Master of the Silver Screen, Aviation Pioneer, Tycoon, Mining Mogul, and Benevolent Benefactor: Unveiling Five Fascinating Facets of Howard Hughes Jr.

In Part 2 of this two-part series, the life of Howard Hughes Jr. is explored through his contributions to various industries.

Black and white image of an old airplane, 1946 Luscombe.
Hughes, a lifelong aviation enthusiast, pilot, and self-taught aircraft engineer, left an indelible mark on the aviation industry.
NNehring/Getty Images

Born into a lineage of innovation through his mother's family, Howard Hughes Jr. traced his ancestry to Catherine of Valois, Dowager Queen of England, and her second husband Owen Tudor. His father, Howard Hughes Sr., revolutionized oil drilling with the invention of the tri-cone roller bit, co-founded the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company in 1909 with his business partner, and amassed wealth for the family. Despite his affluent upbringing, Hughes Jr. displayed early mechanical prowess, building a motorbike from scratch at the age of twelve, making headlines as the first and only kid in Houston with such a creation.

Although his parents did not live to witness his accomplishments, Hughes Jr. inherited 75% of his father's multi-million dollar shares, fueled by oil drilling royalties. Following his father's passing, he lost interest in academics and left Rice University at 19 after marrying Ella Rice. He ventured to Hollywood with a determination to carve a niche for himself in the film industry, showcasing his talents despite his privileged background.

1. Master of the Silver Screen

Despite facing harsh and unjust criticism as the privileged son of a wealthy man when pursuing his Hollywood aspirations, Hughes Jr. began producing films and defied expectations with his initial films, Everybody's Acting (1927) and Two Arabian Knights (1928), the latter winning an Academy Award for Best Director of a Comedy Picture. Undeterred, he invested an unprecedented $3.8 million of his own funds into the creation of Hell's Angels, a groundbreaking aviation film depicting World War I air battles. Released in 1930, the film triumphed despite numerous challenges.

Hughes continued his success with Scarface (1932), a film about the life of mafia boss Al Capone and The Outlaw. Recognized as culturally significant, Scarface is preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

2. Aviation Pioneer

Hughes, a lifelong aviation enthusiast, pilot, and self-taught aircraft engineer, left an indelible mark on the aviation industry. Heading Hughes Aircraft, he not only set numerous world records but also designed and constructed several aircraft himself, with the Hughes H-1 Racer standing out as a technological marvel. On 13 September 1935, Hughes piloted the H-1 to a record-breaking airspeed of 352 mph over his Santa Ana test course, surpassing the previous record of 314 mph.

In another feat, on January 19, 1937, Hughes, flying a modified H-1 Racer, set a new transcontinental airspeed record, covering the distance from Los Angeles to New York City in 7 hours, 28 minutes, and 25 seconds, boasting an average speed of 322 mph, thus surpassing his own previous record of 9 hours, 27 minutes.

Hughes earned several accolades as an aviator, including the Harmon Trophy in 1936 and 1938, the Collier Trophy in 1938, the Octave Chanute Award in 1940, and a special Congressional Gold Medal in 1939, all in recognition of his outstanding contributions to advancing aviation science and bringing international acclaim to his country.

3. Business Tycoon

3.1 Hughes Aircraft

In 1932, Hughes founded Hughes Aircraft Company, initially established as part of Hughes Tool Company, within a rented space in a Lockheed Aircraft Corporation hangar in Burbank, California. Its primary purpose was to undertake the intricate conversion of a military plane into the H-1 racer. As World War II unfolded, Hughes strategically transformed his company into a prominent defense contractor. The Hughes Helicopters division took shape in 1947 when Hughes acquired the latest design from helicopter manufacturer Kellett for production.

Hughes Aircraft Company logo.
Source: Hughes Aircraft Company

In 1948, Hughes expanded the company's scope by introducing the Hughes Aerospace Group. As a subsequent development, the Hughes Space and Communications Group and the Hughes Space Systems Division emerged in 1948 as distinct entities, eventually coalescing into the Hughes Space and Communications Company in 1961.

3.2 Airlines

In 1939, prompted by Jack Frye, president of Trans World Airlines (TWA), Hughes discreetly acquired a majority share of TWA stock for nearly $7 million, gaining control of the airline. Federal law restrictions prevented Hughes from manufacturing his own airplanes after assuming ownership of TWA. Seeking to outperform TWA's existing fleet of Boeing 307 Stratoliners, Hughes turned to Lockheed, with whom he had a positive rapport since they had crafted the plane used in his 1938 record flight around the world. Lockheed agreed to Hughes' condition for absolute secrecy in building the new plane, resulting in the groundbreaking Constellation, of which TWA purchased the first 40 units.

In 1956, Hughes ordered 63 Convair 880s for TWA, totaling $400 million. Despite his substantial wealth, external creditors insisted Hughes cede control of TWA in exchange for financial support. By 1960, Hughes was compelled to relinquish control of TWA, despite retaining 78% ownership. He fiercely contested the decision in court with the aim of regaining control.

4. Mining Mogul

Despite adopting an increasingly reclusive lifestyle in the late 1960s, Hughes found himself engaged in a covert operation with the US Government centered around the development of the Glomar Explorer, a deep-sea mining barge. Officially designated for the retrieval of manganese nodules from the ocean floor, the ship's true mission was to recover the Soviet submarine K-129, lost in deep waters in April 1968. The construction of the Hughes Glomar Explorer took place between 1973 and 1974, incurring a staggering cost exceeding $350 million. Setting sail on 20 June 1974, the operation aimed to salvage the submarine.

While the Glomar Explorer did manage to retrieve a portion of the vessel, a mechanical failure in the grapple caused the submarine to break in half during recovery. The lost section reportedly contained crucial items, including the codebook and nuclear missiles. Subsequent reports disclosed the recovery of two nuclear-tipped torpedoes, cryptographic machines, and the bodies of six Soviet submariners, all of whom received a formal burial at sea.

5. Benevolent Benefactor

In 1953, Hughes transformed the landscape of philanthropy by bequeathing all his stock in the Hughes Aircraft Company to the newly established Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland. This move redefined the aerospace and defense contractor as a tax-exempt charity. In 1985, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute orchestrated the sale of Hughes Aircraft to General Motors for a substantial $5.2 billion.

Today, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute stands as the second-largest private foundation in America, exclusively dedicated to biological and medical research. With an endowment reaching $16.3 billion as of June 2007, the institute has played a pivotal role in advancing scientific understanding. Notably, two of its researchers, Richard Axel and Linda Buck, earned the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2004 for their groundbreaking contributions.

Read Part 1 here.