Letter From Aviation History – May 2010

 The Aviator

You’ve gotta respect a guy who nearly kills himself in airplanes—twice—and still climbs back into the cockpit. But then, Howard Hughes was not your average aviator.

Much has been written about the famous reclusive multimillionaire, including in these pages. In his article about the Lockheed Constellation in our July 2009 issue, Stephan Wilkinson allowed that the image of Hughes as a “whack-job, a crazy man, a weirdo” is an exaggeration, and that his “true goofiness began with his addiction to painkillers as the result of the dreadful injuries he suffered while crash-landing the prototype Hughes XF-11 twin-engine reconnaissance plane in July 1946.” In the May 2010 issue, E.R. Johnson charts Hughes’ twin-boom airplane development efforts, which ultimately led to that crash (see “Extremes”), and C.V. Glines reveals the sorry circumstances surrounding the aviator’s earlier crash during the filming of Hell’s Angels (see “A Showman Takes the Lead”).

That classic 1930 movie earned the no. 4 spot in last issue’s top-10 list of the best aviation movies ever made. Judging by the letters we’ve received, there are quite a few passionate aviation film fans out there. One movie that didn’t get a lot of votes—OK, none—was Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, despite winning five Academy Awards. But as reader Mike Heaney points out (see “Mailbag”), that 2004 film does feature one of the best airplane crash sequences ever committed to celluloid (or whatever the digital equivalent is)—the aforementioned XF-11 crash-“landing.” You can view it, as well as genuine newsreel footage of the crash aftermath, on YouTube. The newsreel footage ends with the line “America’s aviation trailblazers willingly pay the price in man’s conquest of the air.” Hughes might have disagreed as he convalesced in a hospital with multiple broken bones and third-degree burns.

If you have $118,000 or so to spare and want to own a genuine piece of Hughes history, you might consider purchasing the 1939 Douglas B-23 Dragon recently advertised on barnstormers.com. Hughes bought it in 1945, converting it to a business plane. Although it needs some work, it looks to be in remarkably good shape. Considering the prices that historic airplanes are commanding these days (see “Briefing”), $118 grand is bargain basement for a plane with this provenance. Think of it as an investment in aviation history.

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