Hughes Aircraft

Howard Hughes, a unique American, created a group of companies that built airplanes, helicopters, missiles, and satellites; designed radar systems; and provided weaponry and communications equipment. He also was heavily involved in the airline industry and owned TWA for some time. Born in Texas in 1905, Hughes learned to fly when he was 14 and quickly became a skilled pilot. Over the next quarter century, he set several speed and distance records. He also made movies, courted Hollywood leading ladies, and founded a medical research centre. Hughes valued his privacy and become a recluse in his later life.

Hughes inherited his father's machine tool company in 1923, which became known as Toolco. In the early 1930s, he established Hughes Aircraft Company as a division of Toolco. His first design was the H-1 racer, which he piloted to several speed records in the mid-1930s. The plane was designed for speed and its innovative features stabilized the airflow, reduced drag, and prevented dangerous movements of the aircraft. Between its retractable landing gear, flush rivets and joints, and fully enclosed cockpit, the plane was an outstanding example of streamlining.

In 1939, Hughes became the principal stockholder of TWA (then Transcontinental & Western Air, Inc.). He had a hand in the design and financing of both the Boeing Stratoliner and the Lockheed L-049 Constellation, which he acquired for TWA. When the Constellation was ready for its test flight in 1944, Hughes dressed the plane in TWA's signature red and flew it non-stop cross country in under seven hours, breaking his own 1937 transcontinental speed record. Although regular flights would not be non-stop, the Constellation marked an advance in regularly scheduled cross-country passenger service, cutting about eight hours off the trip.

Hughes' most famous aircraft was an oversized wooden seaplane nicknamed the "Spruce Goose." The idea for a fleet of such planes was conceived in 1942 by shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser, whose Liberty ships had become targets for German U-boats. Kaiser felt that a fleet of large plywood flying boats could assume the wartime role of the Liberty ships. President Franklin Roosevelt was intrigued by the idea and first proposed that Donald Douglas build the flying boats. Douglas felt the idea was impractical and technically difficult and declined. But Kaiser persisted and persuaded Howard Hughes to partner with him. Kaiser, who could build ships very quickly, thought such a plane could be built in 10 months—much faster than the usual time needed for aircraft. The two got $18 million of Reconstruction Finance Corporation funding for a prototype plane. But when a year passed and the plane was still in the design stage, Kaiser lost interest and withdrew from the project.

Hughes continued by himself. Completed in 1947, the H-4 Hercules flew only once, on November 2. It climbed to 70 feet (21 meters) and was airborne for about a minute, travelling for one mile (1.6 meters) at a top speed of 80 miles per hour (129 kilometres per hour). The Spruce Goose is still the largest plane ever built. It has an overall length of 218 feet 6 inches (67 meters), a wingspan of 320 feet (98 meters), and a height of 79 feet inches (24 meters). Its propellers are 17 feet 2 inches (5 meters) in diameter, and it can hold 14,000 gallons (52,996 litres) of fuel.

In the meantime, Hughes had run afoul of the U.S. Senate. By the summer of 1947, certain politicians had become concerned about Hughes' mismanagement of the Spruce Goose and the XF-11 photoreconnaissance plane project, another Hughes undertaking. They formed a special Senate committee to investigate Hughes Aircraft. But when Hughes successfully built and tested both planes and then turned them over to the military, they no longer had a target to attack. Despite a highly critical committee report, Hughes and his company were cleared.

During the Second World War, Hughes Aircraft grew from a four-person operation into an 80,000-employee giant. Hughes created Hughes Electronics as a division of Hughes Aircraft, and the new division became the single largest supplier of weapons systems to the U.S. Air Force and Navy. In early 1948, Hughes Aircraft hired two very promising engineers—Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge—who had a concept for a cutting edge electronic weapons control system. This system consisted of a type of radar and computer package that helped pilots locate and destroy enemy planes at any time in any weather. Hughes Aircraft subsequently became hugely profitable in the early 1950s.

Around the same time, Hughes also built the F-98 Falcon (later designated GAR—Guided Air Rocket), an unpiloted interceptor missile that could approach speeds of Mach 2. It also built the AIM-4F Super Falcon, which became operational in 1955. It was the first air-to-air guided weapon to enter service with the U.S. Air Force.

In the late 1940s, Hughes developed an interest in helicopters. In August 1947, helicopter manufacturer Kellett sold his design for the giant XH-17 Sky Crane to Hughes. It first flew in October 1952, but was unsuccessful. The company formed a new helicopter division in 1955 called Toolco Aircraft Division that began developing light military helicopters. In 1956, the division tested the two-seat Model 269A helicopter and developed the civil Model 300, the bubble-enclosed helicopter that was marketed to television crews, police departments, and various private operators. The division went on to win the contract for the OH-6 Cayuse helicopter in May 1965 by shrewdly undercutting its competitors' bids. Unbeknownst to the military, Hughes' plan was to build the helicopters at a significant loss, become the Army's sole supplier of observation helicopters, and then triple the price for each later aircraft. The ploy, however, was unsuccessful, and although Hughes delivered 1,434 helicopters to the Army by August 1970, the company lost millions of dollars.

In 1953, Hughes established the Howard Hughes Medical Institute as a charitable foundation for medical research and most likely as a way to reduce the amount of taxes he had to pay. He formed a new Hughes Aircraft completely owned by the foundation and under Hughes' control.

Hughes formed the Hughes Space and Communications Company in 1961 as part of Hughes Aircraft from its earlier Space and Communications Group and the Hughes Space Systems Division. For the next 40 years, the space company dominated the satellite market. Hughes built the world's first synchronous communications satellite, Syncom, in 1963 and built nearly 40 percent of the satellites in service worldwide in 2000. It built the first geosynchronous satellite capable of meteorological observations, ATS-1, launched in 1966. The same year, the Hughes Surveyor 1 made the first fully controlled soft landing on the Moon. In 1984, it built the first Leasat satellite that would form a global military communications network. Hughes also built Pioneer Venus in 1978, which performed the first extensive radar mapping of that planet, and the Galileo probe that became the first spacecraft to penetrate Jupiter's atmosphere in the 1990s.

Howard Hughes died in 1976, but his company lived on. In 1976, Toolco Aircraft Division became Hughes Helicopters, which won the contract for the AH-64 Apache Army attack helicopter, perhaps its best-known helicopter. The company received the Collier Trophy for the Apache in 1983. The company reached a milestone of 6,000 Apache helicopters in December 1981. McDonnell Douglas acquired Hughes' helicopter business in 1984.

After Hughes' death, Hughes Aircraft remained a separate company until 1985, when General Motors bought it from the Medical Institute and merged it with DELCO Electronics, renaming it Hughes Electronics. Hughes Aircraft existed within Hughes Electronics. In August 1992, the aerospace company General Dynamics sold its Missile Systems business to Hughes Aircraft. In the fall of 1997, the Hughes Electronics defence operations merged with Raytheon, another aerospace company. Hughes Space and Communications continued building satellites until it was purchased by Boeing in 2000 and became Boeing Satellite Systems.

Howard Hughes was a daring aviator, an industrialist, moviemaker, and romantic. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, although most likely begun as a tax dodge, has become a major private sponsor of biomedical research. He has received many honours, including the Octave Chanute Award, the Collier Trophy, the Harmon Trophy twice, and a congressional medal for his 1938 round-the-world flight. Some have called him crazy, and his eccentricities continue to provide grist for gossip columnists, biographers, and the curious. But no one will deny that he was one of the most unique individuals of modern times.