12/24/1905: Aviator Howard Hughes is Born

From record breaking flights, to his pivotal development of TWA, Howard Hughes was one of the world's most iconic aviators.



December 24, 2023

DALLAS - Today in Aviation, the iconic American investor, record-setting pilot, engineer, and filmmaker Howard Hughes was born in 1905.

Hughes was always fascinated with airplanes. His first foray into aviation came in 1932, when he founded the Hughes Aircraft Company. He designed, built, and flew his aircraft, the Hughes H-1 Racer, breaking a world land speed record of 325.46 mph with the type in 1935.

Hughes set another record on July 14, 1938, when he flew around the world in 91 hours (three days, 19 hours, and 17 minutes), over four days faster than Wiley Post's previous record of 186 hours (seven days, 18 hours, and 49 minutes) set in 1933 in a single-engine Lockheed Vega.

In 1942, the US government sponsored Hughes to build an aircraft that the aviator claimed would transport 750 passengers, the H-4.

The H-4 Hercules, or 'Spruce Goose' was the world's largest flying boat, later surpassed by the Antonov An-225 Mriya in 1985, the largest airliner made from wood, and had the longest wingspan of any aircraft until 2019. The Hercules took to the skies for the first time on November 2, 1947, under the command of Hughes. The type would fly only once, covering just one mile (1.6 km) and flying just 70 feet (21 m) above the water.

Aviation hero, Mr Howard Hughes standing in front of his new Boeing Army Pursuit Plane" (Boeing 100A) in Inglewood, California in the 1940s. Photo: US Library of Congress.

From Aircraft to Airlines

Following the H-4 failure, Hughes began to pursue his investment in Trans World Airlines (TW), which he had been buying shares since 1939. By 1944 he had taken a controlling interest in the airline.

Hughes would be pivotal in the development of TWA's fleet. One of his most notable credits is the Lockheed Constellation. Hughes would lead the development of the airliner and finance TWA's order for 40 of the type, then the biggest aircraft order in history.

After management ousted Hughes from TWA in 1966, he purchased San Francisco-based Air West. He immediately renamed Hughes Air West (RW) carrier before repainting the Boeing 727s and Douglas DC-9s fleet in a garish yellow and blue color scheme. RW was acquired by Republic Airlines in 1980.

Hughes was awarded the Harmon Trophy twice (1936 and 1938), the Collier Trophy once (1938), and the Congressional Gold Medal once (1939) for his contributions to aviation throughout the 1930s. In 1973, he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and in 2013, he was placed No. 25 in Flying magazine's list of the 51 Heroes of Aviation.

Hughes' H-4 Hercules or 'Spruce Goose.' Photo: San Diego Air & Space Museum.

Featured Image: Hughes Airwest was well known for its eye-catching livery and slogan 'Top Banana in the West.' Photo: Bill LarkinsCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.