From the 1966 book, Howard Hughes.
Not until September was the Sikorsky amphibian ready for delivery to Hughes in New York City. It had been tested no more than an hour in the air, but he accepted it. He would put it through its shakedown flight himself, and his idea of a shakedown was to fly it to California, together with a crew. The first leg of the journey ended at Indianapolis, where Hughes put down for the night. Odekirk volunteered to supervise the refueling while Hughes took the rest of the air crew into the city to find them accommodations at the town’s leading hotel.
The usual expensive Hughes modifications began the moment the Sikorsky was trundled into the Burbank California hangar. Work proceeded for a few weeks until Hughes learned that the Lockheed Aircraft Company’s new transport, the Lodestar, was much faster.
“Hell,” Hughes said, looking at the Sikorsky. “If I broke the record in this one, somebody would buy the Lockheed and go out and beat me …”
Wherefore Hughes ordered one of the new Lockheeds. It was the third aircraft he had purchased within a year in his search for the best possible plane to carry him around the world.
|Hughes purchased a Sikorsky amphibian and a Douglas DC-1 but then purchased a new Lockheed Super Electra for the flight because it was faster.|
To make a beginning, Howard Hughes drew up a list of two hundred basic items of emergency equipment. Two rifles, for instance: one for stopping dangerous game, in the event of his being attacked by a bear in the Siberian mountains if it so happened that he crash-landed in a region of Siberia infested by bears; a lighter rifle for shooting small game for the pot.
There would also have to be tins of canned turkey, concentrated foods, malt tablets, honey and canned pumpernickel. And fishing equipment, medicines and a sun still to convert salt water to fresh. Five parachutes, to each of which would be attached a pack containing iron rations and small radio transmitters. Pingpong balls. Thousands of pingpong balls, to be stuffed into every available empty space in the aircraft to insure at least temporary flotation in the event the Lockheed came down at sea. And life rafts, each with its own radio transmitter.
The life raft transmitters themselves posed a problem: how to erect their antennae? Hughes provided two solutions. First he designed a kite to carry an antenna aloft, and spent days on a lake near Los Angeles flying kites. The experiment was a success, but just in case there might be no wind, Hughes also included balloons in the life rafts’ equipment, with small canisters of helium to inflate the balloons.
Then there was the matter of fuel. The plans called for a refueling in Siberia, but Hughes could not count on Russian gasoline available at remote airstrips being the high-octane fuel that his engines required. So he added to his list a supply of tetraethyl lead, to be added to any low-octane gasoline that might be offered him, and he also included 200-mesh copper screens to strain such gasoline of possible foreign matter.
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Few things delight the heart of a man more than making out lists of camping supplies for an intended journey, but to these delights Hughes added other labors of love. The new Lockheed was stripped to its shell, and two 1,200-horsepower Wright engines were installed. Hughes devised a unique dual fuel system to draw upon the outsize fuel tanks that were built. He also found a way to make the fuel tanks self-sealing, by means of wrapping them in neoprene, a compound that had something of the quality of liquid rubber. Modifications of the Lockheed were carried out in a secrecy that would do credit to a modem missile installation.
Hughes was not interested merely in setting a speed record around the world. He wanted to test hundreds of principles of flight; to experiment with new navigational aids and new radio equipment. He wanted a crew of four. From the Army Air Corps he obtained the services of Lieutenant Thomas Thurlow, who was in charge of experiments in aircraft navigation at Wright Field. From the National Broadcasting Company he borrowed Richard Stoddart, a thirty-eight-year-old radio engineer. Another navigator and co-pilot was Harry P. McLean Connor, at thirty-nine the oldest member of the crew and a veteran flyer who had been co-pilot on Captain Erroll Boyd’s flight in 1930 from Montreal to London. As mechanic Hughes wanted Glen Odekirk, but he decided that Odekirk could best contribute to the flight by serving as ground crew chief. He asked another old friend, Ed Lund, to serve as the air crew mechanic—Lund having helped on the work with the DC-1 and the Sikorsky.
