Five Oscars flew at the latest Academy Awards festival to The Aviator (2004), director Martin Scorsese's sumptuous view of the remarkable Howard Hughes (1905-1976).
Scorsese portrayed Hughes through the zenith of his expansive, uncompromising genius for technology and his playboy-billionaire life from the 1920s to the 1940s, a period in which Hughes helped build two pillars of Southern California's economy -- the film and aerospace industries.
While Hughes' Hollywood affairs or his untreated mood disorders may be popularly known, it is when The Aviator describes Hughes' achievements in aviation the audience glimpses innovations integral to our advanced jet culture wherein high velocity avoids squandering the time people and goods earlier wasted in transit to distant destinations.
In order to set speed and endurance records for flight, Hughes demanded, funded and sometimes devised developments in technology enabling his goals such as the electronics and radio communication needed for long-distance, trans-oceanic flight.
Hughes' drive toward aviation and aerospace in civilian and military applications led to several businesses, like Hughes Aircraft, Hughes Electronics, Hughes Space and Communications and Hughes Helicopters. The first geosynchronous satellites for television broadcast over the globe, SYNCOM, were launched in 1963 and came from Hughes Space and Communications. The Galileo mission launched to Jupiter in 1989, and deliberately crashed to its surface in 2003 at mission's end, was one of many civilian spacecraft built by Hughes aerospace companies. Hughes Helicopters built the Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopter.
That facet of Hughes as a genius military industrialist was loosely caricatured by producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli (1909-1996) in the James Bond film Diamonds are Forever (1971) as the recluse Willard Whyte, who builds space technology for the U.S. government in the desert surrounding Las Vegas. Hughes himself in 1966 had moved to Las Vegas and amalgamated real estate holdings including casino and hotel properties. In the film storyline, global-villain entrepreneur Ernst Stavro Blofeld kidnaps and impersonates Whyte in order to steal Whyte's advanced military technology and inject Cold War fears into Blofeld's profitable blackmail opportunities.
In an odd, accidental coincidence, the entrepreneur Hughes reflected fictional Willard Whyte in a covert Cold War action surely planned while Diamonds are Forever was in production. Details are murky, and unclassified information converges on the following sketch (although scratching this topic on the Internet quickly escalates to the outer reaches of conspiracy fantasies).
The secret action began in 1968 when a Soviet Golf II submarine sank in deep water northwest of the Hawaiian Islands. Although the Soviets failed to locate the sub, the United States could and did, with the aid of an underwater acoustic network called SOSUS, for SOund SUrveillance System. The sub lay seemingly out of reach, at the incredible depth of over 16,500 feet, where the pressure is approximately 500 times that at sea level. But there seemed to be an option -- a deep-sea drilling company, Global Marine, had built the civilian exploration ship GloMar Challenger. Scientists used it to drill cores of the deep ocean floor of the mid-Atlantic ridge in 1968 and confirm that the Earth's crust rests on elastic, tectonic plates. That machinery had successfully operated at shallower depths.
There then unfolded Project Jennifer, a secret U.S. program to raise the submarine, which possibly contained nuclear weapons and cipher information. Enter the recluse Hughes, whose Summa Corp. could run the cloaked operation to build the machinery and raise the sub. In 1974 Hughes Glomar Explorer (HE) and Hughes Marine Barge 1 (HMB-1) were positioned over the sub, and after about one month of on-site operations, managed to raise the forward part of the sub.
If that sounds like the stuff of a Tom Clancy novel, well, there is a connection, sort of.
While GloMar Challenger was eventually scrapped, the Explorer, owned by the U.S. Navy, was modernly refurbished as a leased, deep ocean drill ship now operated by GlobalSantaFe, a 2001 merger of Santa Fe Company with Global Marine. Drill ships are accurately steadied in position by active thrusters fed positioning information from the global positioning system (GPS) satellite network. One of GSF Explorer's two sister drill ships is the GSF Jack Ryan, the same name as a hero in Clancy's yarns. Only that's just a coincidence. The drill ship is actually named for Global Marine's former president and chief operating officer, Jack Ryan.
So, next time you read a Clancy novel, watch Diamonds are Forever or marvel at the brief amount of time it takes to fly global distances, you might think back, and give a vote of thanks, to Howard Hughes.
I am grateful to Ms. Julie Tushingham of GlobalSantaFe for the information on the origin of the drill ship GSF Jack Ryan.