WESTCHESTER PIONEER SERIES HOWARD HUGHES

By: Cozette Vergari

Born in 1905 in Texas, Howard Robard Hughes Jr., now famously remembered as Howard Hughes, brought both aviation and film making to Westchester. Hughes was a business mogul, record-setting pilot, film maker and one of the most financially successful individuals in the world during his lifetime.

Very early on, Hughes demonstrated a talent for engineering. At age 11, Hughes built Houston’s first “wireless” radio transmitter. In 1917, at age 12, he built himself a motorized bicycle, which he constructed with old parts from his father’s steam engine. He took his first flying lesson at  age14. After high school, he was accepted at Cal Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. By the time he was 19, he had lost both parents and made the decision to quit school to take over his fathers’ business, Hughes Tool Company, moving back to Houston, Texas in 1924.

Two years later, in 1926, having had acquired a taste for Hollywood and film making while attending Cal Tech, Hughes could not resist returning to Hollywood to pursue his desire to become a film maker. The  Texas Hughes Tool Company supported his Hollywood journey, where he became known for directing and producing films that ran over budget and resisted the envelope of censorship. Hughes produced numerous films as Hollywood was moving from silent film to talkies. Some of his most notable films include silent film Two Arabian Knights released in 1927 and Hell’s Angels released in 1930 starring Jean Harlow. Transitioning during production from silent film to sound, Hell’s Angeles was nominated and won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, as the stunning aerial sequences were, and still are, considered groundbreaking cinematography. Scarface in1932, followed by Outlaw in 1943, brought him enormous wealth and celebrity. Although Hughes never directed another film, he continued to work as a producer, and in 1948, he bought a controlling interest in RKO Pictures  He remained chairman of the board of RKO until 1957, when he left the film industry.

While making films, Hughes was also innovatively involved in pushing the envelope in aviation.  In 1932, he founded the Hughes Aircraft Company, as a division of Hughes Tool Company, which he later moved to the Westchester area of Los Angeles, hiring numerous engineers and designers, while acquiring 1200 acres just beneath and including the Westchester bluffs. On September 12, 1935, in an airplane of his own design, he established the world’s landplane speed record of 352.46 miles (567.23 km) per hour. On January 19, 1937, in the same craft, he averaged 332 miles per hour in lowering the transcontinental flight-time record to 7 hours 28 minutes from Los Angeles to Newark NJ. Flying a Lockheed 14, he circled Earth in a record 91 hours 14 minutes in July of 1938.

In 1939, Hughes bought a share of Trans World Airlines (TWA), by 1944 becoming the majority shareholder and greatly expanding the scope of TWA. That same year, Hughes Tool Co. purchased the first six Boeing 307 Stratoliners, using one personally, and leaving TWA to operate the other five.  Hughes is commonly credited as the driving force behind the Lockheed Constellation airliner, which Hughes ordered in 1939, as a long-range replacement for TWA’s fleet of Stratoliners. Hughes personally financed TWA’s acquisition of 40 Constellations for $18 million dollars, the largest aircraft-order in history up to that time. The Constellations were among the highest-performing commercial aircraft of the late 1940s and 1950s, and allowed TWA to pioneer nonstop transcontinental service. During World War II Hughes leveraged political connections in Washington to obtain rights for TWA to serve Europe, making it the only U.S. carrier with a combination of domestic and transatlantic routes. The 1966 sale of his TWA shares brought Hughes $546,549,771.

During World War II, Hughes’s focus centered around military aircraft. He fashioned his company into a major defense-contractor. The Hughes Helicopter division started in 1947 when  Hughes Aircraft became a major American aerospace and defense contractor, manufacturing numerous technology-related products that included spacecraft vehicles, military aircraft, radar systems, electro-optical systems, the first working laser, aircraft computer systems, missile systems, ion-propulsion engines (for space travel), commercial satellites, and other electronics systems. In 1948 Hughes created a new division of Hughes Aircraft, the Hughes Aerospace Group, from which the Hughes Space and Communications Group and the Hughes Space Systems Division were soon spun off to form their own divisions and ultimately became the Hughes Space and Communications Company in 1961. By the time he sold Hughes Tool Company in 1972, it had become a multibillion-dollar venture.

In 1943, Hughes constructed the hanger in which he planned to build the Hughes H-4 Hercules, a.k.a. Spruce Goose. The area included an airstrip and helicopter landing pad, which could easily be seen from the cliffs of Westchester, later giving rise to some of the Playa Vista street names. The hanger was later used as a film and sound stage for several years. It still stands today at 16 S. Campus Center Dr,. having most recently been acquired by Google, as the “Google Spruce Goose Office.” It is still visible from the cliffs of Westchester. You are encouraged to google the site, to view Google’s fabulous use and renovation of the interior of this famous hanger, while still capturing and saving it’s history and original structural engineering.

The Hughes Aircraft Company was a major American aerospace and defense contractor, creating and bringing thousands of jobs to the Westchester community. The company not only produced, the Hughes H-4 Hercules Spruce Goose aircraft, completed in 1947 as the largest flying boat in history and having the longest  wingspan of any aircraft from the time it was built until 2019, but also produced the atmospheric entry probe carried by the Galileo spacecraft, the AIM-4 Falcon guided missile, and a long list of other products, including the H-1 Racer. His H-1 Racer was donatedto the Smithsonian Institution.

Hughes was awarded, among numerous accolades, both the Collier and Harmon trophies for his achievements in aviation throughout the 1930s. In 1939, Hughes received a special Congressional Gold Medal from President Roosevelt “in recognition of the achievements of Howard Hughes in advancing the science of aviation and thus bringing great credit to his country throughout the world.” He was later inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1973. In 2013, Hughes was included in Flying magazine’s list of the 51 Heroes of Aviation, ranked at No. 25. Today, his legacy is maintained through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Howard Hughes Corporation. During his illustrious career, Hughes survived four airplane accidents, but suffered complications from his injuries until his passing in 1976 in Houston, TX.

Spruce Goose
The Spruce Goose.
SDASM Archives
Hughes on the cover of Time magazine, July 1948 (with the Hughes H-4 Hercules in the background)
Hughes with his Boeing 100 in the 1940s
Hughes, Howard
Howard Hughes.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-USZ62-63333)
Lockheed Constellation in TWA livery

                                             

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