Chapter OneEarly Flying Years
Howard Hughes's first flight took place in the fall of 1920 when he was fourteen and a student at a private school in West Newton, Massachusetts. On a visit from Houston, his father took him to the Yale-Harvard crew races, held on the Thames River in New London, Connecticut. Hughes senior promised to buy his son whatever he wanted if his alma mater won the event. When Harvard clipped Yale by fourteen seconds, Hughes senior beamed with pride. His son was delirious with anticipation, for he already knew what he wanted from his father to celebrate the victory. He held out his hand and requested a five-dollar bill.
An incredulous Hughes senior made good on the promise as his son pointed to a Curtis flying boat anchored in the New London harbor and to the sign overhead, which advertised rides for five dollars. Hughes senior joined his son for a ten-minute flight and got sick. Junior was exhilarated and inspired by the sensation of flying, sparking a love of aviation and a special affection for seaplanes that lasted throughout his life.
Hughes was a shy only child, and both parents had died by the time he was a nineteen-year-old freshman at Rice University in 1925. In grade school he had met Ella Rice, whose family founded Rice University, and by age nineteen they had married. His father's death that year meant that Howard had to take the helm of the family business, Hughes Tool Company in Houston, so he dropped out of college. Because Hughes did not know the oil drilling business, he hired thirty-six-year-old Noah Dietrich, a sharp, self-educated accountant, to run Hughes Tool. Dietrich was of German descent and was born and raised in Wisconsin. He worked out so well that Howard entrusted the business to Dietrich and moved with Ella west to Los Angeles where he became a film producer.
By the fall of 1926, Howard Hughes had become obsessed with golf. Every day he played at the Beverly Hills Country Club with the goal of becoming a first-class amateur golfer. While playing, Hughes saw a barnstormer tip his wing, saluting him, as he flew his biplane back to Clover Field. Hughes copied the plane's registration number off its wing and tracked the flier to a small shack on the far end of the field where a Waco aircraft was hangared. Hughes offered the owner, J. B. Alexander, a whopping one hundred dollars a day to teach him to fly, an offer Alexander could not refuse.
In 1925 Hughes took his first dual instruction in a Curtis Jenny JN-4 airplane on a trip from Los Angeles to San Diego. Wentworth Goss piloted the aircraft. Ella and another couple flew to San Diego at the same time in another airplane.
Hughes flew with J. B. Alexander every day that fall of 1926, and took to flying quickly. Hughes was a natural and in the air he seemed to find relief from the shyness he had around people. On November 10, 1927, Hughes passed the test and was issued his private pilot's license, number 4223.
Now permitted to fly by himself and a wealthy young man of almost twenty-two, Hughes decided to buy his first plane. Hughes purchased a Waco 10, powered by a 220-hp Wright J-5 engine, but he wasn't satisfied with it, so he sent it to Douglas Aircraft at Clover Field to have it rebuilt. The plane was a two-seater built for speed, and Hughes wanted it remodeled to provide more safety. He ordered the wings removed and refurbished and a leather-covered rubber cushion built around the edge of the cockpit.
On his way to the golf course every day, he dropped in at Douglas and inspected the latest changes on his plane.
"It's not right," he told the mechanics. "Tear it apart and do it differently."
Hughes made repeated changes to the plane; the bill from Douglas was twice what he had originally paid for the plane. Dietrich negotiated with Douglas management to get the bill reduced, but Hughes was still not pleased with the amount. Eventually Dietrich met with company owner Donald Douglas Sr., and negotiations continued. Finally, after six months of haggling, Douglas became exasperated and told Dietrich that Hughes could write a check for any amount he wanted but he would never do business with him again. Hughes was delighted with the news, but from then on he hired his own mechanics to repair and modify his aircraft.
Hughes never forgot his dealing with Donald Douglas Sr. over the Waco modification. Thirty years later, when he was dickering with Douglas Aircraft over the purchase of a DC-6 transport, Hughes avoided Donald Douglas Sr.; most of his dealings were with Donald Douglas Jr.
Although Hughes spent money to make his own plane safer, he flew other aircraft of questionable safety status. He seemed to enjoy flying other people's aircraft more than his own plane. Trying to build up experience, he flew every aircraft he could get his hands on. He borrowed Pancho Barnes's Travel Air Mystery Ship. Barnes was a famous and colorful aviatrix of the 1920s who raced aircraft. Hughes nosed her aircraft over on the landing and had to replace the propeller.
