Howard Hughes: Biography, Quotes & Plane Crash

Instructor: Matthew Hill

Matthew Hill received Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies and Psychology from Columbia International University. Hill also received an M.A. and Ph.D. in History from Georgia State University. He has over 10 years of teaching experience as a professor and online instructor for courses like American History, Western Civilization, Religious History of the United States, and more.

Howard Hughes was a billionaire who built his reputation in Hollywood and the aviation business. He lived life in the fast lane, but became withdrawn and reclusive late in his life.

Origins of a Billionaire

Howard Hughes was a billionaire tycoon who had boundless energy and yet lived much of his later life in the shadows. He was born in December 1905 in Houston, Texas, the only child of Howard and Alene Hughes. His family was wealthy because of his father's patent on manufacturing oil drills. Hughes showed mechanical promise in his youth, inventing both a radio transmitter and a motor for his bicycle. He attended the California Institute of Technology and later Rice Institute of Technology.

Both his parents died in his youth, and at only 18 years of age, the young Hughes inherited his father's business - Hughes Tool Company. Although young and orphaned, he had a promising financial start. Hughes continued in the family business but he used his fortune to toy with other industries. Hughes earned a reputation as a tough businessman, once humorously stating: 'We don't have a monopoly. Anyone who wants to dig a well without a Hughes bit can always use a pick and shovel.'

Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes

Hughes Goes Hollywood

In 1927, Hughes married Ella Rice, the first of three wives, and they relocated to Los Angeles where he tapped into the motion picture industry. He produced or directed such films as The Racket (1928), Hell's Angels (1930), Scarface (1932), and The Outlaw (1941; 1943), and is credited with discovering such actors as Jean Harlow, Jane Russell, and Paul Muni. The latter film, The Outlaw, was not released for two years after filming was completed due to a censorship battle. The story is about Billy the Kid, but many felt the violence was too gratuitous and that Jane Russell's character, Rio McDonald, was too sensuous a character! Hughes' film then provides a window into the earlier standards of Hollywood film ratings.

Hughes Tool Company
Hughes Tool Company

Hughes as an Aviator

Hughes became an avid aviator and he founded the Hughes Aircraft Company in 1932. Many of his designs were experimental and designed to set records. In September 1935, he set the land speed record of 352 miles per hour in his H-1 Racer aircraft. In January 1938, he flew around the world in a record time of 91 hours. In the same age of Charles Lindberg and Amelia Earhart, and Eddie Rickenbacker, Hughes was in elite company. Upon his return to New York City, he was treated to a ticker-tape parade and awarded the Harmon Trophy aviation award for the second time.

The Racket Movie Poster
The Racket Movie Poster

The Spruce Goose

Hughes had built quite a reputation, and during the Second World War, he was awarded military contracts for his planes. One of the most notorious new designs, although commercially unsuccessful, was the Hughes H-2 Hercules. This monster boasted 8 engines, carried 750 passengers, made of birch wood, and designed to land on water. Its purpose was to haul soldiers across the ocean on transatlantic flights during the war, but it was not ready in time, and it only flew once, in 1947, before being discontinued. As Hughes put it himself: 'The Hercules was a monumental undertaking…I put the sweat of my life into this thing.' The press found the design humorous though, and famously called it the Spruce Goose because it was made of wood and landed on water.

Hughes expanded his interest in aviation by becoming the majority shareholder in TWA Airlines. Although he was later ousted due to antitrust suits, during his tenure he introduced an improved retractable brake design for airplanes to prevent drag, and also the popular Lockheed 049 Constellation.

Hughes' Near-Fatal Crash

In 1946, Hughes was severely injured in a plane crash while piloting an experimental photographic reconnaissance plane for the military called the Hughes XF-11. He crashed just outside Los Angeles, and fortunately for him, the actor Dennis O'Keefe, witnessed the crash from his home, and called the fire department. Hughes suffered multiple injuries and it was questionable whether he would live. Remarkably he pulled through, but he was given large amounts of morphine for his pain, and many believe this partly explains his later pharmaceutical addictions. Although he recovered physically, this crash seemed to wear on him mentally.

The Spruce Goose
The Spruce Goose

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What was the famous nickname of the Hughes H-4 Hercules that Hughes built during the Second World War?

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