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George Wynne had a great post in our church discussion group. I'm reprinting it here with his permission.

Howard Hughes, the Spruce Goose & Business Ethics
George Wynne

I have been an admirer of Howard Hughes since the age of twelve when I heard Hughes testify before a congressional committee. When the name Howard Hughes is mentioned most people think of a crazy, eccentric, reclusive millionaire with long fingernails whose only interest was money. While it is true that he suffered from mental illness in his later years he was brilliant, active and productive as a young man. Hughes had a wide variety of interests, which he pursued with passion. He exhibited moral and ethical strength.

Aviation was among those things that interested Hughes and at one time he held every aviation world speed record worth having. He set the aviation solo speed records in 1935, 1936 and 1937. He also designed airplanes and the Zero, a WW II Japanese fighter plane was a copy of one of his designs. Hughes suffered some severe injuries when he crashed in an experimental plane, the XF-11, in 1944 and he was wearing a hearing aid and frequently needed to ask that questions be repeated when he testified at the Spruce Goose(see note 1) hearings in 1947. I believe that head injuries he suffered in aviation accidents were the most likely the cause of his hearing loss and later mental problems.

I first became aware of Howard Hughes when he testified before a congressional committee concerning the Spruce Goose. During the war my father, a career army officer, had commanded quartermaster supply depots first in England and later in France following and supplying General Patton's advancing army. After the war he was stationed in Washington D. C. and assigned the task of negotiating a settlement of a war contract that the military had with Ford Motor Company to build tanks. Tanks remaining to be manufactured according to the contract were no longer needed since the war was over. The case my father was assigned was somewhat of a political hot potato and I can remember big time news types like Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson calling him at home and demanding to know "what was happening" and threatening "if you don't tell me I'll make something up". However the real news story at that time was the Spruce Goose hearings.

Hughes had largely designed the plane himself. The congressional hearings over the Spruce Goose were intended to be a public humiliation of Howard Hughes. There was a gallery for the public to attend the hearings and the hearings were held in the evenings and broadcast over the radio.

Hughes testified that then Senator Brewster from Main had approached him and wanted him to merge Hughes Aircraft Company with a company in which Senator Brewster was a part owner. Furthermore Hughes said that if he did not comply with this request Senator Brewster had threatened to use a congressional investigation to humiliate him and make the settlement of the contract to build the Spruce Goose difficult. There followed this exchange between the committee chairman and Hughes.

Chairman: "Mr. Hughes were there any witnesses to your conversations with Senator Brewster?"

Hughes: "Of course not. People do not make those sorts of statements in front of witnesses."

Chairman: "Well then, it is basically a case of your word against that of Senator Brewster."

Hughes: "Yes, that is correct."

Chairman: "Well then Mr. Hughes can you give the committee some reasons why we should believe you instead of the Honorable Senator Brewster?"

Hughes: "Certainly, I can give you three reasons. First, I am a Texan and Texans have a reputation for telling the truth and keeping their word. Second, you can't produce a single witness that will tell you that I lied to them. Third, by contrast I can produce a hundred witnesses that will testify that Senator Brewster is a liar! "

There erupted cheering and clapping for Hughes from the public gallery followed by gavel pounding and calls to order from the committee chairman.

Howard Hughes was known to be a shy person and protective of his private life. Apparently Senator Brewster and his associates had assumed that Mr. Hughes would either agree to their demands rather than endure a public investigation or if he elected to oppose them he would be intimidated and hopelessly out gunned at the investigation by their superior public speaking skills which included making crude jokes and comments about Hughes' hearing loss. They seriously underestimated Hughes. He ate their lunch on almost every issue. What was intended to be a humiliation of Howard Hughes quickly became an expose of corrupt politicians.

At one point in the hearings an enemy of Hughes shot his big mouth off deriding Hughes and the plane and ending with something like "What a boondoggle! The plane has never flown and I can assure you it will never fly." This occurred on a Friday. Hughes flew back to California on the weekend and acting as test pilot flew the plane while people took pictures. He then flew back to Washington D. C. to present the pictures to the committee on Monday. Hughes was very wealthy at the time, perhaps the richest man in the world. He could easily have called California and had a test pilot fly the plane. Instead he put his own life a risk by flying a plane that had never been flown and was probably not even properly preflight checked. By flying it himself he demonstrated remarkable knowledge of the airplane and confidence in its' construction. Can anyone imagine the president of Lockheed piloting the first flight of the first C5-A on a moment's notice?

My youthful impression of Howard Hughes was that he believed that telling the truth and keeping your word was important. He had a genuine interest in his company's business, aviation, and contributed greatly by designing airplanes, flight testing airplanes and setting world aviation speed records. Furthermore he was unwilling to pay a bribe to a corrupt politician.

By contrast as an old man I have an unfavorable impression of today's corporate leadership. They lie to, cheat, and steal from stockholders and employees and the news media is filled with reports of this behavior. They typically have only a superficial knowledge of company business and contribute very little. Their chief interest is the bottom line i. e. how much they can get from the company. They protect themselves and their assets by hiring lawyers who are paid with company money to protect their golden parachutes and retirement funds should their stealing and inept management put the company belly up in bankruptcy. Accountants willing to cook the books and shred documents to destroy evidence are paid with company money to assist them in their fraudulent schemes. Far from being willing to resist an extortion attempt by corrupt politicians they actively look for politicians in both political parties to bribe with company money. Finally they sit on the board of directors of each other's corporation to give the appearance there is outside accountability.

Note 1

The United States had a huge industrial capacity available to supply the war needs, however the German U-boat wolf packs were sinking most of the boats carrying war material overseas. The idea of the Spruce Goose was to build a very large (think C5-A) amphibious transport plane that could leave from a harbor protected from U-boats and land in a harbor protected from U-boats and thereby fly over the problem. During the war there were all sorts of shortages. There was not enough copper since it was used for bullet casings and for a while pennies were made of steel. For lack of copper the wire used in the cyclotron that split the first atom was fabricated from silver taken from the U. S. government silver reserves. Similarly there was not aluminum available to build a fleet of these cargo planes so it was suggested they be constructed of wood, i. e. spruce. Hughes formed a company with another industrialist and took on the project. The first of these planes was completed about the time the war ended and like the tanks it was no longer needed.

Posted: 2003-05-13 21:50:31

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