One day he called Paul Mantz, a movie stunt flier, and told him he needed to borrow his plane to fly to Santa Barbara to pick up a golfing companion. Mantz owned a Stearman, which hadn't been flown in thirty days. Hughes asked Mantz to warm up the engine before he arrived. Hughes then flew the plane to Santa Barbara. On the way back he had a fuel problem (water in the gas tank) and had to make an emergency landing. He landed oil a fairway at the Bel-Air Country Club, where he and his companion had planned to play eighteen holes. The management was very upset about the intrusion and impounded his plane.
As would be repeated many, many times in the future, Hughes asked Dietrich to take care of it. For one thousand dollars, Dietrich got Hughes out of the problem. Although Dietrich could repair damage to Hughes's flying reputation, he couldn't prevent or cover up all the many close calls Hughes later experienced involving auto and aircraft crashes.
Six months before Hughes earned his pilot's license, Charles A. Lindbergh made the first nonstop solo transatlantic flight in his single-engine plane, the Spirit of St. Louis. It was a flight that captivated an envious Hughes, who eagerly sought details of the journey. He realized that one person could make a mark in aviation if he planned a unique flight and had the finances to support such a venture. Unlike Lindbergh, who needed money from businessmen in St. Louis to build his aircraft, Hughes could go it alone. Hughes coveted the kind of attention and acclaim that Lindbergh received.
Because he had become a pilot before Hughes, Lindbergh also had a lower pilot's license number (69). Hughes badgered the Department of Commerce to give him a lower number and finally got 80, which he kept for the rest of his flying years.
During the next year Hughes flew a variety of aircraft, qualifying for a transport pilot's license on October 24, 1928. He qualified for additional ratings to his transport license as he gained more flying experience. He added the rating 1,000 to 3,500 pound aircraft, single-engine land on April 4, 1930; 3,500 to 7,000 pound, single-engine land on July 14, 1932; and 7,000 pound and over, multiengine land and sea on May 11, 1933.
Shortly after Hughes received his private pilot's license in 1927, he set out to make a film based on the subject that was now dear to his heart: aviation. The script for Hell's Angels (a movie not about motorcyclists but pilots) came from a collaboration between Hughes and two screenwriters. It told the story of two young British pilots competing for the affection of an English society girl (Jean Harlow in her first screen role). Written, directed, and produced by Hughes, Hell's Angels was his attempt to create the greatest motion picture ever made. Hughes spent $563,000 to buy and recondition eighty-seven fighters and bombers and another $400,000 to rent or build airfields in the Los Angeles area. For one scene he needed a Zeppelin to burn, so he made a studio model. He needed an army to fight a ground battle, so he hired seventeen hundred extras at two hundred dollars a week each.
Hughes's attention to detail was meticulous. If a scene called for a rainy night, he required the actors to be on call until it rained and then forced them to stay awake all night in the rain. As director, he would demand retake after retake of scenes, often because of his own errors.
But his attention to detail on the ground was nothing compared to that in the air. The aerial scenes, when filmed against a clear blue sky, made the planes look like they were standing still. Hughes wanted dynamic motion, an effect that could only be highlighted by filming against puffy clouds. He quickly learned that you couldn't buy clouds. He began to rise early, or stay up all night, to watch for an upportune dawn. When the sun rose over Southern California, forty or more of his airplanes took off and looked for cloudy skies. If clouds were predicted miles away, Hughes, the pilots, and the fleet of planes would fly out, hoping to find the perfect backdrop. And some days everyone got paid to stand around and wait.
During the filming, Hughes wanted to shoot a special stunt with a Thomas Morse Scout. The aircraft was built in San Diego and had flown in the latter part of World War I. An unusual plane, the Scout was powered by a rotary engine that was attached to and revolved with the propeller. On takeoff the plane developed a strong gyroscopic effect when the tail was lifted because of the rotation of the huge mass of engine metal. This reaction caused the aircraft to veer off course, so its pilot would need to apply a large amount of rudder.
