the ultimate cloak-and-dagger spy plane, to fly at 40,000 feet and at a top speed of more than 400 m.p.h., it was scuttled after a test flight crash in 1946, which Hughes barely survived.

H-4 Hercules

The Noah’s Ark of airplanes, the Spruce Goose weighed 400,000 pounds and, conceivably, could carry 750 passengers. Alas, it never carried anyone but Hughes, his crew, and a few reporters.

Trans World Airlines

Hughes bought a controlling stake in TWA in 1939, but his weird managerial style – especially during his later years – nearly broke the airline. Even so, his 1966 sale of his shares netted him close to half a billion dollars.

The Goose’s Roost

The largest plane ever built, Hughes’s Spruce Goose now sits in a 121,000-square-foot glass-walled hangar at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, 40 miles southwest of Portland. In addition to gaping at its sheer size – a DC-3 and other planes sit under its wings, like baby chicks – visitors can actually enter the giant bird’s cargo deck and see its elaborate wooden skeleton. []

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