Before there was Paul Allen, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, or the Dot Com Millionaires, there was Howard Hughes.
Hughes was not quite a self-made millionaire: his father had developed a special bit for the Texas Oil industry and made a strong fortune by leasing rather than selling the bits to drillers. When Howard Hughes Sr. passed away in 1924, Howard Jr was the sole heir to the Hughes Tool Company. Becoming an Emancipated Minor a year later, Howard Hughes would increase that fortune until he was the wealthiest man in the world.
Hughes showed a great mechanical aptitude from an early age, building the first radio transmitted in Houston at the age of 11. He was fascinated by aviation and became one of aviation's most colorful and successful characters.
In 1925, he moved to Hollywood to make a name for himself in the movie industry. He produced and directed several successful projects, as well as several miserable and embarrassing failures. The Hollywood years are noted for his being awarded the first Academy Award for director of a Comedy, Two Arabian Knights (1928) the flying epic, Hell's Angels (1930) and his liberal use of Jane Russell's assets in The Outlaw (1943) and The French Line (1954).
Aviation would be Hughes great love, and where he would make his greatest contributions. He developed some extremely radical concepts in aviation, often at considerable personal and financial risk. He survived a number of potentially fatal wrecks while testing aircraft, held several aviation records, and helped to develop airline travel for the general public. Two of his developments, which were made in support of the military, the XF-11 and the H-4 "Spruce Goose", were never truly successful, and for that reason, landed him before the Senate War Investigating Committee in the hearings chronicled in this collection.
The XF-11 was a radically designed photoreconnaissance ship that was based on the earlier Hughes D-2 and the Lockheed Lightning. All these aircraft were designed for exceptional speed, and featured a twin-boom construction in contrast to the normal single fuselage. The XF-11 crashed during testing with Hughes at the controls, and the program ever recovered.
The H-4 flying boat had been the brain child of Liberty Ship builder Henry Kaiser. Kaiser lacked the technical expertise to build a large cargo carrying aircraft that would cross oceans while avoiding U-boats, so he turned the idea over to his friend Howard Hughes. The War Department helped to fund the project, although the largest portion of the funding came from Hughes' own fortune. There were many technical issue that had to be dealt with beyond the sheer size of the aircraft. Most notably, because of wartime material shortages, the aircraft had to be constructed with as little metal as possible. Thus it was built of birch plywood and an early plastic composite, earning the nick name the "Spruce Goose". Before development was completed, the war had ended, and interest on the part of the government had waned.
In 1947, the Senate War Investigation Committee, led by Maine Senator Owen Brewster. The committee alleged that government funds had been misused in both the XF-11 and Spruce Goose Projects, siting the fact that neither project had resulted in a single aircraft delivered to the Air Force. Hughes maintained that there had been no wrong doing, and that Senator Brewster had taken contributions from Juan Tripp, President of Pan Am, a major competitor of Hughes' TWA. Although the hearings featuring Hughes' testimony electrified the nation, the committee disbanded without making a report.
On Nov 2, 1947, while conducting taxi tests in Los Angeles Harbor with Hughes at the control, the H-4 increased speed on the last test of the day, and became airborne for a little more than a mile.
The aircraft never flew again.