The object at hand is silver and imperially slim, a fast and famous airplane. And not merely fast and famous either, but probably the most beautiful airplane ever built. Its wings fair into the fuselage with such a smooth and gracious curve that you can almost feel the air just sliding by with no friction.
It is the Hughes 1-B racer, better known as the H-1, which is on view these days in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. In 1935, it set the world record for landplanes—at the then astonishing speed of 352.388 miles per hour. Sixteen months later, it flew nonstop from Burbank, California, to New Jersey's Newark Airport in 7 hours 28 minutes.
As sleek and gleaming as Brancusi's famous Bird in Space, the H-1 may represent a pure marriage of form and function. But like many valuable and worldly objects, it was a product of money and ambition. The man who both flew it to fame and was responsible for its creation was Howard Hughes. In those innocent, far-off times Hughes was what was known as a "young sportsman." Born in 1905, he had, at 30, already taken over his father's tool company, made millions of dollars, sashayed around with a veritable Milky Way of movie starlets, and produced and directed Hell's Angels, the classic film of aerial death and dogfightery in World War I.
Hughes was a man with a lifelong penchant for films, fast planes and beautiful women. Few begrudged him these preoccupations, even when his production of The Outlaw showed a good deal more of Jane Russell's facade than was then thought proper. But his private phobias about germs and secrecy were something else again. To recent generations he is mainly known as the pitiful, paranoid billionaire he became, a terminally ill, grotesque recluse who tried to control vast holdings from beleaguered rooftop quarters in places like Las Vegas and Jamaica.
He had a world-class gift for taking umbrage—and for giving it. But in the air-minded 1930s, Hughes, who was Hollywood-handsome, rich as Croesus and a gifted dabbler in aeronautical engineering, was deservedly some kind of hero. He was brave, even foolhardy. His H-1 not only smashed records but broke new ground in aircraft design. He went on to pilot a standard, twin-ruddered and twin-engined Lockheed 14 around the world in a little more than 91 hours. It was not only a world record but a pioneer flight that paved the way for the infant commercial airline services, one of which, TWA, he later owned and ran.
From the moment Hughes decided to make Hell's Angels he became a passionate flier. During the actual filming, when his hired stunt pilots refused to try a chancy maneuver for the cameras, Hughes did it himself, crash-landing in the process. He celebrated his 31st birthday by practicing touch-and-go landings in a Douglas DC-2. He also kept acquiring all sorts of aircraft to practice with and every one he got he wanted to redesign in some way. "Howard," a friend finally told him, "you'll never be satisfied until you build your own." The H-1 racer was the result. In the early '30s Hughes had hired an ace aeronautical engineer named Richard Palmer and a skilled mechanic and production chief, Glenn Odekirk. In 1934 they set to work in a shed in Glendale, California. Hughes' aim was not only "to build the fastest plane in the world" but to produce something that might recommend itself to the Army Air Corps as a fast pursuit plane.
It was the right moment. The threat of World War II loomed in Spain and China; every year at the Thompson Trophy races in Cleveland, the country cheered the record-breaking exploits of hot little planes flown by the likes of Jimmy Doolittle and Roscoe Turner. Speed records had increased at a rate of about 15 mph a year since 1906, when Brazilian pilot Alberto Santos-Dumont set the first record, in France, at 25.66 mph. A few planes were of bizarre design, like the Gee Bee Sportster, which resembled a fireplug with cupid wings. Some had outsize radial engines (with cylinders set like spokes on a wheel). Others were pointy-nosed, like France's black Caudron racer with its sleek in-line engine. A Caudron set the 1934 speed record at 314.319 mph.
In-line engines were more streamlined; radial engines ran cooler and gave less mechanical trouble. Hughes chose a Twin Wasp Junior by Pratt & Whitney, which could produce 900 hp if properly fed on 100-octane gas. It was a radial but small (only 43 inches in diameter), housed in a long, bell-shaped cowling to cut down drag.
In building the H-1, cutting down drag became a cause celebre. Its plywood-covered wings were short (with a span of only 24 feet 5 inches) and had been sanded and doped until they looked like glass. The thousands of rivets used on the surface of its aluminum monocoque fuselage were all countersunk, their heads partly sheered off and then burnished and polished to make a perfectly smooth skin. Every screw used on the plane's surface was tightened so that the slot was exactly in line with the airstream. The racer's landing gear, the first ever to be raised and lowered by hydraulic pressure rather than cranked by hand, folded up into slots in the wings so exactly that even the outlines could scarcely be seen.
Sometimes, Hughes would be intimately involved with the work. Sometimes, he'd be off, buying or renting new planes to practice with, acquiring a huge yacht (which he practically never used), dating movie stars like Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers. By August 10, 1935, the H-1 was finished. On the 17th, Hughes flew the dream plane for 15 minutes and landed. "She flies fine," he growled to Odekirk. "Prop's not working though. Fix it." He scheduled the official speed trial at Santa Ana down in Orange County for Thursday the 12th of September.
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.