Howard – Up Close & Personal
‘The Hughes I Knew’
Howard R. Hughes, the enigmatic billionaire who influenced the course of TWA for many years, died April 5 while being flown from Acapulco, Mexico to Houston for medical treatment. He was 70 years old.
In the 50-year history of TWA, the chapter titled "Howard Hughes" has to be the most colorful and complex. A future Skyliner will recount highlights of the Hughes-TWA years.
They say no one ever really knew Howard Hughes.
One person in TWA perhaps knew him better than most: Gordon Gilmore, who headed TWA's public relations department through much of the turbulent Hughes era. Upon word of Hughes' death. Mr. Gilmore dispatched to the Skyliner his recollections of Hughes, which appear on page four.
By Gordon Gilmore
At 2:39 a.m. of a July morning in 1956 the telephone rang. It rattled insistently in my motel room near the Grand Canyon's South Rim. From the stupor and daze of forty winks, after nearly 36 hours without any sleep, I reached and fumbled for the intruding annoyance.
"This is Howard."
Instinct urged asking "Howard who?" Intuition took over and managed, "Yes, Mr. Hughes."
The setting was the Grand Canyon because, along with John Collings, Ray Dunn, Frank Busch and many others from TWA, I had been working two days to sort the wreckage of the TWA Super Constellation and a United DC-7 which had tragically collided overhead.
An opposite number team from United also were there, as well as newsmen.
The tragic accident had shaken the company. Of 70 persons aboard TWA Flight 2, 31 were TWA employees or members of their families.
Mr. Hughes expressed his concern and sympathy for TWA crew persons and passengers who had lost their lives, and asked that his regards be extended to TWA people working on the scene.
Then he said, "I am very disappointed about a picture in a Los Angeles paper this afternoon. It was a bulldozer digging a massive grave for unidentified dead. I don't want anything in bad taste that will add to the sorrow of the surviving families."
In considerable detail, I went on to explain that we who were on the scene had to make a decision without delay, had gone over the matter very carefully and felt our plan would meet every standard of dignity and respect.
Mr. Hughes listened and said, "Sounds okay, but what about religious services?"
I told him that services would be conducted by representatives of the three principal faiths, Catholic, Jewish and Protestant. He hesitated a second and then asked, "What about Mormon?" Next day, a leading Mormon clergyman was en route from Salt Lake City. (Hughes surrounded himself with Mormons because they neither drank nor smoked.)
Hughes could show compassion—although some said he never did—but he also had his own ideas about how he wanted things to be done.
Millions of words have been written and will continue to be written, mostly by persons who never saw him. I had numerous face-to-face meetings and conversations with him. These occurred from early 1947 until the late 1950's. A few anecdotes may give my impressions of the man no one ever really knew.
Others have told of harassing and nagging phone calls he made at weird hours. I had phone calls too.
They usually were cordial and solicitous. If we didn't always agree at first, we did at the end. His way.
In 1956, TWA was getting ready to introduce what was to be the last of our piston engine aircraft, the Lockheed 1649 Constellation. Billy Gay of the Hughes organization, Jim Delong of TWA, Elliston Vinson of Foote, Cone and Belding and I became a committee to pick an intriguing new name for the aircraft, to design its interior and plan for the inaugural.
The advertising agency, which had participated in the naming competition for a Ford car called Edsel, computerized hundreds of thousands of names. But all were rejected for the 1649.
Finally, as a meeting broke up in October 1956, committee members were asked to write five choices on a secret ballot and give them to the chairman. Well down on my list was the word "Jetstream". Shortly after Christmas another meeting was called. With the fanfare of an Academy Awards presentation, the announcement was breathlessly made . . .
"Mr. Hughes has decided that because of its high flying capabilities, because it can take advantage of upper air currents for increased speed and comfort, because it is in fact the forerunner of the jets, the name of the new TWA airplane will be (dramatic pause) 'Jetstream'."
In later years, Mr. Hughes has been described as a recluse, devoid of humor. Not always so. When I knew him he enjoyed a personal role in public relations news events. As in 1947, when word came from the West Coast to assemble leading news and aviation writers from the East, Chicago and Kansas City and fly them overnight in a special Connie to California where they would participate in, and hopefully report on, a "significant new aviation safety development."
The preceding 18 months had been disastrous for commercial aviation safety, probably the worst before or since. Airlines struggled with pre-war equipment to meet surging post-war travel demands. Navigational equipment was primitive by today's sophisticated standards. Any improvement would be front page news.
Our Constellation load of sleepy writers landed on the Hughes Culver City grass runway at daybreak.
Another Constellation stood ready for takeoff.
Over coffee and rolls, Hughes told the group he had developed a new radar device that would enable the crew to "see" terrain obstacles through the overcast and permit them to take action to avoid collision in plenty of time before it should occur.
He then invited the newsmen in groups of sixes to go with him on demonstration flights. Taking off from Culver City, he circled over the ocean. Hughes banked toward a ship below. As the radar cone from the airplane's nose picked up the ship, cockpit lights flashed and an ear-splitting gong clanged. Next, Hughes headed inland for the mountains. Straight into the mouth of a box canyon he flew, an impenetrable closed end dead ahead. Again, the flashing lights, the unearthly gong. With all the power of four Wright engines, Hughes pulled the Connie into an almost vertical climbing turn, out of danger. Shaken and hushed, the writers were convinced.
At departure time, Hughes was at the airport to say a personal goodbye. Across the country, newspapers, news magazines, newsreels headlined: "Airline Radar is Here. Hughes plan makes air travel safer." Aircraft of TWA and other airlines carried the Hughes device at least through the piston era.
(I was told later that Hughes had converted the tail gunner's device on a B-29 to warn of approaching enemy fighters into the nose warning device for commercial aircraft.)
Much has been written of Hughes' post-TWA years in Las Vegas. Actually, he took up part-time residence there in the early 1950's. He delighted in planning the TWA press flight inaugural between Vegas and San Francisco in 1953. It was to be a marathon round of gaming and entertainment, with arrival back in SFO at dawn of the second day. After all, who wants to sleep in Las Vegas, and besides, reasoned the billionaire, it would save hotel bills.
These are razor-sliced observations from the life of a 20th century phenomenon. Others observed differently.
This was the Hughes I personally knew.