While the aircraft was being modified, the crewmen—including Hughes—practiced target shooting and rowing, studied jungle survival techniques and techniques of survival at sea. In addition, Hughes was involved with obtaining the necessary licenses, permits, courtesy privileges and clearances from his own and foreign governments.
Together with meteorologist Rockefeller, Hughes worked out a flight path around the world. Rockefeller enlisted the help of his foreign colleagues to arrange for a system of weather codes to be transmitted to the aircraft in flight. In addition to his other duties, Rockefeller was instructed to keep Katharine Hepburn informed of each stage of Hughes’ journey. Arrangements were made to insure the availability of food and mechanical assistance at each projected stopping place en route; radio operators around the world were asked to help monitor the flight and assist in helping the navigators establish radio lines of bearing. It was discovered that for long stretches of the proposed flight path, no accurate maps were available. Hughes and his staff made what educated guesses they could.
Hughes obtained the most advanced radio transceiver built to date—actually three radios in one. Four specially designed compasses were installed with a view to checking and double-checking course and position. A new Sperry automatic pilot was added—a device that could fly the plane while pilots slept. The Federal Communications Commission assigned thirty wave bands to the aircraft for its flight, varying from a long wave of 333 to a short wave of 22,000 kilocycles. Ships sailing the Atlantic were notified to assist the Lockheed in taking its bearings; the plan was for the aircraft to take a radio bearing on a ship and another on a radio station in England, with the resulting intersection of the lines establishing a positive fix.
|Lockheed 14, Super Electra.|
Months went into the drawing of plans and the rebuilding of the Lockheed; months of stress analysis and of test flying; of calibrating fuel consumption at various altitudes at various speeds with various payloads; months of working with the new navigation and radio equipment. Seven months were required to ready the crew and the aircraft for the flight. Closely guarded as was the Hughes Aircraft Company’s area, no project of such proportions could be kept entirely secret, and toward the end of the preparations the news leaked out.
“Is Hughes Planning World Flight?” one newspaper headline asked, and the story beneath it implied that yes, he was. “Look Out World—Here Comes Hughes!” another headline more forthrightly said.
Hughes himself gave the press short shrift. He issued terse denials. He had “no comment.” “We may fly to New York someday,” he told reporters. Badgered further, he admitted that he was “considering” a flight from New York to Paris. The reporters added these fragments together and wrote that Hughes was not planning to fly to Paris, but around the world. Then it was announced in New York that Hughes had been persuaded to serve as aeronautical director of the forthcoming 1939 New York World’s Fair; in fact, his airplane would be named New York World’s Fair, 1939; he was, indeed, planning a world flight which, among other things, would advertise the Fair.
At this point the nation’s newspapers published biographies of Hughes. The stories emphasized his wealth and dwelt on those aspects of Hughes that most suggested the daredevil, the sportsman, the playboy and the lover. They were illustrated with photographs of beautiful women reputed to have been his friends. Whether he welcomed it or not, Hughes most certainly had the attention of the press, but then, in 1938, when aviation was in its lusty adolescence, flying around the world was hardly the path to obscurity.
On July 7, all was ready; the Lockheed flew to New York for a scheduled takeoff the following day. A crowd of several hundred waited for the plane at Floyd Bennett Field, and they saw Hughes brusquely, almost rudely, brush reporters aside.
“Not now,” he kept saying, as he strode across the tarmac from the airplane into a hangar office and closed the door. The Lockheed was brought into the hangar and the metal doors clanged shut. There, away from the curious and the well-wishers, Hughes, Odekirk and Lund began to give the aircraft a thorough inspection.
“The cylinders,” Lund said. “Take a look.”
Hughes looked. The cylinders had been badly pitted.
“Take them out and put new ones in,” he said, knowing as he gave the order that there would be no takeoff on Friday, July 8, as scheduled. The repairs could not possibly be completed in a day; the World’s Fair could not depart until Saturday morning at the earliest. Hughes and his men worked through the night. Just before dawn, Hughes slipped away for a brief rest at a New York hotel. By midmorning he was back at the field where crowds were beginning to gather. By noon it was apparent that there would be no Saturday takeoff, either; at four P.M. he sent word to the reporters clamoring outside the locked hangar that he was now planning to depart on Sunday. Still the crowds gathered, and on Saturday night they arrived with sleeping bags; they pitched tents on adjacent fields, spread picnic lunches and slept in shifts so as not to be surprised by any sudden takeoff.
