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Hughes, Howard - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Howard Hughes, Social and Economic Impact

hughes’ control company aircraft

Hughes Aircraft Company


Howard Hughes was one of the world’s wealthiest men; he was also one of its most eccentric. After a flamboyant career as a Hollywood film director, Hughes indulged in his passion for flying by founding a company to manufacture innovative planes. He owned most of Trans World Airlines (TWA) until 1966. During the 1960s he invested in real estate, particularly in Las Vegas, where he owned, for example, the well known Sands Hotel. But drug addiction and deteriorating mental and physical health forced Hughes into seclusion, even from his own business associates. In the last years of his life he was in hiding from the world, plagued by strange obsessions. After living as a recluse for more than 20 years, Hughes left no direct heir to his substantial fortune.

Personal Life

Howard Robard Hughes, Jr., was an only child. His father had developed and patented an important oil drilling bit and founded the Hughes Tool Company. Hughes’ mother died when he was 16, and when his father died three years later, he found himself sole heir to his father’s industrial fortune. Hughes convinced a Texas court to declare him of legal age, and he took control of the family business. He married Ella Rice in 1925; they divorced four years later. During the 1930s and 1940s Hughes had many love affairs, some with prominent actresses. Then he married Jean Peters in 1957. That union was a marriage in name only, and they divorced in 1971. Having spent most of his final years addicted to drugs and avoiding publicity, Hughes died while in route from Acapulco, Mexico to a hospital in Houston.

Howard Hughes is remembered for his money and his eccentricity. In the early part of his career, he was known as a flamboyant daredevil. He was a man who had everything, and followed his dreams. He was a shrewd businessman, a movie maker, a pilot, and an inventor. The wealth he inherited as a youth allowed him to do far more than most people dream of. And he had an overwhelming desire to become a legend in his own time. He wanted to do more than anybody else did. This compulsion led him to test-fly the planes he built and direct the films he produced. He wanted to be viewed as a man who would succeed at whatever he attempted to do.

But as he became ill, Hughes felt he had to control everything in his life. Increasingly he lost touch with his grander schemes and focused on his immediate surroundings. His obsession with germs is legendary—having doors and windows sealed with tape, forcing attendants to follow daily rituals, and spreading paper towels on everything around him as a form of insulation—and is now considered a classic case of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. In the last 20 years of his life, Hughes was a prisoner of his obsessions.

Most of the empire Hughes presided over dissolved at his death. Because he left no will, the estate was tied up in litigation for years. Most of his money went to his arch enemy, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Concrete evidence surfaced after Hughes’ death of his many underworld ties, both to the CIA and to the Mafia. He was involved in Watergate through secret contributions to the Nixon administration, and documents stolen from his California headquarters showed Hughes’ intent to defraud, bribe, and intimidate in a variety of instances to promote his schemes.

Career Details

Howard Hughes was not a particularly strong student, though he did have considerable mechanical aptitude. Although he took courses at the Rice Institute in Houston and at the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech), he never earned a bachelor’s degree. Instead he left school to take over his family business at age 19. But Hughes apparently felt that he was not needed at Hughes Tools, and he soon left to embark on a career in Hollywood. Hughes was not an immediate success, but he persevered. Of his many accomplishments in the movie industry, some of the most-noteworthy were discovering Jean Harlow, introducing Jane Russell, and purchasing controlling interest in RKO Pictures Corporation. He produced and directed many films, some of the most successful ones being Hell’s Angels, Two Arabian Knights, Scarface, and The Outlaw. During his years in Hollywood, Hughes was linked romantically to many women, among them Katharine Hepburn, Olivia DeHavilland, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, and Ginger Rogers.

During his movie-making career, Hughes developed an interest in aviation. He received his first pilot’s license in 1928. Shortly after receiving his license, he attempted to fly a Thomas Morse scout plane, a plane he had never flown before, and subsequently crashed. The legend of Howard Hughes states that he walked away from the crash unhurt, but as reported by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele in Empire: The Life, Legend, and Madness of Howard Hughes, “actually, Hughes was pulled unconscious from the crumpled plane, one cheekbone crushed. He spent days in hospitals and underwent facial surgery.”

