1938: Howard Hughes Escapes Death in Fastest Flight Around the World
Escaping Death Three Times
in Record-Setting Flight Around the World
How death thrice laid an ambush for Howard Hughes and his four companions in their record-breaking flight around the world, was revealed by the young millionaire airman in his own story of his voyage. While 25,000 spectators staged a wild demonstration, Hughes brought his plane to earth on Floyd Bennett Field at 2:34 P.M. yesterday, having girdled the earth in 3 days 19 hours 14 minutes and 10 seconds, and clipped 3 days 23 hours 35 minutes from the record set up by Wiley Post, flying alone in 1933.
To the millions of radio listeners who had followed Hughes’ progress over the Atlantic and then across three continents, the race against time, which began here at 7:20 P.M. on Sunday, had appeared as an almost mechanical fulfillment of the flier’s plans.
Howard Hughes Reveals Brushes with Death
But Hughes’ story revealed that he and his companions had rubbed shoulders with death at the take-off; that they had seen its shadow a second time over the wastes of the Atlantic, and that it had hovered over them again on the Siberian plains.
Overladen, their giant silver monoplane, its motors with 2,200-horsepower roaring at full throttle, lagged behind its flying speed, and almost refused to take the air as Hughes drove it down the Floyd Bennett runway Sunday evening for the Atlantic crossing.
When it had reached a ground speed of 125 miles an hour, and just in time to avoid disaster, its huge wings bore the World’s Fair, 1939 aloft, but its tail wheel was so badly damaged that the French mechanics in Paris despaired of repairing it.
Over the Atlantic, Hughes watched his gasoline gauges with apprehension, as his motors drank their fuel much faster than he had anticipated, and he contemplated the possibility of a forced landing. But the supply held out, and Hughes and his fellow adventurers got to Pairs – not, as the officials of Le Bourget airdrome reported, with a surplus of 300 gallons, but with just sufficient petrol to keep the motors going.
A hunch saved Hughes in Siberia, when he deferred from dark until dawn the start of his hop from Takutsk to Fairbanks, Alaska. His maps showed the maximum altitude of the Terkhoisankoi Mountains, over which his course lay, to be 6,500 feet. Their true altitude Hughes discovered was 9,700 feet. Had he not delayed his start until daylight, his plane might now be distributed in wreckage upon some lonely Siberian crag.
“If I’d stuck to my original plan to fly out of Yakutsk, Siberia, by night, I might not be here,” the unshaven, haggard aviator admitted.
“The maps we have show no mountains there higher than 6,500 feet. We measured the mountains as we passed over them the next morning. They were 9,700 feet high, and covered with snow.
Take-off was the Worst Moment
“But the most anxious moment of my flight was when we took off from Floyd Bennett Field last Sunday night.
“The plane was too small to carry the load. When I took off, I had to go 125 miles an hour in order to leave the field with 25,600 pounds.
“We had a wing load of forty-seven pounds to the square foot – the greatest wing load I ever heard of, including the Schneider Cup races – and I took off with a 25,600 – pound load, while the most I ever tested the plane at, with water ballast in California, was 24,000 pounds.
“That was why we couldn’t get from Floyd Bennett with less than 125 miles an hour speed. We had to push her up to 175 as soon as we got in the air to make her fly efficiently.
Barely Enough Gas
“And, as it turned out, there was barely enough gasoline to get us to Paris. Each of the ship’s two engines took forty-five gallons of gas an hour at the start of the flight. But before the end of the trip, I managed to get it down to thirty-two gallons an hour per engine.
“That’s the whole story, that’s the only way that plane could be stretched that far.
“As a matter of fact, there was one more worry. The tail-wheel fittings were damaged by the takeoff, and that pretty nearly ended the flight in Paris.
“A mechanic at Le Bourget Airport took one look at the wheel and said to me:
“But Ed Lun, our mechanic, went to work, and who should appear to help him but a United States Army mechanic named Cook.
“They fixed the wheel with angle irons, and we were able to take off after about eight hours.
“The ocean crossing was easy. We didn’t see a single wave except in Boston Harbor. We didn’t see much over the Atlantic and we just got a glimpse of Ireland through a hole in the fog.
“We made that jump on the instruments – by blind flying. We had to do the same thing on the hop from Paris to Moscow.
“The weather out of Moscow also was thick, but I took the plane up over it. Four or five times, we picked up a lot of ice in high attitude, with no de-icers on the wings. But our anti-ice carburetors were perfect.
“I wasn’t satisfied with the Government maps of Siberia at all and that’s why I didn’t fly out of Takutsk at night.
“The rest of the trip, if you subtract the weather hazards and the drain on our energy, was simple.
“We used three distinct types of navigation – contact dead-reckoning when we could see the ground, celestial when we could see the sun or stars, and radio when the fog closed in.
Few Hours Sleep
“I didn’t sleep much and neither did the boys with me. We had a few catnaps, but I guess our total for the trip wasn’t more than a few hours each.
“We ate mostly canned goods on the flight. When we were hungry we would open a can and eat. It wasn’t so good, but it was better than nothing.
Hughes was prevented by the crush of welcoming crowds from laying a wreath on the spot at Floyd Bennett Field where Wiley Post landed after his solo flight around the world in the Winnie Mae. The millionaire Magellan expressed regret that he had been unable to make that tribute to the man who later died in a crash with Will Rogers in Alaska.
“There’s no use trying to compare this with Wiley Post’s flight. His fear never will be duplicated.
“His flight must still remain the most remarkable in history.
“He did it alone. To make a trip of that kind alone is beyond comprehension. It is like pulling a rabbit out of a hat or sawing a woman in half.
Howard Hughes Praises Companions
“I can’t say too much in praise of the boys who were with me. They all did a great job.
“I had two of the the best aerial navigators that ever lived – Lieut. Thomas Thurlow, inventor of our drift indicator, and Harry Connor, a fine celestial navigator who learned it in the Merchant Marine.
“Ed Lund, the mechanic, watched the engine temperatures and instruments when I rested. Dick Stoddart, the radio engineer, who designed and built the transmitter, did a swell job. It’s the best crew in the world.
“And, I might add, everybody along the line of flight co-operated excellently with us.
“The thing that has pleased me most is that I’ve proved to myself that my route is the best between this country and Moscow.
“I’ve got a complete record of this flight, I’m happy to say. I’ve made up a complete log, about thirty to forty pages long. That may help us when we come to determine the scientific value of this flight. Mechanically, all our equipment was perfect, including the gyropilot.
“Would I like to make the flight again?
“Not on your life. Once is enough.”