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Howard Hughes, Howard Hughes spruce goose
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Happy Birthday, Howard Hughes, Film Producer and Aviation Pioneer

December 24, 2010
by findingDulcinea Staff
Howard Hughes was a modern day renaissance man. He was a successful aviator, an engineer, an industrialist and a producer of Academy Award-winning films.

Howard Hughes’ Early Life

Howard Robard Hughes Jr. was born on Christmas Eve 1905 into an upper-class Texas family. As a youth, Hughes showed an interest in playing with mechanical objects. At age 14, while attending school near Boston, he was taken on a plane ride by his father, which sparked his fascination with aviation.

Hughes’ mother, with whom he was very close, died in 1922. He was taken to live with his father in Hollywood, where he spent a good deal of time with his uncle Rupert, a film writer. His father died in 1924, leaving much of the family fortune to Howard, who dropped out of school, got married and moved to Hollywood with his wife to make movies.

Hughes’ Film and Aviation Career

Hughes earned his pilot’s license while filming “Hell’s Angels,” a 1930 film about World War I pilots that cost an extravagant $3.8 million to complete.  In 1932, he started the Hughes Aircraft Company to build and fly airplanes.

Hughes set his first aviation record in 1934 by flying 185 mph. The following year, on Sept. 13, 1935, he set a new world record in his revolutionary H-1 Racer, averaging 352 mph before running out of gas and crashing, escaping unharmed.

Hughes set a record for the fastest transcontinental flight in 1936 when he flew from Los Angeles to Newark, N.J., in 9 hours, 27 minutes, 10 seconds. The following year, worried that his record may be broken, he bettered his own record by making the trip in 7 hours, 28 minutes and 25 seconds, averaging 332 miles an hour over the 2,490-mile journey. He set another record in 1938, when he flew around the world in 91 hours—four days faster than the previous record.

In 1938, Hughes began purchasing shares of TWA and eventually took control of the airline. He oversaw the construction of the Constellation airplane, which helped transform TWA into a powerful company.

During World War II, Hughes focused his time on building military aircraft and improving Trams World Airlines. After the war, in 1946, Hughes suffered a near-fatal crash while piloting an Air Force plane over Los Angeles, which led to an addition to painkillers.

Despite his numerous aviation successes, Hughes’ most famous aircraft was a spectacular failure. His H-4 Hercules, known derisively as the “Spruce Goose,” was a wooden flying ship designed to transport military supplies while flying high enough to avoid submarine attacks. With a 320-foot wingspan, the Spruce Goose flew just one time, but earned the distinction of being the largest fixed-wing aircraft ever flown.

Hughes was known for eccentric behavior, which began to negatively affect his business ventures and led to him losing control of TWA in 1960. In the 1960s, he grew increasingly paranoid.

“During that decade his mind, his health, and his appearance continued to deteriorate,” writes T.A. Heppenheimer in American Heritage. “He ate little; though more than six feet tall, he weighed less than 100 pounds. His hair rolled down his back, his beard trailed onto his chest, and his toenails were so long that they curled up.”

He died on April 5, 1976, of kidney failure.

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