Hughes spent that Saturday night working on the Lockheed and at dawn he told the reporters, “It now looks like we’ll get off about three o’clock this afternoon,” whereupon the reporters groaned. Some wondered if he would ever leave. What they did not wholly understand was that Hughes was an exhausting perfectionist. He had taken out heavy life insurance policies on his crew. He refused to gamble on there being the tiniest defect in his airplane.
As Sunday wore on the crowds grew larger. Hughes and his crew left the field at one point to take a brief rest, and this led to a rumor that the flight had been called off. While those in the crowd asked one another if this were true, Hughes drove to Manhattan to telephone Miss Hepburn. (The next day, gossip columnists reported that Hughes had broken away from the airport in order to hold a tender goodbye rendezvous with Miss Hepburn.)
In the late afternoon a new trouble developed. The starboard motor suddenly refused to function, and Lund’s diagnosis was a faulty magneto. A new magneto was hurriedly furnished by the Wright Aeronautical Company which, because it was Sunday, had to locate its storeroom manager, and send him to their warehouse and then to the airport. It was six P.M. before all was ready. Hughes hastily scanned the latest weather map prepared by Rockefeller, tossed it aside, summoned his crew and said “Let’s go.”
But he had forgotten something. Grover Whalen, the distinguished-looking clotheshorse who was New York’s official greeter of distinguished citizens, and who was also president of the World’s Fair, and New York City’s Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, each wished to say several thousand words. Neither shared Howard Hughes’ view of the press. On the way to the microphones Mr. Whalen turned to Hughes and said, “Wish I could go with you.” Hughes ignored him.
|Picture from just after the flight Mayer La Guardia, left, then Grover Whalen and Howard Hughes.|
“It gives me great pleasure to participate in this formal step in a dramatic and glorious undertaking,” Mr. Whalen began, when the newsreel cameras were ready. He turned to Hughes. “In a few moments you and your companions will be taking off on your flight to Paris. You have with you all the factors that make for success—your own skill and daring, courageous companions, equipment that is mechanically perfect, and plans that have been wisely laid and carefully put into action.”
Mr. Whalen paused.
“Your flight,” Mr. Whalen began again, “will remind the world of the good will and understanding that has long existed between great democratic nations. It will further cement deep rooted . . .“
Mr. Whalen and the Mayor were beaming, and the crowd was applauding; the speeches were over. But now it was Hughes’ turn to say something to the multitude. He stepped forward and in a strained, high voice began to read from a paper that had been prepared for him:
“We hope that our flight may prove a contribution to the cause of friendship between nations and that through their outstanding fliers, for whom the common bond of aviation transcends national boundaries, this cause may be furthered. We are glad to bear invitations from the New York World’s Fair, 1939, to these fliers, for we feel that they understand that with the development of air transportation, increased communication will further international cooperation and friendship.”
“It is particularly fitting that you should have christened our ship the New York World’s Fair, 1939 inasmuch as the purpose of the Fair and this flight is to further international peace and progress.”
He spoke at a time when it was obvious to a child that international peace and cooperation were wistful dreams, and that in no case could an advertising venture for a commercial fair help to make such dreams come true. So Hughes hurried through the conventional claptrap, and then put the paper aside to speak his mind:
“I want to apologize to the newspapermen and photographers if I seemed rude and impolite last night and this morning. I had received favorable weather reports and had only the thought of hopping on my mind. I did not mean to be rude or impolite, and I want to apologize right now.”
With that the press broke into its only applause of the day, while Hughes turned to ask an aide whether ten pounds of freshly prepared ham, cheese and tomato sandwiches had been put aboard as he had requested. Lieutenant Thurlow embraced his pretty wife and small son, and Mrs. Connor broke through the police cordon around the airplane to stick a thick wad of chewing gum on the tail.
“For good luck!” she called to her husband. “Be sure and bring it back safe to me! You, too!”
