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VFR Corner Very Fine Reading

By Dan Burrell, EAA 850483, for Light Plane World


I found Howard Hughes, Aviator by George J. Marrett a fascinating book to read. It offers us a glimpse into the mind of Hughes who aspired to be the world’s greatest film producer, the best aviator, and the richest man. Hughes earned his pilot certificate at age 21, six months after Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. The author depicts the man as addicted to speed and risk taking. However, Hughes attention to detail was meticulous. He would have joined the EAA.

Hughes would have joined EAA (or taken it over) because he had an experimental nature. Every plane he bought, he modified either for speed or luxury. Every plane built by his company, he test-flew personally. On the downside, Hughes was suspicious, distrusting, and wary of anything that would challenge his wealth, control, and power.

I was fascinated with how these qualities affected his flying and management of his holdings. He pushed the envelope in both. The author describes him as living within a “cell of isolation.” He preferred flying solo at night to avoid public scrutiny. We are introduced to many of Hughes’ test pilots and how they interacted with their controlling boss.

It’s worth it to read his memos to professional pilots, many of them war heroes, on the meticulous care of (his) company airplanes. One manager was fired for moving a plane without Hughes’ permission. The majority tolerated the boss and covered for him at times. All had to adapt to his “I’ll call you, don’t call me” management style. Everyone he hired was evaluated and tested for loyalty.

Some of us might admire certain aspects of Hughes. He disregarded air traffic controllers, seldom used a radio, went head to head with the military, never filed a flight plan, and abhorred sectional maps. (He preferred the free maps from the oil companies.) Once, he tried to buy off an FAA inspector. Contrasted with this is Hughes’ brilliance as an aviation pioneer depicted throughout the book. He developed the Lockheed Constellation as the first transcontinental airliner. He claimed numerous speed records.

Hughes’ company got into electronics, such as missile firing systems and radar interception, before others, so he obtained military contracts easily. One could call this book A Beautiful Mind does aviation. His public persona in the 1950s was as a world-class aviator, an aeronautical genius, and a gifted innovator. During his career, Hughes sustained head injuries in two airplane and three auto accidents. He wasn’t one to seek treatment even though he had a phobia for germs.

One gets suspicious that these injuries may have exacerbated existing personality quirks. After the ’50s we begin to see the Howard Hughes that was depicted as a recluse in the media. He stopped flying in 1960 but flew four times in the spring of 1973, three years before he died. If you lived in the era of Howard Hughes, you should read this book to appreciate the pilot and how he advanced the air industry.

This book review was published in the June 2011 issue of R.U.F.F. Times, the official newsletter of the Rochester Ultralight Fun Flyers – EAA Chapter UL95. Dan Burrell is the chapter secretary. See their webpage www.R-U-F-F.org for more newsletter articles.


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