Hughes's flying instructor, J. B. Alexander, rounded up five Thomas Morse Scouts for the movie. Hughes wanted to film a scene in which the planes swooped past the camera at a very low altitude and maneuvered within camera range. The script called for the pilot to bank and turn as soon as he became airborne. The stunt fliers on Hell's Angels, the best pilots in the country, refused to attempt such a difficult feat. They told Hughes it couldn't be done and that anyone who tried it would crash. Hughes argued with them and insisted the maneuver could be performed. None of the experienced stunt pilots would fly, so Hughes decided to do it himself. No amount of persuasion could prevent him from attempting the stunt he wanted. According to photos showing wheel tracks made in soft ground, Hughes lost control of the Thomas Morse Scout on takeoff and didn't even get airborne. He crashed in a cloud of dust.
The entire company raced to the scene of the accident, and Hughes was pulled unconscious from the wreckage. An ambulance rushed him to nearby Inglewood Hospital. After four days, he was transferred to St. Vincent's Hospital in Los Angeles. Surgery was needed to repair his crushed face. When Hughes came back from the operating room, surgeons told Dietrich that the made an incision and then sewed him back up without doing any repair work. There was nothing they could do. His cheekbone was crushed so badly that there weren't any bones large enough to handle the insertion of pins or wires. Hughes would just have to live with an indentation in his cheekbone. His face was never the same again, and the injury gave him considerable pain in later years. The Thomas Morse Scout crash was the first of many airplane accidents that Hughes experienced.
The production of Hell's Angels seemed to be drawing to a close when Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer. Singer brought an audible revolution to Hollywood. Sound was becoming the standard by which pictures were judged, and Hughes's film lacked just that one thing: sound. His silent film was edited, fitted with titles, and given an unannounced preview in a small Los Angeles theater. The response from the audience was clear: the two-million-dollar silent picture was not good enough. Hughes refused to give up on it and set to work on Hell's Angels anew.
The flight scenes were easy enough to fix-the sound could be dubbed in-but the scenes in which the actors were to speak would have to be shot all over again. The first task was to write a new screenplay. In a silent picture actors could get away with mouthing their words, but in a talking picture they would have to make sense.
Production continued for a couple years, until May 1930. Hughes had shot three million feet of film (1 percent of which was used in the final production) and spent almost $4 million, including $754,000 for salaries, $524,000 for sets and costumes, and $1 million for aircraft and locations. The film opened to pandemonium in Los Angeles. Despite terrible reviews, the public went wild for Hell's Angels. It set box office records in every theater it played in, and it continued to appear on screens throughout the world for over twenty years. And in the end, it brought in just over $8 million, roughly twice Hughes's investment.
A few months after Hell's Angels was released to the public, Hughes placed an order for a Boeing 100A (XZ47K) with the company in Seattle, Washington. It was a two-seat, open cockpit biplane, a civilian counterpart of the Army's P-12B and the Navy's F-4B. In September 1930, Hughes hired Jim Petty to maintain his plane. Petty was the first aviation person Hughes hired.
By 1931 Hughes wanted more performance out of his Boeing 100A. He took it to Lockheed at the Union Air Terminal in Burbank, California, for modification. The alterations, which were overseen by Richard "Dick" Palmer, were extensive: streamlining the cowling and fuselage, adding wheel covers to the landing gear tires, and placing fairing all over the aircraft. The plane received every conceivable aerodynamic improvement, including a souped-up Pratt & Whitney 450-hp engine. The modified aircraft was much faster. Hughes would fly it out to March Field at present-day March Air Force Base, east of Los Angeles, and outrun some of the U.S. Army pilots in their standard P-12Bs. Hughes became addicted to speed, and the seed was planted for future attempts at aerial speed records.
Although it was fortunate for Hughes that the Boeing 100A flew fast, it was also fortunate that he had met Dick Palmer. Palmer had bachelors' degrees in physics and engineering from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), a master's degree from the University of Minnesota, and had worked with Douglas, Fokker, and the Aircraft Development Corporation as an engineer. At thirty-one, he was quiet, polite, and unassuming. He was also dynamic, sharp, and ready to try for the top. Unknown to Palmer, Hughes had plans for the brilliant young engineer.
In addition to racing Hughes also wanted to take an extended
tour in an amphibious plane. By this time Hughes and his wife Ella