Hughes Helicopters was a major manufacturer of military and civil helicopters from the 1950s to the 1980s.
The company began in 1947 as a unit of Hughes Aircraft, then was part of the Hughes Tool Company after 1955. It became the Hughes Helicopter Division, Summa Corporation in 1972, and was reformed as Hughes Helicopters, Inc. in 1981. However, throughout its history, the company was informally known as “Hughes Helicopters”. It was sold to McDonnell-Douglas in 1984, where it soon adopted its new parent company’s name.
Hughes’s first major successful helicopter was the Model 269/300, known to the U.S. Army as the TH-55 Osage.
In 1947, Howard Hughes redirected the Hughes Aircraft Co.’s efforts from airplanes to helicopters. The effort began in earnest in 1948 when helicopter manufacturer Kellett Aircraft Co. sold their latest design to Hughes for production. The XH-17 “Sky Crane” first flew in October 1952, but was commercially unsuccessful. In 1955, Howard Hughes split the helicopter production unit from the Hughes Aircraft Co., and reconstituted it with the Hughes Tool Co. as the Hughes Tool Co. Aircraft Division, with a focus on the production of light helicopters.
The Hughes Model 269 was the first successful helicopter design. Built in 1956, and entering production in 1957, it served to capture a large portion of the commercial market for Hughes. It would eventually become part of the Army inventory as a primary trainer (TH-55 Osage). In May 1965, the company won the contract for a new observation helicopter for the U.S. Army, and produced the OH-6 Cayuse (Hughes Model 369). The OH-6 was later developed into the civilian Model 500, variants of which remain in production to this day.
Hughes Model 369HS
In 1972, Hughes sold the tool division of Hughes Tool Company, and reconsolidated his remaining holdings as the Summa Corporation, which included Hughes’ property and other businesses. The Aircraft Division became the Hughes Helicopter Division, Summa Corp. That same year, the US Army issued a request for proposals (RFP) for an Advanced Attack Helicopter (AAH). From an initial list of 5 manufacturers Hughes Aircraft’s Toolco Aircraft Division (later Hughes Helicopters) and Bell were selected as finalists. In 1975, Hughes’ Model 77/YAH-64 was selected over Bell’s YAH-63. First flight of a development prototype occurred in 1977.
Perhaps Hughes’ most successful helicopter design, the AH-64 Apache began as Hughes Model 77 for the U.S. Army’s Advanced Attack Helicopter (AAH) competition
In 1981, Summa’s Hughes Helicopter Division was reconstituted as Hughes Helicopters, Inc.. By December, six AH-64A prototypes had been built and the Army had awarded a purchase contract to the company. Production would reach more than 1,100 by 2005. In 1983, the first production model AH-64 rolled off the production line at the company’s new Mesa, Arizona facility. That same year, the company was honored by the National Aeronautic Association with the prestigious Collier Trophy. The company also licensed Schweizer Aircraft to produce the Model 300C.
In 1984, Hughes Helicopters, Inc. was sold to McDonnell Douglas by Summa Corporation, under the parent’s efforts to streamline its focus and interest in real estate development. McDonnell-Douglas paid $500 million for the company, which it soon renamed McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Systems. Although the direct link with Hughes was broken, the helicopter designs created by Hughes Helicopters would continue to be produced by Boeing Rotorcraft Systems, MD Helicopters, and Schweizer Aircraft.
MH-6 Little Bird
Hughes 500 Defender
XH-17 “Sky Crane”