Howard R. Hughes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Pioneer aviator, aircraft designer, builder, and multimillionaire.

Howard R. Hughes was born into wealth in 1905, attended private schools in his youth, and later studied at both Rice University and the California Institute of Technology. He first flew in an airplane when he was fourteen years old. Upon the death of both of his parents in his late teens, he inherited $871,000 and the Hughes Tool Company, which held the patent on the most widely used well-drilling bit in the world. Hughes left school to operate the company, but his interests were not limited by that business.

From 1926 through 1932, Hughes was active in the production of motion pictures, became a pilot, and founded the Hughes Aircraft Company, where he designed, built, and flew airplanes. In 1935, in a plane of his own design, he set a world speed record of 352.39 miles per hour and followed that with transcontinental records in 1936 and 1937. Following his record-breaking around-the-world flight in 1938, he was treated to a ticker-tape parade in New York City. By 1938, he held nearly every major aviation award. For his flying accomplishments he won the Harmon Trophy in 1938, the Collier Trophy in 1939, the Octave Chanute Award in 1940, and a Congressional Medal in 1941.

By 1939, Hughes had placed the Hughes Aircraft Company at the forefront of design in experimental military airplanes. During World War II, his company was a major defense contractor. Hughes designed the eight-engine Spruce Goose, a large plywood seaplane contracted as a troop carrier in 1942. Its only flight was piloted by Hughes in 1947. Hughes’s successes placed him among the top three most wealthy Americans.

At the war’s end, Hughes reentered the Hollywood scene and controlled RKO Studios from 1948 through 1955. Throughout the 1950’s, he concentrated on expanding his business empire, and by the 1960’s, he was a billionaire. He owned the controlling stock in Trans World Airlines until he was forced to sell out in 1966. Hughes had suffered a nervous breakdown in 1944 and had been critically injured in a 1946 air crash, after which he developed an addiction to morphine that led to other dependencies. Always an eccentric, he went into seclusion in 1950, becoming a reclusive shell of a person living in a rented hotel room in Las Vegas, Nevada. Almost nothing is known of this period of his life. Hughes was elected into the Aviation Hall of Fame in 1973. He died in 1976 on board a plane traveling from Acapulco, Mexico, to Houston, Texas, where he was to receive medical treatment.

  • Barton, Charles. Howard Hughes and His Flying Boat. 2d ed. Vienna, Va.: Charles Barton, 1998. The story of the building of the Spruce Goose and the controversies surrounding it.
  • Brown, Peter Harry, and Pat H. Broeske. Howard Hughes: The Untold Story. Collingdale, Pa.: Diane, 2000. Uses posthumous source material to document the life of this brilliant eccentric.
  • Maguglin, Robert O. Howard Hughes: His Achievements and Legacy. Carpinteria, Calif.: Sunrise, 1988. A highly cited source, this is the “standard” biography of Hughes and extensively covers his involvement in aviation.


Military flight

Record flights

Spruce Goose

Trans World Airlines

Transcontinental flight

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