At thirteen seconds past 7:19 P.M., the silver monoplane’s twin engines began to pull it slowly—agonizingly slowly, it must have seemed to Hughes—and then more rapidly—but not rapidly enough, it seemed—down the airfield’s longest runway. There was a question in everyone’s mind whether it would, in fact, lift off. Hughes had tested the plane with a 24,000-pound load in California, but he was now carrying 1,600 pounds more than that, plus 10 pounds of last-minute sandwiches and a wad of chewing gum. The takeoff used the whole length of the runway, and the Lockheed’s wheels clipped the tops of the red clover at the south end of the field before the World’s Fair was airborne. The crowd watched until it disappeared, low over Jamaica Bay.
At 8:26 P.M. Boston tower reported Hughes overhead; by 9:55 Nova Scotia was sliding under the Lockheed’s wings. At 10:30 P.M. the first broadcast from an aircraft in flight was heard over the nation’s radio networks, and Katharine Hepburn in Connecticut was one of millions of Americans who heard Stoddart’s voice enter the living room from the skies over Newfoundland.
|Katherine Hepburn was a long time good friend of Howard Hughes.|
“The flight is progressing smoothly,” Stoddart said. “The weather is clear, but we cannot see anything below us because of a cloud cover. Mr. Hughes is busy right now, but he will be able to say something a little later.”
What radioman Stoddart did not say was that Mr. Hughes was worrying about his fuel consumption. Perhaps because of its extra load or because of adjustments to the engines, the ship was using far more gasoline than anyone had anticipated. Hughes was also busily trying to get in touch with Odekirk, who at that moment, after three days and nights of steady work had gotten a police escort to a Manhattan hotel and was walking wearily through the lobby on his way to bed. A Hughes aide rushed up to him and said:
“They want you back at flight headquarters at the World’s Fair. Something terrible has happened. Mr. Hughes is trying to get you.”
Odekirk’s weary face went white. Police motorcycle sirens carved a path through midtown traffic for Odekirk’s car as he was whisked back to the headquarters office where the static of radios filled the room. Hughes’ voice came to him out of the ether. Nothing serious had happened. Hughes wanted Odekirk to stay by the radio for the duration of the flight, just in case anything did. So a cot was brought in and the weary man at length fell asleep, perhaps dreaming about aircraft and the sometimes exasperating men who flew them.
Meanwhile, out over the Atlantic, Hughes drank milk and told his crew to rest. They catnapped for half hours, stretched out on the aircraft’s metal floor, but Hughes continued to sit at the controls. At 2:30 A.M. Monday, Stoddart called the radio networks, and America heard Hughes’ voice for the first time.
“I hope we can get to Paris before we run out of gas,” Hughes said, “but I am not so sure. All I can do is hope that we will get there. I hope that we will have enough gas to reach land. I am throttling back the engines as fast as the reducing load permits.”
On that cheerless note, he signed off.
In New York, newspaper editors prepared bulletins stating that Hughes was down at sea. These bulletins would be used on the front pages of extra editions if the word came that Hughes was going down. Reluctantly, the editors put their last regular morning editions to bed, afraid that the plane would be in the ocean before the papers hit the streets.
Far out over the North Atlantic the Lockheed picked up a brisk tail wind that blew it to Ireland at a great—and badly needed—saving of fuel. There were more than a hundred gallons of gasoline aboard as the island swung beneath the aircraft’s port wing; enough to continue to Paris as planned. Lieutenant Thurlow gave Hughes a course heading and an estimated time of arrival at Le Bourget airfield, and Hughes happily radioed ahead for landing instructions.
Because the Lockheed flew east while the sun sped west, it was early Monday evening in Paris when the silver monoplane touched down just sixteen hours and thirty-five minutes after leaving New York. It was a new record for the New York-Paris flight; two hours better than the most recent record and roughly half Lindbergh’s original time.
|Parisians greet the flight.|
And because it was early evening in Paris, thousands of the curious were waiting at the airfield to welcome the Texas millionaire, along with dignitaries of Paris and United States Ambassador to France, William C. Bullitt. Mr. Bullitt, together with his military and air attaches, ran to greet Hughes.
