DALLAS – Today in Aviation, the iconic American investor, record-setting pilot, engineer, and filmmaker Howard Hughes was born in 1905.
Hughes was always fascinated with airplanes. His first foray into aviation came in 1932 when he founded the Hughes Aircraft Company. He designed, built and flew his own aircraft, the Hughes H-1 Racer, breaking a world land speed record of 325.46 mph with the type in 1935.
Hughes set another record on July 14, 1938, when he flew around the world in 91 hours (three days, 19 hours, 17 minutes), over four days faster than Wiley Post’s previous record of 186 hours (seven days, 18 hours, 49 minutes) set in 1933 in a single-engine Lockheed Vega.
In 1942, Hughes was sponsored by the US government to build an aircraft that the aviator claimed would transport 750 passengers, the H-4.
The H-4 Hercules, or ‘Spruce Goose’ was the world’s largest flying boat -later surpassed by the Antonov An-225 Mriya in 1985, the largest airliner made from wood, and having the longest wingspan of any aircraft until 2019. The Hercules took to the skies for the first time on November 2, 1947, under the command of Hughes. The type would fly only once, covering just one mile (1.6 km) and flying just 70 feet (21 m) above the water.
From Aircraft to Airlines
Following the H-4 failure, Hughes began to pursue his investment in Trans World Airlines (TW), which he had been buying shares since 1939. By 1944 he had taken a controlling interest in the airline.
Hughes would be pivotal in the development of TWA’s fleet. One of his most notable credits is the Lockheed Constellation. Hughes would lead the development of the airliner and finance TWA’s order for 40 of the type, then the biggest aircraft order in history.
After management ousted Hughes from TWA in 1966, he purchased San Francisco-based Air West. He immediately renamed the carrier Hughes Air West (RW) before repainting the fleet of Boeing 727s and Douglas DC-9s in a garish yellow and blue color scheme. RW was acquired by Republic Airlines in 1980.
Hughes was awarded the Harmon Trophy twice (1936 and 1938), the Collier Trophy once (1938), and the Congressional Gold Medal once (1939) for his contributions to aviation throughout the 1930s. In 1973, he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and in 2013, he was placed No. 25 in Flying magazine’s list of the 51 Heroes of Aviation.