Crashes Failed to Diminish This Pilot’s Passion for Flying

Times Staff Writer

His quest for world records and his appetite for adventure -- including flying naked in the cockpit -- nearly killed him more than once. But after surviving four plane crashes as a pilot, Howard Hughes -- moviemaker, aviator, businessman, playboy -- died in the air as a passenger.

Hughes’ death nearly 30 years ago was hardly the final chapter for the elusive, reclusive billionaire. As a filmmaker, he knew that good characters never die; they just get recast. Hughes, who would have been 99 this year, will be back next month when “The Aviator,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, comes to the big screen.

Howard Robard Hughes was born in Houston on Christmas Eve 1905, the only child of a Harvard-educated lawyer turned oil entrepreneur. The elder Hughes invented an oil-drilling bit that he turned into a $7.5-million fortune. Hughes’ mother was obsessed with germs -- as her son would be too.

His father was constantly traveling, taking his son along so frequently that the boy never finished high school. Hughes got his first plane ride while visiting his father’s alma mater.


In 1922, when Hughes was 16, his mother died. His father died two years later. Before Hughes was old enough to vote, he had inherited the vast Hughes Tool Co.

He sagely parlayed his fortune into a power base that would influence movies, aviation, medical research, gaming, the military, space technology and politics.

Hughes married Houston socialite Ella Rice in 1925, a union arranged by members of his family. The couple headed to Hollywood. He wanted to make movies.

For his epic World War I action-adventure “Hell’s Angels,” which he wrote and directed, Hughes assembled reputedly the world’s largest private air force. He hired hundreds of pilots, mechanics and ground crewmen to operate an armada of 87 legendary fighter planes.


The first of Hughes’ crashes came in 1928 while filming “Hell’s Angels.” He had conceived a stunt for his ace pilot, who refused to perform it, saying it was too dangerous.

Hughes angrily climbed into the cockpit and tried the stunt himself. He then crashed in an Inglewood field, suffering minor facial cuts and a major concussion -- the first of several, and apparently the beginning of his germ phobia. The accident didn’t make him more cautious about stunts, however; three pilots died while making the movie.

Hughes gained renown when “Hell’s Angels” was released in 1930, launching the sultry Jean Harlow’s career and whetting the filmmaker’s lifelong obsession with movies and movie stars. Hughes’ loveless marriage ended in divorce in 1929.

When he wasn’t making movies, he was building aircraft. Quietly, in a Glendale hangar, Hughes constructed a $120,000 stubby-looking red-and-silver metal plane. He had its innovative aerodynamics tested in a wind tunnel at Caltech in Pasadena.


On Sept. 13, 1935 -- Friday the 13th -- Hughes piloted his H-1 racer to a new speed record, reaching 352.46 mph before it stalled. He landed the Silver Bullet monoplane on its belly in a plowed Santa Ana beet field. Annoyed but unhurt, Hughes climbed out and waved to Amelia Earhart and stunt pilot Paul Mantz, who were circling above.

“One of the two gasoline tanks went dry just as I was starting the eighth run,” Hughes told reporters. “When the motor coughed, I knew what was wrong and tried to put in the second tank, but I wasn’t fast enough. I decided to ride it down.

“She’ll do better than this,” he said. “She’ll do 365 [mph]; I just know it.”

As it turned out, the cause of the crash was a wad of steel wool jammed into the pipe leading to the auxiliary gas tank. The plane appeared to have been sabotaged, but no one could prove by whom.


Hughes’ other aviation triumphs included two speed records in coast-to-coast flights in 1936 and 1937, and a 1938 flight around the world in three days.

He also tested aircraft for the Army. On May 16, 1943, Hughes tried to land a pioneering Sikorsky seaplane on Lake Mead in Nevada. When he applied the brakes at 80 mph, the plane took a nosedive. The propeller snapped, slicing through the fuselage and into the head of mechanic Richard Felt before embedding itself in the plane and knocking federal inspector Ceco Cline into the lake. Cline’s body was never found.

Despite a severe blow to his head, Hughes and two other badly injured pilots escaped with Felt before the plane sank. They were rescued, but Felt died two days later.

An investigation showed that in his hurry to get airborne, Hughes had failed to perform a routine maintenance flight check. If he had, he would have found that the ground mechanics hadn’t installed the required heavy ballast in the tail.


At a Newport Beach party in 1946, Hughes’ attention was captured by a 19-year-old starlet named Jean Peters. Her date was World War II hero-turned- actor Audie Murphy. Eleven years later, he made the former Ohio farm girl the second Mrs. Howard Hughes. She would divorce him in 1971; this marriage also was shattered by his infidelity.

On July 7, 1946, Hughes was test-piloting the Army’s XF-11 photo reconnaissance plane when he had propeller trouble. As the engine whined, he headed over Beverly Hills for the Los Angeles Country Club. He crashed a football field-length short of the golf course’s fairway, hitting four houses near Linden and Whittier drives.

The landing gear and right wing smashed through the roof of dentist Jules Zimmerman’s home. No one was hurt, and the plane kept going. A wing sliced through the upstairs bedroom of the house next door, narrowly missing the owners: actress Rosemary DeCamp and her husband, Superior Court Judge John A. Shidler.

The plane demolished the DeCamp-Shidler garage, mowed down a row of trees and crashed through the rear wall of another home before exploding into flames.


One of the engines, which had been thrown 60 feet, hit the corner of a house owned by Swedish industrialist Gosta B. Guston, then embedded itself in the frontyard. The Gustons’ Pomeranian, Tido, was hurt by flying debris.

Hughes struggled out of the cockpit and William Durkin, a Marine sergeant who was visiting the Gustons, ran to the blazing wreckage and dragged him to safety.

The plane had burst a gas line. Actor Dennis O’Keefe, who lived on Linden and saw the crash, called the Fire Department, which arrived just as a gas main exploded in the home of Lt. Col. Charles A. Meyer, destroying it.

The official Army report blamed the crash on pilot error, saying it was avoidable despite the propeller trouble. Hughes had overloaded the fuel tanks and stayed aloft nearly an hour longer than the Army’s time limit, the report said.


With second- and third-degree burns over most of his body, Hughes spent nine months recuperating. He also took large doses of morphine and codeine, kick-starting a lifelong addiction. Badly scarred, he grew a mustache and often wore a hat. And his fear of germs worsened.

By the mid-1950s, Hughes had tired of the Hollywood scene, saying it was “too complicated.” He retreated to Las Vegas, then a town of 30,000, and began to run his business empire by phone. Few people would ever see the recluse in person again.

In 1973, at 67, Hughes went through detox and resumed flying, completing four long-distance flights despite an expired pilot’s license.

Completely at home in the cockpit, he was known to have removed his clothes and put on his trademark fedora before taking off.


That was his final stint as a pilot. A few months later, he broke his hip. Again, he became hooked on painkillers. Near the end of his life, Hughes had more than 6,500 prescriptions, most of them in his aides’ names.

Over his final few years, his health deteriorated until, on April 5, 1976, he was sneaked aboard a private jet in Acapulco for a frantic medical flight to Houston. Comatose and shriveled to just 94 pounds, he died en route of kidney failure, 30 minutes from his hometown.