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Letters to Editor

Hughes Flying Boat

From Issue: Volume XX - Number 20

I read the article about the Flying Boat which [Steve Propes] wrote. It was a nice article; however, there were several things which were incorrect. I became one of the personal secretaries to Howard Hughes in 1957, worked directly with him, and worked for his companies for 32 years, until 1989. While Hughes was in Las Vegas from 1966 to 1970 I worked the night shift at the Romaine Street office. I became executive assistant to Bill Gay, who was president of Summa Corporation (it later became The Howard Hughes Corporation).

At the death of Hughes I moved to Las Vegas, where I worked for Will Lummis, the administrator of the Hughes Estate, became the corporate secretary, and among other duties, I was director of corporate records. In that capacity I reviewed all the files that were in the Long Beach hangar before the Flying Boat was moved.

The HK-1 Flying Boat was begun by the government contacting Henry Kaiser because of his expertise in building ships -- lots of them. Kaiser recognized that he knew nothing about building airplanes, so he asked Hughes to join him, and Kaiser later withdrew, leaving Hughes to complete the contract. The contract called for three prototype aircraft, but because the war had ended, only one was completed. After the test flight, the plane was placed in the hangar in Long Beach.

It is a common misconception that the Flying Boat was owned by Hughes; however, the Flying Boat never belonged to Hughes. It belonged to the U.S. Government. Hughes rented the airplane, paying the GSA something like a million dollars a year. He continued the tests on the glue, turned the engines, etc.

However, there were never 300 employees involved with it then. There were only a handful of employees working on it.

The people who dismantled the plane to move it to the Queen Mary site and again to McMinnville, were people who had worked on it when it was built. When Hughes began to manufacture helicopters, most of these men moved over to the Helicopter Division, and not much was done with the Flying Boat. It was maintained in a hangar which was air conditioned and humidity controlled.

In the early 1970s when I was working with Bill Gay, the Port of Long Beach notified the company that they needed the pier where the Flying Boat was stored in order to make room for the oil tankers that were using Long Beach harbor. Summa Corporation contacted the GSA in an attempt to buy the Flying Boat. Because it was government property, GSA said government regulations required that it had to be put out for bid in order to sell it. Hughes did not want that, and GSA was advised that without the Hughes name attached to the plane it would be worth only the value of the wood it contained.

A sort of stalemate developed, at which time contact was made with The Smithsonian Institution to see if the plane could be put on exhibit there. Smithsonian said it was too large for them and they proposed cutting it into pieces.

When word got out of the possibility that the plane would be cut up, there was a huge public outcry. These events took place over a period of time, and in the meanwhile Hughes died in 1976. Will Lummis, the administrator of the Hughes Estate then took up the matter of disposing of the Flying Boat.

As I recall, it came very close to being cut up. Bob McCaffery, who worked at Hughes Helicopters and has subsequently relocated to Las Vegas, took an active part in the disposition. He can provide much more detail about this part of the history than I can.
Jack Wrather had leased from Disney the concessions near the Queen Mary in Long Beach and offered to exhibit the Flying Boat whole. Arrangements were made to transfer title to The Aero Club of Southern California. The Aero Club owns the airplane, and it was leased to The Wrather Corporation. It was put on display in Long Beach. Then when Jack Wrather died, Disney did not want to continue its exhibition there.

So, another search was made to find a place for the airplane. Del Smith, founder of Evergreen Airways, proposed putting up an Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Ore., so arrangements were made to display it there. The membership decal which I just received from Evergreen Aviation Museum designates the Flying Boat as HK-1.

I don’t know where the HK-4 came from, but a few years ago it began to appear in things I read, and it has become fairly common to see that designation. As I remember, the contract between Hughes/Kaiser and the GSA, the designation was HK-1 Hercules.
As I mentioned above, Bob McCaffery can fill in some of the blanks if you want more information. At one point Bob was president of The Aero Club of Southern California and he is still a member (perhaps on its board). Each year The Aero Club honors someone for their contributions to aviation. I read an article within just the past couple of weeks about the presentation being scheduled for some time in February next year for this year’s honoree.

History has a way of becoming imperfect and I am just trying to keep it straight.

Paul B. Winn
Las Vegas, NV