Famous as movie mogul, daring aviator and eccentric real estate tycoon, Howard Hughes was not well known for starting a helicopter manufacturing empire. A newly published book, “Howard’s Whirlybirds: Howard Hughes’ Amazing Pioneering Helicopter Exploits,” published by UK-based Fonthill Media, tells the little-known story of how he started and grew that enterprise.
His company, sometimes referred to as a “hobby shop,” mass-produced Army light observation helicopters, popularized helicopter trainers, tested a gigantic flying crane, and developed the most recognizable attack helicopter in the world today: the AH-64 Apache.
Following the one and only flight of his “Spruce Goose” flying boat, Howard Hughes became increasingly focused on helicopters. The book explores the development of these whirlybirds — both the largest and the smallest rotary-wing aircraft of the time. It’s about setbacks, technical breakthroughs, engineering brilliance, struggles with Congress and the test flying bravado of fearless pilots — all under Hughes’ behind-the-scenes leadership.
His first involvement with helicopters happened in 1949, resulting from a chance encounter, as he had little interest in whirlybirds at the time. In the 1960s, anxious to land a big production contract from the Army, Hughes tried to corner the scout helicopter market by juggling the price — bringing on a stinging Congressional probe that almost toppled the company and put a big dent in his net worth.
The determination of a small cadre of Hughes engineers, mechanics and pilots made aeronautical history. As one engineer recalled, “It worked because there were no committees.”
Example: when the main rotor mast of the prototype Apache needed to be raised, the height wasn’t changed by an intense engineering effort – but rather by a swift decision to make it the length of the only piece of special steel remaining in the warehouse at the time.
Nothing could interfere with the helicopter’s demanding test schedule. In the air, the prototype OH-6A set 23 world flight records in less than a month during 1966; one record was a nonstop, unrefueled flight of over 15 hours from California to Florida in the Volkswagen-size helicopter.
Now among the best-known military helicopters in the world, the AH-64E Apache (currently manufactured by Boeing, the successor to Hughes Helicopters) came within hours of being cancelled by the Army in 1979 before even going into production – until Jack Real, Howard’s right-hand man, stepped in to save it from extinction. More drama followed when two Hughes executives tried to sell whirlybirds to North Korea and Iraq – but got caught.
Author Donald J. Porter is a contributor to aviation magazines and the author of books published by McGraw-Hill on the Learjet and Cessna companies, as well as the Hughes OH-6A helicopter. At Hughes Helicopters, he served in a variety of roles ranging from technical representative in Vietnam to project engineer and a proposal manager during the Apache program.
“Howard’s Whirlybirds: Howard Hughes’ Amazing Pioneering Helicopter Exploits” (ISBN 978-1-78155-089-2; published by Fonthill Media in the UK. It is available from the publisher and booksellers worldwide, as well as online at Amazon.com.