Howard Hughes – His Need for Speed
The H1 racer, by far, was the most innovative aircraft built in its era. Glenn Odekirk who built the airplane related these stories to me.
After Howard had won several air races he said to me "Ode, build me the fastest airplane in the world" so we hired Dick Palmer, a noted aeronautical engineer, “and by golly, that's will we did”!
We designed everything for increased airspeed. Howard participated constantly in the design and constructions of the Racer because he would be the one to test fly it. It was the first airplane to have retractable gear, flush rivets, split flaps and specially designed engine cowling all to reduce drag. We used high polished aluminum for the skin and in places where we couldn't use rivets I had the screw head slots set to match the airflow. "We squeezed every bit of airspeed we could get out of her”. The cockpit was small and left little wiggle room for Howard. It was like an engine with a saddle on it.
During speed flight tests near Santa Ana, California, Ode said "I told Howard that I “souped up” the engine and that there was only about an hour and a half of fuel on board." Hughes was quite excited at the performance when he was reaching speeds over 350 mph during the flights and forgot what I had told him. He ran out of gas and crashed in a beet field. When I reached the crash scene, Howard was sitting on the wing with a grin on his face and he said "it'll go faster Ode, It’ll go faster”.
In the early morning of January 18, 1937 at the Burbank Airport we did a thorough preflight on the H-1 Racer for a run at the transcontinental speed record. Howard rarely wore a watch. He said to me, "Ode let me borrow your watch” as he was about to take off at 2:15 AM. The weather was overcast most of the flight, he lost radio contact over Kingman, Arizona but continued on flying by dead reckoning, landing in Newark, New Jersey in a record breaking time. That record held for seven years. Howard was the fastest Man alive.
“Now, my wife had given me that nice expensive Bulova watch just the Christmas before the flight and I was reluctant to ask Howard for the watch back however; on the one-year anniversary of the flight, Howard gave the watch back to me. Inscribed on the back was: "to Glenn Odekirk, Worn by Howard Hughes, nonstop flight Burbank to Newark, 7 hours, 28 minutes, 25 seconds, January 18, 1937” “Howard was a very kind and thoughtful man”. Ode wore the watch until the day he died. He was very proud of the H-1 Racer.
When the Ode and I went to Washington DC in 1980 to meet with several congressmen for help in our efforts to save the Hughes Flying Boat, we visited the Smithsonian to see the H-1 Racer. The Director there literally ‘rolled the carpet out’ for Ode because they felt it is the best aircraft built in its era.
The late Barry Goldwater, a pilot and recipient of the Howard Hughes silver medallion award in 1985 told the attendees "well... our government was interested in the age H-1 Racer, but oooh the Japs were”. It is common knowledge in aviation history that the Japanese copied the H-1 Racer design to make their Zero fighter aircraft.
Howard Hughes; in his own words about his H-1 Racer
Hughes: "It says the plane with which he set the land speed record was, as the fact indicates, the fastest plane built up to that time is not correct because there had been one or two seaplanes built for the Schneider Trophy Race which were faster. However they had practically no range and were only usable on a very smooth lake with fuel enough for a few minutes flight, utterly impractical. This airplane [H-1 Racer] which is under discussion here was the fastest land plane which had ever been built and was the most efficient airplane ever built up to that time by a considerable amount . . . You see this airplane was fast because it was clean and yet it attained its speed with a Pratt and Whitney engine of perfectly normal design with normal reliability.
Now this follows - Hughes submitted a pursuit plane version of his design to the Army Air Corps and felt confident that after his demonstration of his trans-continental flight the army would be interested because this airplane was definitely faster than any military aircraft anywhere in the world - pursuit plane, bomber, or anything else. . . However the Army Air Corps did not accept this design. Right here I don't know exactly what reason to give. I don't want to indict the Army Air Corps for passing up the airplane so a little thought should be given to this. I have my own ideas as to why they didn't accept it but after all I'm doing a lot of business now with the Air Force and let's not generate any ill-will here.
Now regarding the Japanese Zero . . . The Japanese Zero was a shock of the utmost magnitude to the United States because it had been thought up to that time that the Japanese were far inferior mechanically, I should say in point of aircraft design and mechanical aptitude, to the United States and nobody expected the Japanese to have an airplane that would be at all competitive. Well, in any event, when one of these Japanese Zeros was finally captured and studied and analyzed it was quite apparent to everyone that it had been copied from the Hughes plane which has been discussed earlier here. That is the only relationship between the Japanese Zero and the Hughes H-I design. I had no dealings with the Japanese or any other foreign government for the plane and to the best of everyone's knowledge the Japanese had no other access to it except through whatever espionage they may have had or through seeing photographs of it which naturally were published all over the world