April 1, 2022by Jon Kramer

Two Hughes: Aviation trailblazers willingly pay the price

Copyright 2022, updated / 2,825 words
by Jon Kramer


Some people are born to fly, some are born to crash.  I know of two that were born to both and they each have the last name of Hughes.  One I’m sure you know, the other you probably don’t, a deficiency in your character we will soon correct.

Two Howards

While I know the name Hughes is not very unusual, and certainly there are many of them named Howard, for the sake of this story we introduce only two particular Howard Hughes – Senior and Junior – but they are not the two Hughes I referenced in the title of this story.  Or, rather, one of them is.  The other is not.  But his son is – or was, I should say.  Sound confusing?  Hang in there, it’ll sort out.

Howard Hughes, Senior was a smart, shrewd, and very successful businessman.  He was founder and owner of Hughes Tool Company.  In 1909 he developed and patented a new kind of rotary bit that revolutionized drilling in the midst of the Texas oil boom. He had the foresight to lease out the bits his company made, rather than sell them.

We don’t have a monopoly, Hughes said. Anyone who wants to dig a well without a Hughes bit can always use a pick and shovel.

Thus, the senior Howard Hughes became a very rich man.   But this is not the Hughes you know – although you should know him, or at least of him since he’s been a member of the dearly departed for almost a century – it was his father.

Howard Hughes, Junior – the one we all know – was born in 1905 and quickly demonstrated an exceptional intellect coupled with unbounded curiosity.  He is credited with having built, at age 11, the first “wireless” radio device ever operated in Houston.  The next year he constructed a motorized bicycle using parts he purloined from one of his father’s steam engines.  Not surprisingly, Junior took his first flying lesson at age 14.  The boy was, if anything, technologically precocious.

At 17, however, tragedy struck:  Hughes’ mother, Allene, died during pregnancy.  His father followed her only two years later – in 1924 – after a massive heart attack.  Thus, at the age of 19, Howard Hughes, Jr was thrown into the world of big business and high finance after acquiring the assets – and fortunes – of his father.  He soon proved up to the task.

It didn’t take long for Hughes to exhibit some of his genius for business, creative invention, and reckless dare-devilry.  Armed with copious amounts of money he consolidated his dad’s tool business and hired some competent help to run it while he spent his time seeking fame.  And the fastest track to fame?   Hollywood.  At the suggestion of a friend, he took up the making of motion pictures, although he wisely kept the tool shop going, just in case.

Hughes’ first film – Swell Hogan – wasn’t so swell as he’d hoped.  Despite the endless reserve of funds available, the film was a complete disaster from the start.  After creating a quagmire of a motion picture, Hughes tried hiring a film editor in an effort to salvage it.  Didn’t work.  He finally gave up and ordered all the footage destroyed.  Swell Hogan took years to make but only minutes to burn.  Film burns very efficiently.

Still, rather than fold up his tent and steal away into the night, Hughes viewed it as a learning experience and did things much differently from then on. His next few films achieved financial success in the late Silent Era of moviemaking.  One of them even received an Academy Award, putting Hughes on the Hollywood map.  But the one that really made him a force to be reckoned with in the motion picture world was Hell’s Angels.  It began filming in 1927 and was an epic from the start.  Spoiler alert:  it’s not about a biker gang.

A little digression by way of outlaw biker gangs….

The Hells Angels Motorcycle Club originated in 1948, twenty years after Howard Hughes made the movie. In typical biker fashion, the group formed when a particular rider, in a particular club, got particularly pissed off.  Otto Friedli, a World War II veteran, is credited with starting Hells Angels after breaking from– appropriately – the Pissed Off Bastards motorcycle club in California.  You just can’t make this stuff up!

The club name Hells Angels – notice the missing apostrophe, more on that later – was first suggested by Arvid Olsen, an associate of the founders who had served in a “Hell’s Angels” squadron of the Flying Tigers in China during World War II.  There apparently were several Hell’s Angels squadrons in the war, all of which lifted their name from Howard Hughes famous film.

The Hells Angels Motorcycle Club’s official website declares 467 recognized chapters in 59 countries. It is undoubtedly the largest motorcycle club in the world.  But its reputation is way outsized when compared to its membership, whose total is only 3,200 – 3,600 riders.  Nonetheless, the members have worked hard at creating, and maintaining, an outlaw image reminiscent of the Wild West. Many police departments and the United States Department of Justice consider the Hells Angels an organized crime syndicate, although their website espouses only wholesome patriotism.

