Las Vegas Sun

October 25, 2014

Inventor, Pilot, Recluse - Hughes

"Who's Who" said it succinctly about Howard R. Hughes, late of Las Vegas.

It described him as a "manufacturer, transport pilot."

Several other accolades could be added.

He built a couple planes.

He cracked up a couple.

His researches made the first successful laser beam; made many parts for Surveyor, that sent back to many pictures of the surface of the moon.

He made helicopters.

He wanted to build an airport here for the SST airliners before they were off the drawing boards.

Since coming to town, he also bought an airport.

He offered upward of $81 millions to buy Air West, which resulted from the merger of Pacific, West Coast, and Bonanza Airlines.

Or, he used to own Trans World Airlines, which he lost in a legal battle - and was paid $529,297,246 for his 75.18 per cent interest in TWA.

At interest rates then, if he left that amount in bank for three weeks, he'd have accumulated enough interest on the TWA money to buy the Sands Hotel. He did.

However many resorts Howard Hughes bought or leased, his primary interest was always in the skies.

Howard Robard Hughes was born on Christmas Eve in 1905. His parents died, leaving him with ownership of Hughes Tool Company at age 18. The company held a patent on a top-notch drilling bit leased (never sold) to Texas and Oklahoma oil well drillers.

He began flying soon after, moved to Hollywood and began producing movies. His "Hell's Angels" is a film classic of the 1930s. He bought his first plan -an amphibian- in 1932.

He was one of the first to use movies to correct his golf swing.

In 1935, Hughes set a world land airplane speed record of 352 miles an hour. The next year, he broke the flight record between Miami and New York City, landing four hours and 21 minutes after take off.

He set a round-the-world flight record of 91 hours, eight minutes, 10 seconds in 1938 with a four-man crew. That record stood through World War II. Bill Odom shaved 12 hours off it in 1947.

He was designing his own planes, constantly improving them.

Hughes received the Harmon Trophy as the world's outstanding aviator in 1936 and 1938: the coveted Collier Trophy in 1939; the Octaye Chanute Trophy in 1940.

The war began. For his prior air achievements, he was awarded a Congressional medial in 1941. He was by the time at the ripe old age of 36.

His airplane designs didn't quite make it in time for a combat plane to be used in World War II.

His H-1 was supposed to have led to the basic idea for the Lockheed P-38 Interceptor. His D-2 twin-engine plywood bomber had one angle Army Air Corps brass liked - a flexible ammunition feed chute that gave the prototype five times the ammo feed of existing aircraft.

Eventually, reported biographer John Keats, "90 percent of all United States bombardment aircraft were equipped with them." His companies turned out landing gear struts, wings, fuselages, airplane seats, artillery shells, cannon barrels.

His D-2 designed for anti submarine warfare went up in flames when a storage hangar burned. He began testing a modified Sikorsky amphib. It dug a wingtip into Lake Mead in May 1943. One man was killed, Hughes was badly hurt.

He ordered the plane hauled up form the 500-foot-deep lake.

The D-2 photo recon plane became the XF-11. In 1944, his TWA was getting the first of a new aircraft, a four-engined, triple-tailed Constellation. Hughes kept up work on a flying boat that would haul 700 troops, with its two four-bladed propellors, mounted one behind the other. He plowed it into Beverly Hills, Calif. From his hospital bed, he reported the rear four blades suddenly gone into reverse.

Las Vegas had become a stopping place for Hughes in 1947. A U.S. Senate subcommittee began hearings on alegations of war profiteering on defense contracts.

The government had paid $60 million for the flying boat, dubbed the Spruce Goose. Hughes and Maine's Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster tangled at the hearings over its flying ability. Hughes to prove the point, flew that night to Long Beach. Calif. He piloted the Spruce Goose across the choppy bay, a flight of more than one mile. He set it down and taxied it back. It has not flown since.

Hughes dropped out.

He hadn't made a public appearance since 1954 and that was a rare appearance before a veterans group after years out of the limelight.

His private business dealings were many, though unreported.

Hughes wanted to convert his prop-driven Connies to medium range Convair jets.

Said one of those in the long design talks with Hughes, the plane was not named for the 88 seats it contains, but for the 880 meetings we had with Howard Hughes over its construction.

He relinquished control of TWA to a watchdog group of managers in exchange for financing the jetliners for his airline. Forced to sell his large stock interest in TWA, he went into deeper seclusion - in Las Vegas.

He had established the long transoceanic routes for TWA, lulled passengers on those flights with the first in-flight motion pictures. TWA was able to phaste out its piston-driven aircraft with the new jets he began ordering.

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