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Howard Hughes: Aviator

Howard Hughes: Aviator by George J. Marrett. Naval Institute Press, 2004, 225 pp.

Howard Hughes: Aviator, is a thoroughly researched and well-documented biography on Howard Hughes, with the central perspective on the part of his widely-chronicled life spent in aviation. Written by a former test pilot for Hughes Aircraft Company, the book is an easy-to-follow, informative guide that provides not only a deeper understanding of US aviation history, but also Hughes’ enigmatic life.

 

The author, George Marrett, is a former US Air Force fighter and test pilot with approximately 8,000 flight hours accrued in more than 40 types of aircraft. He joined Hughes Aircraft Company as an experimental test pilot upon his return from service as a rescue pilot in the 602nd Fighter Squadron during the conflict in Southeast Asia. Marrett writes with authority on the technical aspects of aviation. The close attention paid to aircraft specifications and performance both benefit and hinder comprehension, depending on the reader’s needs, interests, and prior knowledge. Helping to balance the story, Marrett fills the biography with numerous firsthand accounts from pilots who worked and flew with Hughes. These anecdotes help shape a holistic understanding of Hughes as an aviator and boss beyond simple flight performance. Of note, however, the sidebar background provided on these ancillary characters, as well as their specific dialogue or interactions with Hughes, prove distracting at times and do not always add immediate value to the story.

Similarly, being a focused biography, the larger context of Hughes’ personal life was mostly disregarded. Marrett’s choice to exclude this content could have been because he felt these external factors had little to no impact on Hughes’ aviation life, or perhaps it was his own technical bias toward discussing aircraft performance and development. For a non-test pilot or aviation aficionado, more personal context on Hughes might have proved useful to gain a greater understanding of his legacy and impact.

 

As previously mentioned, this biography is well-documented and contains a useful list of resources, indexes of aircraft and actors, aviators, and associates, along with a dedicated section of maps and photographs in the center of the book. I recommend the reader to start with the last chapter, “Legacy of Howard Hughes.” In hindsight, this brief summary of the work would have proved useful in understanding the timeline and highlights of Hughes’s life, as well as understanding the author’s perspective before delving into the details of the book.

 

The author begins with Hughes’s first flight at age 14 in the fall of 1920 and spends the first chapter recounting his increasing love for aviation, interspersed with background details about his simultaneously developing success as a film producer. Chapter 2 details his largely successful attempts to break various aviation records. This chapter also contains a plethora of information about the types of aircraft he chose and how they were modified to eclipse Charles Lindbergh as the world’s best aviator, a primary goal for Hughes.

 

World War II was a major turning point in Hughes’ aviation. Chapters 3–4 discuss the development of Hughes Aircraft Company and his many failures as an army contractor, as well as a pilot. Following his 1946 near-fatal crash in the XF-11 and the “successful” flight of the HK-1 flying boat in 1947, Hughes lost all interest in his aircraft company. While Marrett does not attempt to delve into Hughes’ psychology and his abrupt disinterest in flying, neither do the slew of other biographers of this enigmatic man. Regardless, by this point in Hughes’ life, his contributions to aviation were indisputable and his place in the figurative pantheon of aviation history secure.

 

 Chapters 5–6 explain the transition of the company into alternative leadership and their jump to aviation electronics, which would become the mainstay of its very profitable business. While his aircraft company flourished, chapter 7 describes Hughes’ involvement in the development of transport aircraft for the Trans World Airline, or TWA, as well as the ensuing legal battles and his loss of control over the company.

Meanwhile, due to his own eccentricities, coupled with an increasing codeine dependence (initiated by the physical pain resulting from his over eight automobile and airplane crashes by 1947), Hughes’s life fell into a slow yet pronounced downward spiral. Chapters 9–10 wrap up the biography by discussing the end of Hughes’s life and his ensuing legacy.

 

Howard Hughes is a fascinating character in American history. Although he accomplished his three greatest goals in life: to become the world’s most famous film producer, the world’s top aviator, and the world’s richest man, this biography focuses on how his love for aviation truly shaped his life. Howard Hughes: Aviator proves an excellent work for those interested in the technical development of aviation over the last century, as well as to those who are interested in Hughes’s life and legacy through the lens of aviation. Those looking for a larger picture of Hughes or aviation history would do well to have a grasp of context and content before delving into the finer points of this biography.

 

Capt Marissa Kesteer, USAF

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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