And what about that missing apostrophe in the title?   Some would argue it shows the apparent illiteracy of the founders.  Others say it was already part of one or more of the several military units that used the title in the war.  Regardless, the Hells Angels biker club is fully aware of the non-apostrophe.  But rather than conform to the standards of grammatical protocol – not to mention clarity – they have resolved to be defiant about it, declaring:   “It is you who miss it. We don’t”.  Ya gotta love the fact they so obviously use an apostrophe in the word “don’t”, but draw the line at using it in their own club title…  Still, in my opinion, it may be more fitting as a plural – Hells.  It seems to me there are many hells here on Earth, and maybe the Hells Angels is just stating a fact….

Back to Howard

Hell’s Angels – the film – was a story of two English aviator brothers, their German best friend, and, of course, a voluptuous woman caught up in World War 1.   It took three years and many millions to produce.

But, in 1927, as the film was in mid-production, The Jazz Singer – the first motion picture with sound – came out to rave reviews.  The importance of sound was not lost on Hughes.  He ordered the film to be reshot and adapted to include sound.  To do it, however, required a new female lead.  The original – Greta Nissen – while shapely and attractive, had a heavy Norwegian accent that simply couldn’t work in the role.  So they brought in a virtual unknown –  Jean Harlow – who became famous as a result.

Hughes was very particular about the aerial dog-fight scenes, one of which included a detailed recreation of a German Zeppelin.   He hired over 100 biplane pilots, most of which were actual veterans of the war.   Three of them, plus a mechanic, died in the filming.  The final dog-fight scene was so harrowing that every one of the 137 pilots refused to do it.  Hughes – although an accomplished aviator – was, at this point, all ego and no brains.  He got mad and decided to do it himself.

There are, of course, people who refuse to accept certain basic facts – even if it’s obvious reality to the rest of us.  In the case of Howard Hughes and his final dogfight scene, he just couldn’t tolerate belligerent stunt pilots refusing to do the impossible. So off he went himself, flying into the wild blue yonder, where he discovered, much to his own face’s dismay, that a gigantic ego couldn’t, for some reason, suspend the laws of physics.  His plane stalled, rolled over and crashed.  He miraculously escaped the Grim Reaper but spent the next several days in the hospital and required extensive facial surgery.

Then there are the Flat-Earthers.

The Other Hughes

Did you know there are people who think the Earth is flat?  FLAT! No joke – there’s a whole society of them!  Look it up: Flat Earth Society.  They even have a logo showing the flatness of Earth (it’s shaped like a disc) and a Twitter account to boot.

These Quixotic morons spend inordinate amounts of time and money to prove the Earth is flat.   They do “research” and gather “evidence” in a variety of quirky ways.  One of the more colorful figures from the Flat Earth cult –  Mad Mike Hughes, a daredevil and conspiracy theorist from California – decided the thing to do was go up into space and see for himself.  Which he did.  Or, I should say more accurately, tried to do – by launching himself skyward in a homemade rocket.

If it’s not flat, he said, I’ll be the first to admit it. Uh huh…

Get to know him a little and you’d say that Mike was an affable, if kinda goofy, guy next door.   His real job was “professional limo driver”.  I had no idea there was such a “profession”, but turns out there actually is.  Especially in his case.  Not content with being just a stuffy, overdressed driver of a ridiculously elongated passenger vehicle, Mad Mike decided to claw his way to the top of limo driver stardom by getting himself into the Guinness Book of World Records. This he did in spectacular fashion at Parris, California in 2002.  Before a roaring crowd of some dozens, Hughes set the record for the longest ramp jump ever made in a limousine.

Roll the tape: As the limo raced down the track toward the ramp, the announcer muses, Now kids, Michael may not be the kind of person you want to drive you to Prom….   But when the ungainly 6,500 pound vehicle sailed through the air and landed on the other side of the ramp, the announcer changed his tune: But, then again, maybe he is!

Back to Howard

Although Hughes nearly lost his life in the crash, his enthusiasm for flying only increased.  In 1932 he founded the Hughes Aircraft Company.  Shortly after the company was founded, however, Hughes vanished inexplicably. No one knew his whereabouts for months. As it turned out, he had used an alias in applying for a job with American Airlines and had gone to Texas to  work as a baggage-handler!  I’ll say it again: you CAN’T make this stuff up!

By all accounts his bosses at American Airlines were impressed with his work.  When they learned he could fly, they trained him and promoted him to a co-pilot position.  He continued working for American Airlines until his real identity was discovered and his cover was blown.

But the question remains: why did he do it?  Money was the least of the man’s worries.  There’s speculation that he wanted to study how the thriving airline industry worked and planned to use that knowledge in the future.   Sort of a Henry V approach – disguising himself and mingling with the troops.   Regardless, after he was discovered, Hughes flew back to California and began his career as aviator in earnest.