Hughes’ fascination with planes led to his founding of the Hughes Aircraft Company in 1932. One of Hughes’ dreams was to set aircraft records, and he did. He established several speed and endurance records in the 1930s. He set a world speed record in 1935, transcontinental speed records in 1936 and 1937, and a world flight record in 1938. In 1939 he began work on an experimental military aircraft, and in 1942 he received a contract to design and build the world’s largest plane, a wooden seaplane, later nicknamed the “Spruce Goose,” which was supposed to serve as a troop carrier in the second world war.

These successes enabled the Hughes Aircraft Company to become a major defense contractor after World War II. Working for the government proved quite profitable, but Hughes did not want to pay taxes on his earnings, so he created a sophisticated tax shelter, the non-profit Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Later he sold his home in Los Angeles to avoid paying California income tax.

Hughes wasn’t only interested in military aircraft; he was involved in commercial airlines as well. In 1939 he first acquired stock in Transcontinental & Western Airlines—later named Trans World Airlines (TWA). By the end of the next year, Hughes owned 78 percent of the company. His large stake in the company sparked an antitrust suit in 1963. By that time, Hughes was so unwilling to show himself in public that he missed his court appearances. This led to a default ruling against him, and he was forced to sell his TWA stock. But Hughes used the $566 million accumulated from this sale to fund a new venture in Las Vegas real estate.

By the late 1960s Hughes’ empire was one of the most powerful private political machines ever in operation in the United States. According to Barlett and Steele, “For more than two decades the IRS had granted it one special favor after another. So, too, had the Department of Justice, the Civil Aeronautics Board, the Department of the Interior, the army, the navy, the airforce, and any number of lesser agencies and departments.” Hughes used money to get his way and avoid the laws and regulations that ruled other corporations. This network of connections was a mix of alliances, secret deals, understandings, and secret contributions. When Hughes started using drugs, however, he lost a good deal of control over the running of his businesses.

In 1970 Hughes lost control of his empire altogether. During the height of his power and control, nobody in his organization would do a thing without prior approval; now executives began to use his name freely and make decisions in his stead. Hughes was addicted to codeine, and his mental illness was becoming more and more apparent.

Behind the scenes, many of his associates were jockeying for position, attempting to gain control of Hughes’ vast network of operations. Hughes eventually ended up assigning attorneys of his choosing as his proxies, giving them the power to do everything but sell the stock or change the names of his businesses. Having given up dayto-day control, Hughes secretly moved to the Bahamas. After this he lived in luxury hotels in several countries, always under conditions of extreme secrecy, until his death in 1976.

Chronology: Howard Hughes

1905: Born.

1908: Father filed patent for revolutionary oil-drilling bit.

1924: Acquired 100 percent control of Hughes Tool.

1938: Established new record for around-the-world flight.

1955: Sold RKO to General Tire for an estimated $25 million.

1966: Sold 6.5 million shares of TWA for $546 million.

1967: Acquired control of Desert Inn Hotel and Casino.

1972: Sold oil-tool division of Hughes Tool for $150 million.

1976: Died aboard airplane en route to Houston hospital.

Social and Economic Impact

Perhaps Howard Hughes’ most lasting contribution was Hughes Aircraft, one of the most prominent defense manufacturers in the United States. The company was responsible for many innovative designs in weapons systems, missiles, satellites, and lasers. But Hughes Aircraft was badly managed, both during Hughes’ lifetime and after his demise. Hughes’ dictatorial meddling caused many of his leading executives to quit the company, and several of them went on to found rival companies. After Hughes’ death, Hughes Aircraft continued to be a major industry player. But sloppy management led to costly and perhaps unsafe products. In 1984 the Department of Defense suddenly announced it would not take delivery on any more Hughes missiles, citing outrageous cost over-runs and shoddy quality control. A government audit revealed scores of abuses at the company, and it was quickly sold. General Motors ran it as GM Hughes Electronics—later named Hughes Electronics. By the late 1990s, Hughes Electronics had become the world’s leading manufacturer of satellites.

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