“Congratulations!” Mr. Bullitt said. “Did you have a good trip?”
“We had a good flight,” Hughes said. He turned to his crew. “We’ll allow two hours here,” he told them, as if Paris was nothing more than a filling station at which one must stop in the course of a long trip. He started to walk toward the terminal building.
But it was Lund, again, who called Hughes’ attention to a problem. The mechanic pointed to ominous wrinkles in the aircraft’s metal skin near the tail assembly. Hughes immediately knew what had happened. On takeoff in New York, as he had turned the plane from taxiway to runway, the tail wheel had slipped off the pavement into soft earth and the resulting jolt had buckled several of the metal structural members of the fuselage. Hughes and Lund climbed back aboard and crawled into the narrow area aft to inspect the damage. Outside the aircraft, French mechanics looked at the wrinkled skin and shrugged.
“C’est fini,” one of them said, demonstrating a Gailic fatalism with respect to the mysteries of machinery and a serious underestimation of American make-do.
But Lund, with a United States Army sergeant from the Embassy staff, very shortly procured a quantity of angle irons from a nearby hangar and began bolting them inside the fuselage to carry the stress forward to undamaged structural members of the airframe. It was slow work. The rest of the air crew took advantage of the delay to sleep, but Hughes went to the terminal restaurant where he ate a lamb chop and a bowl of French-fried potatoes and refused continually offered glasses of champagne. He glanced through a sheaf of congratulatory telegrams and made a long-distance telephone call to Miss Hepburn, but failed to reach her.
|Later picture of Howard Hughes. He loved to fly at the edge of the current technology but did so with calculated risk.|
Reporters milled about asking whether the trip would be called off. Some of them filed stories saying that the trip was a fiasco, despite Hughes’ having broken the transatlantic record between New York and Paris. Hughes refused to talk to any of them. He maintained his brooding silence throughout the eight hours that elapsed while the repairs were being made. When Lund finally announced that all was ready, reporters dogged Hughes all the way to the airplane.
“When will you get to Moscow?” one of them asked.
Hughes regarded the man bleakly, and spoke for the first time.
“I don’t know,” he said.
He climbed into the aircraft and the door shut behind him.
As the Lockheed climbed through a thick cloud layer, Le Bourget tower had this to say: “Be most careful in landing at Moscow. Your left wheel is damaged.” A check was made, and Stoddart reported, “There is nothing to worry about. It looks like a normal condition which was very much enlarged upon by someone who didn’t quite understand the situation.” But there was something else to worry about. The original route would have taken the plane directly over Germany into Russia. Just prior to leaving New York, however, Hughes was told that the German government had reconsidered and demanded that Hughes follow an alternate route over Scandinavia instead.
The Germans, busily arming themselves for another Teutonic migration into their neighbors’ territories, did not want a foreign aircraft flying over their military installations. Hughes, having lost eight hours in Paris fiddling with angle irons, was in no mood to pay the slightest attention to Hitler’s notion that he should waste more time touring Scandinavia. So he steered across the German border, and there was an immediate angry chattering in his radio headset. The most frequently used and familiar word was Verboten.
“Ah, it’s dark,” Hughes muttered. “We’re not going to see anything, and I don’t think they’ll shoot us down.”
It was not only dark, but Hughes was flying blind. Shortly past midnight Hughes radioed back to New York, “As far as we can see, everything is okay.
“We have picked up speed and are now traveling at two hundred twenty miles an hour. Our altitude is thirteen thousand three hundred feet. We are traveling over solid banks of clouds that come right up to the plane. When we get into them, they cover the plane with ice, so we must try to stay above them. We have been flying entirely by instruments. In fact, we have not seen the ground since we left Paris. We were flying on instruments before we completed the turn out of the airfield.”
The next news that America heard of the flight came in thick, excited accents: “Hello, hello America! This is Radio Moscow! It is 4:10 A.M. here and Hughes just went around the field and is making a landing!”
The roar of a crowd threatened to drown out the broadcaster, but he shouted above it.
“The plane is landing! What a beauty it is! The people are storming him now! They simply won’t let him go! We can’t get him to the microphone!”
