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When Howard Hughes landed in Effingham

POSTED: November 19, 2012 6:09 p.m.
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Bessie and Homer Helmey

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Howard Hughes was a famous aviator, industrialist, film producer, philanthropist and one of the wealthiest people in the world.


His parents were Allene Stone Gano (a descendant of Catherine of Valois, Dowager Queen of England, by second husband Owen Tudor) and Howard R. Hughes Sr., who patented the two-cone roller bit, which allowed rotary drilling for oil in previously inaccessible places. Howard R. Hughes Sr. made the wise, lucrative decision to commercialize the invention, founding the Hughes Tool Company in 1909. By the time he was 18, both Hughes’ parents had died, with Howard Hughes inheriting 75 percent of the family fortune. He got himself declared an emancipated minor at 19 and took control of the business.


According to Bowers Gnann of the Stillwell area, Howard Hughes crashed a plane in the 1930s while he was flying from New York to Miami for an air show. He landed in a river field near Clyo. This field was owned by Homer and Bessie Helmey.

 
Their son Freddie and his wife Gracie lived with them, and they operated the family farm. Hughes was able to land the plane in the cornfield, got out and sought the use of a telephone to get help, according to Gnann.


Betty Waller recalls hearing that Grandpa Homer brought the man in for dinner and that he ate butter beans and rice or whatever was the fare of the day. Bessie always had a table full of good country cooking for whoever was working or visiting on any given day.


They overheard the man call Savannah seeking a mechanic to come, bring the parts and get the plane in flying condition. The Helmey family heard Howard Hughes tell the mechanic, when he made the phone call from their dining room, that his name was Howard Hughes.


At that time, the name Howard Hughes was not familiar, and they had no idea he was famous or would become so.

 
Bowers Gnann describes himself as being 12 or 14 at the time. Gnann was born in 1921, so this likely occurred in about 1933-35. Lanier White, age 91, also went to the site and saw the plane and recalls the event.


Bowers recalls that it was a small plane with a two-cylinder engine and that one of the cylinder heads had cracked, forcing Hughes to land. Gnann recalls the young Hughes told him he did not want his mother to know that he was flying.


The mechanic Hughes summoned from Savannah brought the head, and they fixed the plane in the field. The corn had been gathered in the river field, but there were cornstalks standing that had to be removed to clear enough “runway” for him to take off. A good many of the farm workers cleared the stalks out of the way.


Bowers recalls that everyone around came to the field to see the plane. His aunt Jane Reiser Morgan, who lived with his family, was a slight little woman. He recalls she hopped up into the plane and sat in the seat.


Once the plane was fixed and ready for flight, Howard Hughes offered Freddie Helmey a ride up in the air to look around and told him he would bring him back. A plane was a new invention in the 1930s. Freddie refused his offer.


Although Mr. Bowers Gnann never was offered the ride, I have a feeling with his keen interest in engines and such even at this early age, he might have been more inclined to take the ride had he been offered the opportunity.


Howard Hughes survived four air crashes, one of them nearly fatal in 1946 in California that left him with riddled physical and some say mental health.  He became a recluse and was very eccentric. There are biographies and the movie “The Aviator” tells the story of his quirky life and adventures.


In 1941 or 1942, Bowers Gnann said an Army aircraft gave out of gas and landed in the same general area near Clyo. The Army placed a guard there near the Helmeys to ensure the safety of the plane. This too brought excitement to the community.


A young Howard Hughes crashed in Effingham County in the 1930s. The next day, according to Gnann and the Helmey granddaughter Betty Waller, there was a small news item about the plane crash in the Savannah Morning News. I was unable to pin down a date to locate this record, so the story is passed down by oral accounts of the crash.


It was a pleasure interviewing Mr. Bowers Gnann about the incident and I thank him and Betty R. Waller who contributed to the article.


Echoes of Effingham is a weekly column in the Friday edition of Effingham Herald written by Susan Exley of Historic Effingham Society. If you have photos, comments or information to share, contact Susan Exley at 754-6681 or email her at: hesexleyherald@aol.com.

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