Howard Hughes and TWA

Howard Hughes (1905-1976) was born in Houston, Texas and died on a flight returning to Houston from Mexico. Hughes had always had a strong interest in aviation and over the years owned either outright or a controlling interest in various aviation-related entities, including commercial airlines TWA and Northwest Airlines (briefly) and aircraft manufacturing.

The airline known as TWA was founded in 1930. At the time it went out of business and the “brand” essentially disappeared in 2001, the name stood for Trans World Airlines. When it began, it was the initials of Transcontinental and Western Air, after a merger between companies known as Western Air Express and Transcontinental Air Transport. Both companies flew airmail routes for the United States government and the merger was reportedly suggested by the U. S. Postmaster General on the theory that it would avoid duplication of routes. Hughes took interest in the company and began to purchase stock, eventually winding up with a controlling interest in its shares in the mid to late 1940s.

The airline rapidly expanded after World War II and was a major competitor in the industry which included American Airlines and United Airlines. The name of the company was changed to Trans Word Airlines in 1950. It flew some of the most advanced aircraft of the day including the Lockheed Constellation and its routes included transcontinental and transatlantic flights.

TWA, like virtually all major airlines, figured in some accidents over the years. On Saturday June 30, 1956 a United Airlines Douglas DC-7 collided with a TWA Lockheed L-1949 Super Constellation in the sky over the Grand Canyon. The combined number of fatalities was 128 between the two flights. It was the first commercial airline accident with losses exceeding 100 in the United States and remained the accident with the highest loss of life until 1960.

Today, we have many more safety procedures and systems in place, but it was not so in the 1950s. The TWA flight headed to the Grand Canyon in route to Kansas City flying at 19,000 feet with 70 people on board including six crew members. The United flight was in route to Chicago with 58 aboard including five crew members. Pilots were allowed to deviate somewhat from the standard routes. The TWA captain radioed in asking for permission to climb to 21,000 feet to avoid turbulence, but was told that another aircraft was approaching at that altitude and the request was denied. Later he again requested to increase his altitude to fly above cloud cover and turbulence and this request was approved, meaning that both flights were now on the same altitude, though they could have been in relatively clear air flying in clear sections of the sky and theoretically should have been able to see one another in time to take evasive action should there be a problem. (1)

There was no single traffic control system at that time and each airline controlled its own fleet of planes. The United flight radioed in that it was approaching Tuba City, Arizona and then four minutes later sent out a broken transmission that began “We are going in…” Both aircraft had gone down into the Grand Canyon near the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers, roughly 40 to 60 miles north of Flagstaff. Emergency and recovery procedures quickly were called into action, but all lives were lost. As a result of this crash Congress voted to form the Federal Aviation Administration which led directly to the current universal flight control system. (1)

Image credit: Time, Inc. (1948) – believed to be in the public domain

Howard Hughes had owned his interest in TWA through his then wholly-owned entity Hughes Tool Company. By 1942, he had acquired 42% of the stock and had increased his interest to 80% by 1947. Hughes Tool was also a creditor of TWA and had as an additional business a company that built its own aircraft, Hughes Aircraft. Hughes was voted out of the management of the company around 1960 and later sold his interest in 1966 for $546.5 million dollars. This was after a well publicized conflict began in which TWA sued Hughes Tool in 1961, alleging among other things that the latter had engaged in antitrust activities that damaged the airline’s ability to compete. The airline won at lower court levels but lost in a decision at the United States Supreme Court in 1973. Hughes, by then a recluse, died three years later in 1976.

TWA and United went on to recover from the Grand Canyon tragedy. In the late 1960s TWA became the top transatlantic airline. In the 1980s the airline began to struggle under airline deregulation. TWA also became a target of a financier named Carl Icahn who, similar to what Hughes had done, gained control of the airline. A series of transactions over the following years resulted in the taking of the company private, selling its valuable routes to London, and other decisions that weakened its ability to compete with the other major airlines. The company declared bankruptcy in 1992 and again in 1995. TWA struggled for a few more years until it declared bankruptcy a final time and merged with American Airlines in 2001.


(1) Ghiglieri, Michael P.; Myers, Thomas M. (2001). “Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon.” Puma Press.

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