This Day in History: Howard Hughes flies around the world

On this day in 1938, Howard Hughes nears the end of his flight around the world. He wasn’t the first to make such a flight, but he was well on track to being the fastest.

Naturally, Hughes wanted more than mere speed. The entrepreneurial pilot had another vision in mind.

“Hughes planned to fly around the world in a sophisticated machine supported by an expert air and ground crew,” his biographers explain. “No longer should ocean hopping be thought of as the province of daredevils. Hughes wanted to dramatize how a well-conceived, thoroughly planned, and carefully executed flight could be carried out without incident.”

Hughes was nothing if not prepared. He and his crew studied weather patterns. They installed extra radio transmitters and upgraded the engines on Hughes’s Lockheed Super Electra. Hughes had also been loaned cutting-edge navigational equipment. His navigator, Lt. Thomas L. Thurlow of the U.S. Army Air Corps, knew how to use that equipment better than anyone.

Nevertheless, Hughes faced trouble immediately upon takeoff.

“When Howard first cracked the throttles,” Thurlow later said, “it felt to me like the ship was tied.” Howard would later say that 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 to push her up to 175 as soon as we got in the air to make her fly efficiently.”

Naturally, that speed was a problem, too. The plane was using gasoline too fast. By 2:30 a.m. on the first night, Hughes was already worried. He throttled back his engines and began working to conserve fuel. With the help of a tailwind, he reduced his usage, just barely making it into Paris. Unfortunately, he soon discovered another problem: One of the Lockheed’s tires had been damaged during the difficult New York departure.

“A mechanic at Le Bourget Airport took one look at the wheel and said to me: ‘C’est fini,’ Hughes said. “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 . . . we were able to take off after about eight hours.”

It was a longer delay than Hughes had wanted, but he was off to Moscow, then Omsk. Perhaps his scariest moment came on the eastern side of Siberia. As he departed Yakutsk, his government-provided map showed a nearby mountain range at 6,500 feet.

That map could not be right! Hughes pulled up sharply, barely making it above a 9,700 foot mountain crest. “It’s a damn good thing I didn’t try to fly out of Yakutsk at night,” he later said.

By now, the end was in sight. Hughes stopped at Fairbanks, then Minneapolis. He and the crew were bone tired. They’d barely slept, taking only catnaps here and there since their July 10 departure.

Finally, the plane flew its last leg into New York. The crowd awaiting them was massive. People lined streets and sidewalks. They hung on fences. For a few minutes, the crowd even spilled onto the tarmac where Hughes was supposed to land. Fortunately, Hughes found space to bring his plane down. It was 2:37 p.m. on July 14. Hughes had completed the trip in 3 days, 19 hours, 14 minutes, and 10 seconds—a phenomenal accomplishment.

The city celebrated. As for Hughes, he was so tired that he snuck away to a hotel. He got a full night’s sleep for the first time in days.