Hughes was pushing through a sea of exuberant Muscovites that included three Russian flyers who had established a long-distance record in pioneering a transpolar flight from Moscow to the United States: Andrey Yumasheff, Georgi Baidukoff and Mikhail Gromoff. A Russian soldier saw on the tail of the aircraft the red star that was the Lockheed trademark, and was reported by the Moscow press to have said, “Look, they fly under the red star! That will bring them luck. It is fine to show Fascist vultures that we democracies fly better than they.” And Hughes was reported to have said, “Please refuel as quickly as possible. We would like to leave in twenty minutes.”
|Early Lockheed logo had a red star.|
The Russians were just as anxious for Hughes to stay a while. They had planned a tour of Moscow for him, an elaborate feast, and a suite of rooms in the best hotel was reserved for him. They had even obtained American corn flakes for his breakfast. Inside the airport building, Hughes passed up the vodka and the caviar that were offered him, accepting black bread and cheese instead. Pilot Gromoff talked briefly with Hughes about flying conditions and the repairs that had been made in Paris, and then, loudly, with a significant look at the newspaper reporters, said, “I know what long flights mean, and so none of us will bother you anymore.”
Gromoff took the reporters outside to look at Hughes’ airplane.
“What a plane!” he told them. “More than two hundred miles an hour the whole way, with five people aboard and all that load of gasoline and equipment.”
It was two hours, not twenty minutes, before Hughes could decently escape the well-meant enthusiasm of the Russians and fight his way back through the crowds to his airplane. He and his crew declined a parting gift of a huge jar of caviar, but accepted instead a case of mineral water.
Airborne for Omsk, Hughes for the first time stretched out on the cabin floor to sleep. Twenty minutes later he woke up refreshed and took over the controls. An hour before the Lockheed’s estimated arrival time at Omsk, thirteen hundred miles east of Moscow, they were flying in a thick night of driving rain. The ground was not visible, but by now Stoddart had obtained a bearing on the Omsk radio station with his directional radio compass. Flying down this line, they saw red lights flickering in the murk below. It was difficult to believe the lights marked the approaches to the Omsk airfield. An hour early in all this weather? Could the instruments, the radio compass, be in error? But the only airfield for hundreds of miles around was that of Omsk, and Hughes let down toward the lights. The field proved to be little more than a cow pasture whose rainy darkness was illuminated by the headlights of a few automobiles parked around the field. Hughes anxiously put the aircraft down on a grass landing strip and came to a halt near a handful of wet but excited citizens.
Gasoline for the aircraft was stacked along the grass runway in fifty-gallon drums. Some of the drums had fallen over; their plugs had come out, and the gasoline had poured out on the ground. Hughes and his crewmen broke open their containers of tetraethyl lead and added it to the low-grade Russian gasoline in the remaining drums. By this time it was forty-two hours since departure from New York, and the first word that New York had of Hughes’ presence in Omsk came when Hughes radioed to Odekirk for help. Where had they put the box containing the gasoline strainers? Odekirk told his distant employer to look among the life rafts and the pingpong balls, and the refueling proceeded by hand pump. Four hours later the flight was once more airborne, heading cut through a storm at night across the steppes, bound for Yakutsk by way of Krasnoyarsk and Kansk. They reached Yakutsk just as dawn broke, and the Siberians who met them there were puzzled by the legend New York World’s Fair, 1939 painted on the fuselage.
“They thought that we were living in 1939, while they were still in 1938,” Lund said. “They wondered how we had gained a year on them.”
A chain of mountains lies across the route from Yakutsk to Fairbanks, Alaska, and according to the maps Hughes carried, these mountains were sixty-five hundred feet high. Hughes had planned to fly at eighty-five hundred feet to be certain of clearing them. On approaching the mountains at that altitude, however, Hughes was astonished to see them towering above him. Either his altimeter was wrong or the map was wrong, but in any case an immediate climb was the first order of business. Hughes climbed five hundred feet higher, and still the mountain crests rose before him. Not until he reached eleven thousand feet was it certain that be would clear the range, and during the climb Hughes had time to reflect upon the hours spent at the Paris airport. Had the trip proceeded exactly on schedule, he would have been flying this leg of the trip at night instead of in broad daylight. At eighty-five hundred feet he would have flown at two hundred miles an hour into the face of a Siberian cliff.
