Howard Hughes’ Around the World Flight

Some people may only remember Howard Hughes in his senior years as having been an unkempt, reclusive and eccentric billionaire living in a secluded hotel room in Las Vegas, Nevada. Hughes was born on December 24, 1905 in Humble, Texas to Howard R. Hughes, Sr. and Allene Stone Gano. He was an heir to the Hughes Tool Company. During his lifetime, he was also known as a successful businessman, investor, film director, record setting pilot, among his other achievements.

On June 26, 1938 the Lubbock Avalance-Journal carried an article under the headline, “Howard Hughes Plans Early Takeoff On World Flight.” The syndicated article, out of Los Angeles, referred to him as a 34 year old lanky speedster who had been flying for many years. The projected flight was to be Hughes’ next contribution to aviation history and was described as a “leisurely trip” designed to promote the New York World’s Fair the following year.

The article continued by stating that the aircraft would be a specially equipped Lockheed Model 14 transport that Hughes and his group had been outfitting for several months. The flight would take off from New York’s Floyd Bennett Field. The airfield was not the same one used by Charles Lindbergh when he made his historic non-stop flight from New York to Paris. That flight had originated from Roosevelt Field. Floyd Bennett Field was not even in existence at that time. Floyd Bennett was a navy pilot who had been the pilot for Commander Richard’s historic flight over the North Pole back in 1926. Floyd Bennett Field had been built on Barren Island in Brooklyn to be New York City’s first municipal airport. The new air field was dedicated in May of 1931 and had become a popular location for aviators trying to set or break records. It served as the City’s municipal airport until the completion of LaGuardia Airport which opened in 1939. Floyd Bennett Field remained in almost continuous use afterward by the United States Navy in one form or another until around 1971.

Hughes had assembled a crew including Harry Connor as copilot, Thomas Thurlow as navigator, Edward Lund as flight engineer and Richard Stoddard as radio operator. The aircraft was a Lockheed Model 14 Lodestar, in the Electra series. The line dated back to the early 1930s as a two engine monoplane. An early model was the Model 10-E, used by Amelia Earhart on her final flight. Earhart had attempted to fly around the world on a long 29,000 mile route following the equator, but she and her navigator disappeared along with the aircraft in the Pacific on July 2, 1937. A scale miniature version of the Model 10 was featured at the end of the movie “Casablanca.” About the naming of the Electra, Lockheed’s website says that it took the name from the star Electra, one of the stars of the Pleiades open star cluster. The stars of the Pleiades carry the names of seven sisters in Greek mythology. A later turbo prop airliner may have been named for one of the individuals named Electra Waggoner of the Texas ranching family.

Image credit: Lockheed 14-H 3-view drawing from L’Aerophile – October 1937

The model 14 Super Electra was larger, had been accepted in commercial aviation and was considered to be a competitor to the familiar Douglas DC-3. Hughes’ aircraft was powered by two 1,100 horsepower engines manufactured by Wright, about twenty percent more powerful than what was used for commercial aviation. It was outfitted with what was at the time considered state of the art electronic radio and navigation equipment and was capable of achieving an air speed of over 200 miles per hour. It was outfitted with two tanks that carried over 120 gallons of engine oil and large tanks that would carry as much as 1,200 gallons of aviation fuel.

The flight departed Floyd Bennett Field on July 10, 1938. Their route took them roughly about 14,800 miles in just over 91 hours. They returned to the same field on July 14, 1938 and were honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York City.

Their stops had included landings at LeBourget Field in Paris, then on to Moscow, Omsk and Yakutsh in Russia, landing again in Fairbanks, Alaska before touching down in Brooklyn. Hughes is said to have issued a statement in which he disclaimed personal credit for the successful flight and credited Lockheed and its designers. Hughes’ statement as quoted in the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald on July 18, 1938, said “If this flight has done a little to show that American engineers can design, and American workmanship can build, just as fine planes and engines and aircraft equipment as anyone in the world; and if it should possibly increase the sale of American planes abroad, and thus create a few new jobs for American workers and aircraft factories, then I shall feel well repaid.”

The remarkable flight was short of the distance required to achieve a flight record, so no record was set. The actual aircraft, tail number NX18973, was returned to Lockheed after the project and was subsequently conveyed to the Royal Canadian Air Force. It was destroyed in a crash after taking off in bad weather on November 10, 1940 out of Nairobi, Kenya on a fight intended to reach Egypt. There were no survivors.(1)


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