Hughes Aircraft

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Hughes logo adopted after his death
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Hughes developed the AIM-120 AMRAAM, one of the world's most advanced air-to-air missiles

Hughes Aircraft Company was a major defence/aerospace company founded by Howard Hughes. The group was based near Ballona Creek, in Culver City, California, near the Pacific Ocean.

Divisions of the company were sold off one by one during the 1970s and '80s, and today most of the companies no longer exist under the Hughes name. The grounds of the old Hughes companies are currently occupied by Dreamworks SKG, a film studio. In 1997 Hughes Electronics merged with Raytheon; Hughes Space and Communications was purchased by Boeing in 2000.



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Hughes H-4 Hercules "Spruce Goose"
Hughes' Galileo probe being deployed
Hughes' Galileo probe being deployed
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Hughes built NASA Surveyor lunar lander
Perhaps Hughes' most successful helicopter designs, the Apache AH-64. The helicopter began as Hughes Model 77 for the US Army's advanced attack helicopter (AAH) competition
Perhaps Hughes' most successful helicopter designs, the Apache AH-64. The helicopter began as Hughes Model 77 for the US Army's advanced attack helicopter (AAH) competition

Hughes Aircraft was first set up as a subsidiary of Hughes Tool Company, then known as Toolco. In 1935 Hughes built the H-1 Racer, which included every streamlining concept then known, including retractable landing gear, a fully enclosed cockpit, and the first use of recessed rivets. The H-1 captured a number of speed records during the next few years, and made Hughes a household name.

In 1936 Hughes Aircraft was formed as a separate company. During World War II the company designed and built several prototype aircraft including the famous Hughes H-4 Hercules, better known to the world as the Spruce Goose. However the plant was used primarily as a branch plant for the construction of other company's designs. At the start of the war Hughes Aircraft had only four full-time employees — by the end the number was 80,000.

Post World War II

Hughes Aircraft, Douglas Aircraft, North American Aviation, Northrop, Lockheed Aircraft were among the complex of companies in the aerospace industry which flourished in Southern California during and after World War II. At one time, Hughes was the largest employer in Southern California.

After the war, Hughes ran afoul of the US Senate. By the summer of 1947, certain politicians had become concerned about Hughes' mismanagement of the Spruce Goose and the XF-11 photoreconnaissance plane project. They formed a special committee to investigate Hughes, but when he successfully tested both planes and then turned them over to the military, they no longer had a target to attack. Despite a highly critical committee report, Hughes was cleared.

According to an old-timer at Hughes, when the Spruce Goose flying boat was flight-tested, it was filled with beach balls instead of the traditional ping-pong balls used when testing most sea planes. Every available beach ball in Los Angeles was purchased for the flight test. After the flight test, the beach balls were handed out to the spectators. In retrospect, this probably shows that Hughes did not intend to fly the aircraft again.

Hughes Aerospace Group

In 1948 Hughes created a new division of the company, the Aerospace Group.

Two Hughes engineers, Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge, had new ideas on the packaging of electronics to make complete fire control systems. Their MA-1 system combined signals from the aircraft's RADAR with an analog computer to automatically guide the interceptor aircraft into the proper position for firing missiles. At the same time other teams were working with the newly-formed US Air Force on air-to-air missiles, delivering the AIM-4 Falcon, then known as the F-98. The MA-1/Falcon package, with several upgrades, was the primary interceptor weapon system in the US for many years, lasting into the 1980s.

As a result of this start, the Aerospace Group was soon massively profitable, and became a primary focus of the company. The company has since built RADAR systems, electro-optical systems, the first working LASER, aircraft computer systems, missile systems, ion-propulsion engines (for space travel), and many other advanced technologies, up to the end of the Cold War.

Ramo and Wooldridge would, having failed to reach agreement with Howard Hughes regarding management problems, resign in September 1953. They founded the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation, later to join Thompson Products to form TRW, another aerospace company and a major competitor to Hughes Aircraft.

In 1953 Howard Hughes created the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and "donated" Hughes Aircraft to this foundation. This was in reaction to the Air Force's threat to cancel missile contracts because of Howard Hughes' management style and aloofness. It has been suggested that this was simply to allow his company to avoid paying taxes.

Nobel Laureates Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann had Hughes connections; Feynman would hold weekly seminars at Hughes Research Laboratories; Gell-Mann shared an office with Malcolm Currie, later a Chief Executive Officer at Hughes. Greg Jarvis and Ronald McNair, two of the astronauts on the last flight of the Space Shuttle Challenger were Hughes alumni.

