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Howard Hughes, Aviator
Howard Hughes, Aviator

(George Marrett)

He wasn't even a very good pilot!

When Howard Hughes caught the flying bug, he copied the wing numbers off a airplane whose pilot seemed to know what he was doing. He found the man and paid him $100 a day for flight instruction--in 1926! He bought an identical plane for himself, had the Douglas Aircraft company rebuild it for twice the purchase price, then cheated Douglas on the bill.

He wanted to eclipse Charles Lindbergh as the country's best-known aviator, even persuading the U.S. Commerce Department to grant him a low-numbered pilot's certificate, to bring him closer to Lindbergh in that trivial respect. Yet even with daily, top-dollar lessons, it took him more than a year to get that certificate. Afterward, he wrecked airplanes at a frightening rate, several times injuring himself and once killing two crew members.

To save money on aeronautical charts, he flew with the road maps handed out free by oil companies. He ignored air-traffic controllers, filed misleading flight plans, identified himself with the name of his co-pilot, flew under visual rules in bad weather, and cut off the pilot ahead of him in the pattern. Even as a passenger, George Marrett writes, Hughes could turn a routine flight into a debacle.

He bought a fabulous variety of airplanes, beginning with the prototype Douglas airliner. When it had served his purpose, he parked the DC-1 and forgot it. He did the same with his built-to-order Hughes Racer, a twin-engine Sikorsky amphibian, a Boeing Stratoliner, his eight-engined "Spruce Goose" flying boat, and scores of other aircraft, some guarded for years by relays of college students, the planes and the students forgotten by Hughes. He didn't even have to own a plane to lose it: in 1955 he tested the French-built Caravelle turbojet. He ordered the salesman out of the cockpit, took off without filing a flight plan, and disappeared. The jetliner was found days later in Palm Springs, where he had abandoned it.

Of course Howard Hughes was more than an aviator: he made movies, ran an airline, designed the half-cup bra, founded aerospace companies, made billions, and was the country's most famous hypochondriac. But those are incidentals as for a fellow pilot like George Marrett, who flew a rescue Skyraider in Vietnam and wrote about it in Cheating Death, and who afterward became a test pilot for Hughes Aircraft. By concentrating on the aviation side of his former boss, Marrett has written a short, readable, and fascinating biography. In his hands, Howard Hughes turns out to have been a lot more interesting than Charles Lindbergh, though he never came close to him as an aviator.

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