Back to Mike

Reading the stories and watching the videos, you cannot help but realize Mad Mike has got some serious IQ tucked up into his limo drivers cap.  My father-in-law would classify him as a “likable tinkerer”,  the kind of fellow that you might see in a Shriners parade, driving the wacky car that has no front or back.  It seems like he’s all over the place, but somehow, he gets from Point A to Point B without hurting anyone.

This particular likable tinkerer constructed a space rocket using his own knowledge, his own welder, and spare parts gathered from around the county.  He essentially built a manned space vehicle in his garage using scrap metal.  What’s more, on March 24, 2018, Mad Mike Hughes climbed aboard the machine and blasted himself into the atmosphere.  The Flat Earth rocket launched off a track that was, appropriately, attached to an old RV in a relatively flat section of the California desert.

The whole enterprise seemed so unlikely.  Nevertheless, Mad Mike managed to climb to 1,875 feet before the contraption ran out of steam.  He deployed the return parachute – which was a bit undersized- and crash-landed back on Earth.   Incredibly, he walked away from the wreckage.  Well actually, barely hobbled, is more like it.

When quizzed about piloting a questionable spacecraft he’d cobbled together out of scrap metal, Mike was quick to point out, It’s scary as hell!  But none of us are getting out of this world alive.  Ain’t that the truth.

Howard Again

Howard Hughes’ skills as an aviator became legendary as he set record after record in the air.  On July 14, 1938, he completed a flight around the world in just 91 hours, shattering the previous record of 186 hours.  In between setting records, he honed his business acumen by designing and building new aircraft.  During World War II he secured dozens of military contracts and the company grew exponentially.  At the start of the war, Hughes Aircraft had only four employees.  By the end it had 80,000.

Hughes flew everything he built, and plenty more besides.  There were lots of near misses and plenty of close-calls.  His most spectacular crash occurred on July 7, 1946, while piloting an aircraft he designed himself – the XF-11 – a prototype reconnaissance plane.  An oil leak caused the aircraft to suddenly lose altitude.  He knew he was in trouble and headed toward the Los Angeles Country Club to attempt an emergency landing on the golf course.  But just seconds before he reached the greens, the plane dropped precipitously and crashed into a Beverly Hills neighborhood.

The craft clipped two houses and plowed directly into a third.  Then the fuel tanks exploded, setting fire to the aircraft and house. Hughes managed to pull himself out of the flaming wreckage and collapsed beside the aircraft until rescued by Marine Master Sergeant William L. Durkin, who was visiting friends in the area.  Hughes sustained terrible injuries in the crash, including a crushed chest with collapsed left lung which shifted his heart to the right side of the chest cavity, along with numerous third-degree burns.  As a sign of gratitude, Hughes sent a check to the Marine every week for the rest of his life.  No one on the ground was injured in the crash.

A newsreel of the incident concludes with: America’s aviation trailblazers willingly pay the price in man’s conquest of the air.

Mike Again

After the first flight, Mike declared the job was “not yet finished”.  Sooo… over the next couple years he went back into his garage, scrounged more scrap, and made another rocket – this one bigger and more powerful.  He did some preliminary testing of the contraption and became satisfied his latest Flat Earth rocket was ready to go.  He buckled himself in on February 22, 2020 and this time he finished the job, although the results were not exactly what he thought they might be.

The flight started as a disaster and went quickly downhill after that.  Somehow, the return parachute was deployed during takeoff.  You can see it clearly in the video, popping out the back as the vessel screams off the pad – whereupon it is quickly shredded and ripped from the rocket body.  Unfortunately, when the fuel ran out seconds later, that’s when Hughes discovered what he didn’t know: his landing parachute was gone.  He had no backup chute and no backup plan.  Then, unfortunately, Mad Mike Hughes and his Flat Earth rocket tilted over and fell free several hundred feet.  He was killed instantly.

Two Hughes, two extraordinary aviators.


The history of aviation is full of firsts and the daring pioneers who pulled them off.  Ferdinand Von Zeppelin built and flew the first airship. The Wright Brothers built and flew the first airplane.  Several people have floated into the skies in balloons they made themselves.  Howard Hughes designed and built several planes which he flew himself, accumulating numerous aviation records along the way.

But, for the record, Mad Mike Hughes is the only person ever to design, build with his own hands, and fly in his own rocket.  That’s impressive, even if the reason for it was a bit far out.

People ask me why I do stuff like this, Mike responded when queried about his extreme activities. And basically, it’s just to convince people they can do things extraordinary with their lives. 

That is, most definitely, the kind of limo driver I would want driving me to the Prom…