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Howard Hughes

A silver speedster from the 1930s evokes the golden age of flight, a pair of world-class speed records and the early triumphs of Howard Hughes' ultimately tragic life

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Speed trials, under the aegis of the International Aeronautical Federation (FAI) in Paris, measured the best of four electrically timed passes over a three-kilometer course at no more than 200 feet above sea level. The contestant was allowed to dive into each pass, but from no higher than 1,000 feet. And for a record to be set, the plane had to land afterward with no serious damage.

Darkness fell on the 12th before an official trial could be recorded. On Friday the 13th, no less a figure than Amelia Earhart turned up, officially flying cover at 1,000 feet to be sure Hughes stayed within the rules. Watched by a flock of experts on the ground, the H-1 took off, flew back over beet and bean and strawberry fields, dove to 200 feet and made its runs.

To reduce weight the plane carried enough gas for five or six runs, but instead of landing, Hughes tried for a seventh. Starved for fuel, the engine cut out. The crowd watched in stunned silence under a suddenly silent sky. With stubby wings and high wing-loading (the ratio between a plane's lifting surfaces and its weight), the H-1 was not highly maneuverable even with power. Characteristically cool, Hughes coaxed the plane into position over a beet field and eased in for a skillful, wheels-up belly landing. Though the prop blades got folded back over the cowling like the ends of a necktie in a howling wind, the fuselage was only slightly scraped. The record stood. At 352.388 mph the H-1 had left the Caudron's record in the dust. "It's beautiful," Hughes told Palmer. "I don't see why we can't use it all the way."

"All the way" meant nonstop across America. The H-1 had cost Hughes $105,000 so far. Now it would cost $40,000 more. Palmer and Odekirk set to work, designing a longer set of wings-for more lift. They installed navigational equipment, oxygen for high-altitude flying, new fuel tanks in the wings to increase capacity to 280 gallons. Hughes practiced cross-country navigation and bad-weather flying, buying a succession of planes and renting a Northrop Gamma from the famous air racer Jacqueline Cochrane.

By late December 1936, the H-1 was ready again. Hughes tried it out for a few hours at a time, checking his fuel consumption after each flight. On January 18, 1937, after only 1 hour 25 minutes in the air, he landed, and he and Odekirk stood beside the ship, making calculations. Their figures tallied. "At that rate," said Hughes, "I can make New York. Check her over and make the arrangements. I'm leaving tonight." Odekirk objected. So did Palmer, by phone from New York. The plane had no night-flight instruments. But there was nothing to be done. "You know Howard," Odekirk shrugged.

That night Hughes did not bother with sleep. Instead he took a date to dinner, dropped her off at home after midnight, caught a cab to the airport, checked the weather reports over the Great Plains, climbed into a flight suit and took off. The hour was 2:14 a.m., a time when he was accustomed to doing some of his best "thinking." He rocketed eastward at 15,000 feet and above, using oxygen, riding the airstream at speeds faster than the sprints done that year by the Thompson Trophy racers at Cleveland. The tiny silver pencil of a plane touched down at Newark at 12:42 p.m., just in time for lunch. It had taken 7 hours 28 minutes 25 seconds, at an average speed of 327.1 mph. That record stood until 1946, to be broken by stunt pilot Paul Mantz in a souped-up World War II P-51 Mustang.

Hughes went on to live an extraordinary and ultimately tragic life, one that made a different sort of headline. He founded a great electronics company and gave millions to medical research. During World War II he designed the Spruce Goose, a huge plywood flying boat that was derided in part because when it was ready, the country no longer needed it. And he died wretched.

After landing in Newark, the H-1 simply sat for nearly a year and was finally flown back to California by someone else. Hughes eventually sold it, then bought it back. But he never flew the H-1 again. He was proud of it, though. He noted several times that its success had encouraged the development of the great radial-engine fighters of World War II-America's P-47 Thunderbolt and Grumman Hellcat, Germany's Focke-Wulf FW 190 and Japan's Mitsubishi Zero. When, in 1975, shortly before his death, he gave the H-1 to the Smithsonian, the plane had been flown for only 40.5 hours, less than half of that by Howard Hughes.

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