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Hughes Aircraft

Howard Hughes' Hughes Aircraft Company was co-located with Hughes Tool Company on an aircraft landing strip next to Ballona Creek, in Culver City, near the Pacific Ocean in Southern California. 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. 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 SKG Dreamworks, a movie company.

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 it was 80,000.

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.

In 1948 Hughes created a new division of the company, Hughes Electronics, hiring two engineers, Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge, who 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, Hughes Electronics 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. Two groups within Hughes Electronics company were later spun off in 1961 to form their own company, the Hughes Space and Communications Company. 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 the Apollo program. 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. 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 OH-6A 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.

When Hughes died in 1976 the empire he built slowly dissolved. In 1984 McDonnell Douglas bought Hughes Helicopters and soon renamed it as McDonnell Douglas Helicopters. In 1985 General Motors bought the rest of the Aircraft division and merged it with their own DELCO Electronics, renaming it Hughes Electronics. In August 1992 General Dynamics sold its Missile Systems business to Hughes. In the fall of 1997, the defense operations of Hughes Electronics merged with Raytheon. Hughes Space and Communications was the last of the independent Hughes companies until 2000, when it was purchased by Boeing and became Boeing Satellite Systems.