The Night I Met Howard Hughes
From a presentation to the Hughes Aircraft Retirees Association
After 375 combat missions in the F-4 Phantom and having demonstrated a history of logging exactly the same number of landings as take-offs, I was posted to the USAF Fighter Weapons School at Nellis AFB outside Las Vegas, NV as a Fighter Weapons Instructor.
Junior captains such as I were tasked periodically to be the “Aerodrome Officer” or AO, a job title carried over from WWI when air bases were "aerodromes." The duties of the AO were simple, consuming only one night at a time. I was to make sure the rotating beacon was indeed rotating, check that the transient maintenance guys were awake, ensure that the airfield lights were lit, greet arriving VIP’s, and handle anything unusual.
On my first night as the AO, I reported to get my tasking. The Lt/Col running Base Operations gave me a 20 min briefing and a 45 page loose-leaf notebook covering the duties of the AO. Half of both the briefing and notebook was concerned, very concerned, with preventing Howard Hughes from landing at Nellis.
Exactly a year earlier, at 0200 hours, Mr. Hughes left his well-guarded digs on the 13th floor of the Desert Inn on the Vegas strip and departed in a blacked-out ambulance. Vegas being Vegas, word of Hughes’ movement spread like desert lightning. Howard Hughes was the biggest story in Vegas; he owned about half the town. Quickly his motorcade was chased by a squadron of paparazzi, reporters, and TV news teams. The ambulance, its escorts, and numerous pursuers drove to the main gate at Nellis. A military contractor through Hughes Aircraft, Mr. Hughes was entitled to access the base and his vehicles had base access stickers on their windshields. The newshounds did not and were promptly stopped by the gate guard. An executive jet picked up the reclusive Hughes and disappeared into the night, its owner unsighted by the reporters. The AO on duty passively watched this happen without notifying anyone senior, definitely a career-limiting omission.
At 0700 the next morning, the Major General who ran Nellis received a call from the outspoken publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper, Hank Greenspun. Greenspun was a Vegas legend himself, having moved out to Nevada with that much-beloved civic planner, Bugsy Siegel. The newspaperman chewed out the general for not allowing the press to cover the biggest story in Vegas, the departure of Howard Hughes. If there’s anything generals love, it's surprises. They enjoy even more getting lectured to by civilian media hacks with mafia connections.
Orders were issued; Howard Hughes was forever barred from Nellis. The hapless AO that night was probably transferred to the motor pool at Lonely AFB, Alaska. This unfortunate episode had generated the set of detailed instructions I received. If I got word of any impending landing by Howard Hughes, I was to turn out the lights, shut down the airfield, block the runways with the base fire trucks, and call out the Air Police.
I ate dinner at the Officers' Club and checked into the Visiting Officers Quarters. Before turning in, I switched on local TV's late news. The lead story screamed, “Billionaire Howard Hughes Has Left the Park Lane Hotel in London, Destination Unknown.” Holy Shit! I carefully re-read the instruction book and, with nothing else to be done, hit the sack.
At 0100, the phone rang. It was the airman running the control tower. "Capt. Cobleigh?"
I answered, “Yo."
He went on, “Sir, an unauthorized civilian aircraft has landed on the inner runway.”
I asked, "What ave you done?"
The reply came back, “We’ve secured the aircraft and the Air Police have the occupants spread-eagled on the ramp.”
Panicked, I blurted out, “Is it Howard Hughes?”
The controller, knowing full well that Hughes hadn’t been seen in public for decades, replied, “I don’t know, Sir. What does Howard Hughes look like?”
Just great! My career was going down in flames and I had Bob Hope manning the tower.
I leaped out of bed and into my USAF-issued pick-up truck, turned on the blue bubble gum light on the roof, and zorched down to the flight line. I could see a white civilian aircraft dimly outlined on the runway by the red flashing lights of the security vehicles. As I skidded to a stop and walked up to the scene, trying to be cool, I saw three figures laying face down on the tarmac with M-16’s pointed at their backs. I thought, If one of those guys is wearing a fedora and a leather flying jacket, I’m going to turn around, drive out the main gate and leave my wings and commission with the guard.
The intruders proved to be three scared guys in a Beechcraft Bonanza who had mistaken Nellis for the North Las Vegas Airport. My instructions on accidental civilian use by pilots other than Howard Hughes were clear. I was to verify their pilot licenses, insurance, flight plans, aircraft records, yada, yada, yada. I did none of that. Much relieved, I told the shaken civilians;
“North Las Vegas Air Terminal is 350 degrees for 10 nm. Get back in your bug smasher, take off, and never come back.”
As things were wrapping up, I called Johnny Carson in the tower, “Chief, did you notify the General?” He replied, “No Sir, that’s your job.”
I told him, “Then, let’s let this be our little secret, shall we?”
That’s the night I (almost) met Howard Hughes. Mr. Hughes eventually landed in Nicaragua, wherever that is.