- Tom Akery
- Famous People of Aviation
The mind of Howard Hughes appears to have fit right on the fine line between genius and insanity. A man of grandiose plans, Hughes managed to achieve many seemingly unattainable goals partially as a result of inheriting a massive fortune at the age of 18. He left for Hollywood where he started making movies and fell in love with flying. As a 28-year-old, Hughes started Hughes Aircraft Company and produced the H-1 Racer, arguably one of the most beautiful airplanes ever built. In 1938 Hughes broke the current speed record with the H-1 at 352 mph. He also flew the H-1 from Burbank, California, to New York in 7 hours and 28 seconds, breaking his previous record, set in a Northrop Gamma, by nearly two hours. As a majority shareholder in TWA Airlines, Hughes commissioned the Lockheed 049 Constellation, which became a huge success. But not all of Hughes’ dreams became victories. His massive HK-1, popularly known as the “Spruce Goose,” was an eight-engine seaplane constructed primarily of wood that was designed to carry up to 750 troops overseas. It was not completed until after the war and Hughes was accused of war profiteering. In the end the “Spruce Goose” did fly, but it became most successful as a tourist attraction after Hughes’ death.
The Hughes D-2 was conceived in 1939 as a bomber with five crew members, powered by 42-cylinder Wright R-2160 Tornado engines. In the end it appeared as two-seat fighter-reconnaissance aircraft designated the D-2A, powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-2800-49 engines. The aircraft was constructed using the Duramold process. The prototype was brought to Harper's Dry Lake California in great secrecy in 1943 and first flew on June 20 of that year. Acting on a recommendation of the president's son, Colonel Elliott Roosevelt, who had become friends with Hughes, in September 1943 the USAAF ordered 100 of a reconnaissance development of the D-2, known as the F-11. Hughes then attempted to get the military to pay for the development of the D-2. In November 1944, the hangar containing the D-2A was reportedly hit by lightning and the aircraft was destroyed. The D-2 design was abandoned, but led to the extremely controversial Hughes XF-11. The XF-11 was a large all-metal, two-seat reconnaissance aircraft, powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-4360-31 engines, each driving a set of contra-rotating propellers. Only the two prototypes were completed; the second one with a single propeller per side.
Hughes was involved in a near-fatal aircraft accident on July 7, 1946, while performing the first flight of the prototype U.S. Army Air Forces reconnaissance aircraft, the XF-11, near Hughes airfield at Culver City, California. An oil leak caused one of the contra-rotating propellers to reverse pitch, causing the aircraft to yaw sharply and lose altitude rapidly. Hughes attempted to save the aircraft by landing it at the Los Angeles Country Club golf course, but just seconds before reaching the course, the XF-11 started to drop dramatically and crashed in the Beverly Hills neighborhood surrounding the country club. When the XF-11 finally came to a halt after destroying three houses, the fuel tanks exploded, setting fire to the aircraft and a nearby home at 808 North Whittier Drive, owned by Lt Col. Charles E. Meyer. Hughes managed to pull himself out of the flaming wreckage but lay beside the aircraft until he was rescued by Marine Master Sgt. William L. Durkin, who happened to be in the area visiting friends. Hughes sustained significant injuries in the crash, including a crushed collar bone, multiple cracked ribs, crushed chest with collapsed left lung, shifting his heart to the right side of the chest cavity, and numerous third-degree burns. An oft-told story said that Hughes sent a check to the Marine weekly for the remainder of his life as a sign of gratitude. However, Durkin's daughter denied knowing that he received any money from his rescue of Hughes. Yet, Noah Dietrich asserts that Hughes did send Durkin $200 a month. Despite his physical injuries, Hughes was proud that his mind was still working. As he lay in his hospital bed, he decided that he did not like the bed's design. He called in plant engineers to design a customized bed, equipped with hot and cold running water, built in six sections, and operated by 30 electric motors, with push-button adjustments. The hospital bed was designed by Hughes specifically to alleviate the pain caused by moving with severe burn injuries. Although he never used the bed that he designed, Hughes' bed served as a prototype for the modern hospital bed.Hughes' doctors considered his recovery almost miraculous.