At the age of 18, Howard Hughes was a millionaire. Both his mother and father had died in the previous year, leaving young Hughes to inherit the family fortune. Hughes' father had invented a successful drill bit which made his company, Hughes Tool, worth millions. But rather than run his father's company, Hughes fled to Hollywood where he would combine his two passions - movies and aviation.
After producing a handful of movies - some successful, others not, Hughes decided his next motion picture would be a World War I flying epic. After many costly re-shoots, the film, "Hell's Angels," eventually wound up costing $4 million dollars to make - one of the most expensive films of its time. "Hell's Angels" attracted crowds of moviegoers and made a star out of Jean Harlow. Although the huge cost of making the film meant it would never actually see a profit, the film was successful for another reason - it made Howard Hughes a major Hollywood player. The handsome young man proceeded to take full advantage of the role. With his marriage failing, he became involved with a stunning string of actresses, including Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, and his leading lady, Jean Harlow. But only one of his love affairs would last - his affair with flying.
At its root was a secret that only his closest friends knew. Due to a childhood illness, Hughes was practically deaf, and heard a continual ringing in his ears. Too proud to wear a hearing aid, he was only truly happy in the cockpit of a plane. There, the ringing in his ears would cease, and he could leave the rest of the world behind.
In 1935, Hughes set a world speed record in his racing plane, the H-1.
In 1933, he founded the Hughes Aircraft Company, and hired engineers to build fast planes for him to fly. Their greatest triumph was the H-1 Racer. Hughes called it "my beautiful little thing." In September of 1935, he flew the plane 351 miles per hour, the fastest speed on record. Then Hughes flew to Paris in another racer in half the time it took Charles Lindbergh. Then he flew around the world in three days. Howard Hughes was now a household name in aviation.
In 1944, Hughes, left, flew the Constellation from coast-to-coast in a record-setting seven hours. TWA president, Jack Frye, right, co-piloted the plane.
In 1939, Hughes' fame and fortune caught the attention of Jack Frye, the president of TWA. Frye was bitterly feuding with board members who were against new plane purchases. At Frye's urging, Hughes quietly bought up a majority of TWA stock and took over the company. Now that Hughes owned TWA, federal law prohibited him from building his own planes. Seeking a plane which could perform better than TWA's current fleet of Boeing Stratoliners, Hughes approached Boeing's competitor, Lockheed. He already had established a good relationship with the manufacturer, since it had built the plane Hughes used in his record flight around the world. Lockheed agreed to Hughes' demand that the plane be built in absolute secrecy. The end result was the revolutionary new plane, the Constellation. The Constellation's pressurized cabin allowed the plane to fly at greater altitudes, enabling the plane to fly above most air turbulence, thus providing passengers with a more comfortable flying experience. The rarefied air at that altitude also cuts down on drag, enabling the plane to cruise at the incredible speed of 280 miles per hour - dramatically faster than its competitors.
Over the next decade, Hughes and TWA would profit from the tremendous success of the Constellation, and its successor, the Super Constellation. Seeking to take TWA into the jet age, Hughes in 1956 placed orders for a fleet of Boeing 707s at a cost of $400 million. Although wealthy, even Hughes would need to seek help in order to cover this huge expense. Outside creditors, however, required Hughes to give up total control of TWA. Unwilling to relinquish his power, and yet unable to cover the expenses, Hughes' empire slowly began to crumble.
During this period, Hughes became increasingly paranoid and his behavior turned more and more eccentric. He began alienating his closest advisors and top executives. TWA, the airline which Hughes helped guide to success over the past two decades, eventually ended up forcing Hughes out of power in 1960. Hughes, though, still owned 78% of the airline and he would battle to regain control of the airline over the next several years. In 1966, a federal court eventually ruled that Hughes would have to relinquish control. Hughes sold his shares of the airline for $547 million, making Hughes one of the richest men in the world.
His departure from TWA, however, didn't mark the end of Hughes' involvement in aviation. After a brief relationship with Northeast Airlines, he purchased Air West in 1969 and renamed the airline, Hughes AirWest. The regional airline brought many tourists to Las Vegas, where Hughes' empire was now flourishing. Sadly, though, Hughes' paranoia continued to grow during his latter years, while his health and appearance only deteriorated. Hughes died in 1976.