Howard Hughes was at the controls of a prototype “Hughes XF-11" (which his company made for the U.S. military) when it crashed during its first flight (on July 7, 1946). This image, online via the USAF Museum Photo Archives, is a screen shot from footage taken on that day. The crash happened when an oil leak—which developed during flight—caused one of the counter-rotating propellers to disastrously reverse direction. Hughes completed a second prototype which he flew (successfully) on the 5th of April, 1947. Although that plane was stable and controllable at high speeds, it did not have good stability flying at low speeds.


As the result of a childhood illness, Howard suffered from a bad case of tinnitus (ringing and noises in the ears). He found those noises stopped when he flew planes. His love of flying was thus enhanced by a physical reason to be in the air.

When Hughes was just a teenager, Lockheed - ultimately a powerhouse of aviation innovation - got a lowly start when Allan and Malcolm Loughead borrowed $4,000 from a taxi company to create a flying boat, the Model G. Their plan, to charge $10 per ride, was - at first - a failure.

Not enough people were willing to pay that much money to ride in the plane. By 1916, however, after finding plenty of passengers at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the brothers had enough money to start a new business.

In a different corporate form, with the spelling of the family name changed to match its pronunciation, Lockheed Air Corporation made innovative planes such as the Vega (favored by Amelia Earhart).  The company also made the red-winged, twin-engine Electra 10E (which Earhart was flying when she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared on July 2, 1937). 

Howard Hughes liked Lockheed planes, too. He liked them so much that in 1932, in a rented corner of a Lockheed hangar in Burbank, he created a new division of Hughes Tool: Hughes Aircraft Company.

Before long, Howard was converting a military plane into a racing aircraft and secretly collaborating with Lockheed officials to create the fastest commercial airplane in the world. How was it that Hughes - owner of Hughes Tool and producer of Hollywood movies - ended up in the airplane business? How did he expand his love of flying into another manufacturing concern?

One of the best hiring decisions Howard Hughes ever made was when he selected a 1927 engineering graduate from Oregon State University, Glenn Odekirk, to be his right-hand airplane mechanic. Howard loved to fly, and Odie had great ideas. The two argued endlessly about the best ways to make, and improve, airplanes.

In 1935, it was Odie who helped design the H-1 which Hughes flew at the incredible speed of 352.39 miles per hour. It, too, set a new record. The plane, revolutionary at the time, was one of the first to have retractable landing gear. It also had special screws and flat rivets which significantly reduced wind resistance, thereby increasing speed.

Flying an improved version of the H-1, Hughes set a new transcontinental record on January 19, 1937 when he flew from Los Angeles to Newark in 7 hours, 28 minutes and 25 seconds. His average speed: 332 miles per hour.

The event which catapulted Hughes into national fame, however, was his round-the-world flight from July 10-14, 1938. It was Odie who selected the plane Howard flew as he completed his record-setting pace of 3 days, 19 hours, and 17 minutes.

After Howard obtained government contracts to build military planes, Odie worked on the Hughes Flying Boat project which became known as the Spruce Goose (because it was mostly made of wood). Rewarding his close friend for the years of hard work, Hughes had Odie aboard when he finally flew the eight-engine plane - at Long Beach, California - on November 2, 1947.

Flying just a mile, at seventy feet above water, the huge aircraft has been grounded ever since.

Pushing his desire to keep increasing flight speed, Howard flew an experimental plane, the XF-11, on July 7, 1946. During flight, an oil leak caused one of the counter-rotating propellers to disastrously reverse direction. Hoping to save the plane by landing on the Los Angeles Country Club golf course, Hughes instead clipped three Beverly Hills homes, crashing into a fourth house.

When the fuel tanks exploded, the house (the link takes you to historical film footage) and its surroundings caught on fire. The plane broke apart and Hughes, badly injured, was lying alongside his burning plane. He was rescued by Marine Master Sergeant Durkin who happened to be in the neighborhood.

His desire to fly faster and faster had thus caused a crushed collar bone, six broken ribs, a collapsed lung, a fractured skull and third-degree burns. Those injuries affected Hughes until his death.

After the crash, he grew a moustache to cover a minor facial scar. A more severe problem arose from significant amounts of morphine he received during his recovery. Experts, in fact, trace his dependence on opiates (his main drug of choice was codeine) to his 1946 brush with death.

Because of the "achievements of Howard Hughes in advancing the science of aviation and thus bringing great credit to his country throughout the world," Hughes received the Congressional Gold Medal on August 7, 1939.

If the rest of this life of great promise had not been damaged by bizarre behavior and narcotic addictions, what else might he have achieved?

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5197stories and lessons created

Original Release: Dec 01, 2005

Updated Last Revision: Jun 24, 2019

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"HOWARD IN THE AIR" AwesomeStories.com. Dec 01, 2005. Jun 05, 2020.
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