Hughes Space and Communications

Two groups within the Aerospace Group of Hughes Aircraft Company; Hughes Space and Communications Group and the Hughes Space Systems Division were later spun off in 1948 to form their own division and ultimately became the Hughes Space and Communications Company in 1961.

They built the world's first geosynchronous communications satellite, Syncom, in 1963 and followed it closely with the first geosynchronous weather satellite, ATS-1, in 1966. Later that year their Surveyor 1 made the first soft landing on the Moon as part of the leadup to the moon landings in Project Apollo. Hughes also built Pioneer Venus in 1978, which performed the first extensive radar mapping of Venus, and the Galileo probe that flew to Jupiter in the 1990s. The company built nearly 40 percent of the satellites in service worldwide in 2000.

Satellite Models

Models continued by Boeing and marketed as such, e.g. HS376 as the Boeing 376.

Hughes Helicopters

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Civilian OH-6A Cayuse in Police usage

Another division started in 1947 when helicopter manufacturer Kellett sold their latest design to Hughes for production. The H-17 Sky Crane first flew in October 1952, but was commercially unsuccessful. The company formed a new helicopter division in 1955 called Toolco Aircraft Division that began developing light military helicopters. In the May 1965 they won the contract for a new observation helicopter for the US Army, and produced the OH-6 Cayuse - which has remained in production, under various names, to this day. In 1976, Toolco Aircraft Division became Hughes Helicopters, which won the contract for the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, winning the Collier Trophy 1983. By December 1981 6,000 Apaches had been produced.

The Tool Company's helicopter test pilots routinely performed 'loop the loop' maneuvers on the flight line in Culver City, with the OH-6A light helicopters[1] ( As the helicopter flew upward in the 'loop', the pilot would simultaneously roll it, to re-orient the main rotor upward, at the top of the 'loop'.

Hughes' Legacy

The amazing range of science and technology spanned by the workers at Hughes Aircraft never included medical applications, because the company was a property of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which exists to this day. This restriction was imposed to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. Ironically, medical applications may well become Hughes' greatest legacy.


  • 1932: Howard Hughes formed an aircraft division with the Hughes Tool Company'
  • 1936: Hughes Aircraft is formed as a separate company.
  • 1948: Hughes formed the Aerospace Group within the company, divided into:
    • Hughes Space and Communications Group
    • Hughes Space Systems Division
  • 1953: the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) was formed, and Hughes Aircraft reformed as a subsidiary of the foundation. The Internal Revenue Service unsuccessfully challenged its "charitable" status which made it tax-exempt.
  • 1955: Hughes formed its helicopter division, Toolco Aircraft Division
  • 1961: Hughes Space and Communications Company was formed, bringing together Hughes Space and Communications Group and the Hughes Space Systems Division
  • 1972: Hughes sold the tool division of Hughes Tool Company. His remaining interests were transferred to the newly formed holding company, the Summa Corporation. This included Toolco Aircraft and Hughes' property and other businesses.
  • 1976: Toolco Aircraft became Hughes Helicopters
  • 1976: Howard Hughes dies at the age of 71, leaving no will
  • 1984: The Summa Corporation sold Hughes Helicopters to McDonnell Douglas for $500 million, it was soon renamed McDonnell Douglas Helicopters.
  • 1984: The Delaware Court of Chancery appointed eight trustees of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, they decide to sell Hughes Aircraft.
  • 1985: The HHMI sold Hughes Aircraft to General Motors for $5 billion. This was merged with GM's Delco Electronics to form Hughes Electronics (or GM Hughes Electronics/GMHE). This group thus consisted of:
    • Hughes Aircraft
    • Delco Electronics
    • Hughes Space and Communications
    • Hughes Network Systems
    • from August 1992 General Dynamics' Missile Systems business.
  • 1994: Hughes Electronics introduces DirecTV
  • 1995: Hughes Space and Communications became the world's biggest supplier of commercial satellites
  • 1995: Hughes Electronics acquires Magnavox Electronic Systems from the Carlyle Group
  • 1996: Hughes Electronics and PanAmSat agree to merge their fixed satellite services into a new publicly held company, also called PanAmSat with GMHE as majority shareholder.
  • 1997: GM transferred Delco Electronics from Hughes Electronics to its Delphi Automotive Systems. Delphi became independent in 1999.
  • 1997: The defense operations of Hughes Electronics (Hughes Aircraft and missile business) are merged with Raytheon.
  • 2000: Hughes Space and Communications remained independent until 2000, when it was purchased by Boeing and became Boeing Satellite Systems.
  • 2003: The remaining parts of Hughes Electronics: DirecTV, DirecTV Latin America, PanAmSat and Hughes Network Systems were purchased by NewsCorp and renamed The DirecTV Group.

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