Saturday 19 January 2013

Silver Bullet Sets Speed Record

Howard Hughes photo courtesy

It had been ten years since Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in his plane, mist in his face, and arrived at a Paris airport to a cheering crowd.  Now it was millionaire Howard Hughes' turn.  What was his challenge?  To fly 2500 miles across the North American continent in under nine hours.

Born in Texas in 1905, Howard Hughes Jr. grew up to be a successful entrepreneur and film maker.  It was during the making of one film, "Hell's Angels" in 1930 that Howard took flying lessons and earned his pilot's licence.  He fell in love with flying and soon was challenging himself to fly further and faster.

Under a canopy of darkness on January 19, 1937, the millionaire got into his blue and gray monoplane at a Burbank, California airport.  Equipped with a gyro compass, a Sperry artificial horizon and blind flying instruments, Howard's goal was to fly across the continent in under 9 hours (his previous record was set a year earlier).  The 1100 horsepower engine turned over, the propeller whirred and the silver bullet lurched down the runway prepared for takeoff.

Howard reached high altitudes (up to 14000 feet) on the first stage of his trip, using an oxygen mask over the Sierras.  However, he struggled with fitting the mask and applying the right amount of oxygen.  Feeling faint he almost thought he would have to abort the flight when he finally fixed the problem.  Without a radio transmitter, the pilot was not able to make contact with anyone on the ground and could only approximate his surroundings.  He did manage to spot Winslow, Arizona through the clouds.  The second point he identified was the Mississippi River which he estimated to have crossed just north of St. Louis, Missouri.

Tragedy almost struck when Howard ran out of oxygen in Indiana, but he persevered.  He continued to fly his monoplane eastward, averaging 322 miles per hour, right on schedule.  Through the clouds, he identified an airport just outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and pointed his nose down, started his long glide into New Jersey.  After 2500 miles and 7 hours, 28 minutes and 25 seconds, Hughes landed at a Newark airport, easily breaking his previous record.

Although he would not be greeted by the crowds that Lindbergh had in Paris, he was recognized for his feat. He would go down in history as a pioneer aviator.

Howard Hughes in front of his monoplane after transcontinental flight courtesy

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