Moodily, Hughes jotted notations on his map as he steered out across the Bering Sea and saw, at these latitudes, both the sun and moon appear in the same quadrant of the heavens. Twelve hours and sixteen minutes out of Yakutsk the World’s Fair, 1939 touched down at Fairbanks, where Mrs. Wiley Post, widow of the flier whose record Hughes was breaking, was one of the crowd that welcomed the now bone-weary air crew. Hughes warmly shook her hand and expressed his admiration for Post’s historic feat. “I wish you Godspeed,” Mrs. Post said through her tears.
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Since there were no more oceans to cross, the Lockheed was stripped of its life rafts and survival equipment while mechanics refueled the tanks. A sack of pingpong balls was thrown out of the baggage compartment and broke open on striking the runway. For a moment, all work stopped as Fairbanks natives scrambled after little white bouncing souvenirs. With this excitement over, reporters returned to Hughes, who, gaunt, bearded and obviously tired, kept saying, “I’m sorry, but we can’t talk now. We must get back into the air.”
A study of the weather maps at Fairbanks indicated storms ahead, so two cities were selected for the next refueling; if weather closed the route to one, Hughes would try the other. Accordingly, Winnipeg and St. Paul were each advised to expect Hughes. Two hours out of Fairbanks a tracking station at Hermosa Beach, California, picked up a message from Hughes saying that he would land at Winnipeg, and the Canadian city made hasty plans for a public reception. Crowds began to gather at the Winnipeg airport. Meanwhile Hughes had run into heavy weather and altered course for Minneapolis while failing to advise Winnipeg of his change in plan. When the plane was long overdue in Winnipeg, plans were made to send out a search party. Then Minneapolis broadcast the news that Hughes had paid an unexpected visit to their city and half an hour later had taken off for New York.
Hailstones big as walnuts bombarded the New York World’s Fair, 1939 as it passed over Minnesota. “For a few bad moments, we thought the plane was going to shake itself to death,” Lund said. “We had to lower the speed to almost stalling to keep it from falling apart.” But the aircraft struggled through the cold front that hung over the Great Lakes, and gave New York’s Floyd Bennett tower an estimated time of arrival. Half an hour from final touchdown, Hughes received a message from the field that an orderly reception awaited him.
“You are in no danger of being mobbed,” the message said.
Even as these words were spoken, more than twenty-five thousand men, women and children were trying to wedge their way into the airport. When the silver monoplane roared low over the administration building three days, nineteen hours and eight minutes after its original takeoff—after having halved the record flight for a trip around the world—Hughes could look out his cockpit window and prepare himself for the worst. The borders of the airfield were black with people. People lined the runway he was to use, and on the tarmac in front of the administration building was the densest crowd of all, pushing about the central space where the hero of the hour would no doubt be met by the usual politicians who would thereupon proceed to drown him in flood of self-seeking oratory.
|New York crowds after flight.|
Hughes swung away on a wide circle around the field, let down his landing gear, let down his flaps and, with a sudden dip, dived down to earth. He landed on a runway at a far side of the field, well away from the administration building where the throng was waiting. He killed the engines and wiped his forehead. He sat wearily in the cockpit and listened to the fire engine sirens screaming and the bells clanging welcome and heard the crowd’s deep shout and saw them running toward him across the airfield; Grover Whalen was lumbering and panting ahead of Mayor La Guardia.
Hughes was the first man out of the plane. One reporter said he looked like “a naughty child in his soiled shirt and rumpled trousers.” The New York Times said Hughes had “the face of a poet and the shyness of a schoolboy.” The photographs show a tall, tired man wearing a four-day beard, a nondescript suit, an old brown fedora and a look of utter emptiness. It was, perhaps, the look of a man who well understood the truth of the adage, “It is better to travel than to arrive.”
|The next day New York City held a ticker tape parade celebrating Howard Hughes around the world flight.|