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Celebrate! Volume Ii : Orange County's First 100 Years : Catalysts For Change : The Day Howard Hughes Broke The Speed Record

October 16, 1988|Kim Murphy

England was amassing a formidable fleet near the Suez Canal, pledging to join with France to bottle up the Italian fleet in the Mediterranean and hold off Mussolini's threatened invasion of Ethiopia. Washington again pleaded for peace.

But all the global saber rattling played second fiddle in local headlines that day--Sept. 13, 1935--when a dashing 30-year-old multimillionaire unceremoniously deposited his airplane on its belly in a Santa Ana beet field--after establishing a new world's speed record of 352.46 m.p.h.

"Hughes Sets Record; Crashes," the Santa Ana Register proclaimed.

By day's end, the Allies had set up their first united front against fascism, and the 314 m.p.h. world's speed record had been broken-- smashed a few thousand feet over Orange County by Howard Hughes' 1,100-horsepower, retractable-gear H-1 monoplane only moments before the H-1 itself smashed into a field a half-mile east of the old Holly Sugar refinery.

Hughes, already worth a reported $10 million, had made a name for himself producing such films as "Hell's Angels," "Scarface" and "The Front Page." But despite his success in Hollywood, he preferred hanging around with his flying buddies, spending much of his time in dingy airport cafes with the likes of Amelia Earhart and Paul Mantz.

The aircraft, with stubby wings and an all-metal fuselage, had been prepared secretly in a hangar in Glendale, and its innovative aerodynamics had been tested in a wind tunnel at Caltech in Pasadena.

A Caltech professor working with Hughes selected a site parallel to Red Hill Avenue near what is now Barranca Parkway, just north of Eddie Martin Airport.

Trouble the day before already had marred Hughes' attempt at breaking the record when Earhart and Mantz, who were to monitor Hughes' flight, had mechanical problems on their flight from Los Angeles to Eddie Martin Airport.

However, it was a cloudless morning when Hughes took off in his $150,000 craft, screaming over the three-kilometer course seven times at speeds ranging from 330 to 355 m.p.h. Finally, Hughes pulled the plane into a climb and pushed it back down into a power dive to gain speed for the last run. Just then, the engine faltered. One of the two gas tanks had gone dry, and Hughes shot the plane upward in an attempt to regain altitude while he fought to switch to his second fuel tank. But the engine refused to restart.

Hughes pointed the plane toward Eddie Martin Airport, about a mile away, but the compact little craft was sinking fast and what loomed larger and larger was the beet field. Hughes made a last, unsuccessful stab at lowering the landing gear and skidded unceremoniously to a stop in the middle of the plowed field.

Annoyed but unhurt, Hughes climbed out of the plane and waved to Earhart and Mantz, who were circling above.

"One of the two gasoline tanks went dry just as I was starting the eighth run," Hughes told reporters. "When the motor coughed, I knew what was wrong and tried to put in the second tank, but I wasn't fast enough. I decided to ride it down."

As it turned out, Hughes hadn't even had time to don the crash helmet that rested in the cockpit beside him.

Officials determined that Hughes had nonetheless qualified for a new world's record of 351 m.p.h. The next day the record was adjusted to 352.46 m.p.h., based on an average of his four fastest runs, two with the wind and two against.

But the man who would go on to other aviation triumphs, including two record coast-to-coast flights and establishment of the Hughes Aircraft Co., expressed disappointment. The H-1, he said, should have been able to do 365 m.p.h.

To those who knew him, it was simply the perfectionist at work. Noah Dietrich, the man Hughes hired to oversee his movie-making empire, recalled in his book, "Howard, the Amazing Mr. Hughes," the time when a 21-year-old Hughes told him about his life plans:

"My first objective is to become the world's No. 1 golfer," Hughes said. "Second, the top aviator, and third I want to become the world's most famous motion picture producer. Then, I want you to make me the richest man in the world."

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