Born to fly: A tribute to Howard Hughes

Bethany Montgomery, Editor-in-Chief


Born on Christmas Eve 1905, Howard Robard Hughes Jr., an influential business man, and film director, became known as one of the most financially successful philanthropists ever. The son of a wealthy oil manufacturer, Hughes showed great interest in engineering, mathematics, and aviation, both as a young boy and as a student at Caltech. At the age of 18, Hughes inherited his family’s fortune, following the death of both his parents in 1922 and 1924. During the ‘20s and ‘30s, he invested some of his fortune in the film industry, producing landmark films like “Hell’s Angels” in 1930, which feature some very expensive aerial flight scenes. His influence in the Hollywood sphere led him to produce several more films, and even date a few Hollywood starlets, including Katherine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, and Ava Gardner.

His most notable characteristic, however, was his passion for flying, as he incorporated his hobbies into film career, and business ventures. Hughes began his own airplane company in the early 1930s, where he not only flew the planes he produced, but also came up with his own innovative designs. The invention of retractable landing gear, common on most modern aircraft, is attributed Hughes. He also broke the landing speed airspeed record of 352 mph in 1935. In 1937, Hughes flew the same Hughes H-1 racer non-stop from Los Angeles to Newark, N.J., in less than seven and a half hours, breaking the transcontinental airspeed record. In 1938, Hughes also set the record for the fastest flight around the world, completing the venture in 91 hours. His most famous flight endeavor perhaps, was his giant wooden seaplane, the H4-Hercules, famously nicknamed the “Spruce Goose.” Though its lightweight design and open interior were meant to transport troops and other wartime essentials during WWII, Hughes only flew the plane once in 1947 before storing it in one of his hangars. The Spruce Goose is now on display for the public, moving from California to its current location at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Ore. In addition to his other airline ventures and investments, Hughes founded the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Miami for biomedical research.

During the 1940s, he bought RKO Studios, but never visited, often delayed production, and dismissed staff who disagreed with his political views. Though it cost hims nearly $24 million, Hughes sold the studio for $25 million, retaining the rights to all the films he produced and his reputation as a financial genius.

Hughes’ life, however, was not all glamour and glitz. Suspected to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, Hughes was often described as a recluse, obsessive, and eccentric. He often worked in the dark, ate only chocolate bars and chicken, and would collect and rearrange Kleenex boxes. He is also suspected to have suffered from allodynia, a condition that causes the person to be extremely sensitive to pain, which is probably why Hughes would often refuse to wear clothes at home, finding them to uncomfortable and restricting. He also constantly ran films in his home, and is said to have watched the movie “Ice Station Zebra” over 150 times. Although he developed bad hygiene, he claimed to be extremely sensitive to germs and imperfections in patterns and cleanliness, which is perhaps why he constantly touched everything using tissues and why he obsessively washed his hands.

That, combined with his high-risk behavior, eventually led to a plane crash in 1946 that nearly cost him his life. Following his escape from death, Hughes’ strange behaviors increased and he became even more withdrawn. It is also suspected that his pain sensitivity increased after being in so many plane crashes, leading to an increased use of cocaine. Hughes spent a good portion of the ‘60s secluded on the top floor of a hotel in Las Vegas, eventually buying the hotel when he was asked to leave. While in Vegas, Hughes became a major real estate investor, buying hotels, houses, and media outlets in the area, quickly making him one of the most powerful men in the city. Toward the end of his life, Hughes left his isolation and traveled abroad.

Hughes died on April 5, 1976 of liver failure. As portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2004 nominated film “The Aviator,” Hughes’ moody personality and “misunderstood genius” clearly makes him one of the most fascinating and successful individuals of the 20th century. His legacy lives on in the aviation and film industry to this day, making him the embodiment of the American Dream and an inspiration for entrepreneurs and dreamers alike.

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