Howard Hughes sets world record in Jackie Cochran’s Northrop Gamma 2G

Jackie Cochran with the Northrop Gamma 2G, circa 1936. Photographed by Toni Frissell)

Jackie Cochran is a hero in my mine and I love reading anything I come across about her. Thank you to Ray Johnson for pointing me in this direction and to ‘This Day In Aviation’ for a wonderful read.

This first photo is Jackie Cochran posing with her modified Northrop Gamma 2G built in 1934. Jack Northrop designed and built the Gamma as a long-range cargo and mail plane for Transcontinental and Western Air, Inc. but the contract was cancelled and several became available to other customers. Jackie Cochran purchased serial number 11 in 1934.

The Northrop Gamma 2G, NC13761, after modification to install a liquid-cooled Wright SGV1570F4 V-12 engine, 9 September 1934. (SDASM Archives)

The Gamma had a wingspan of 48′ and the original engine was initially replaced with a liquid-cooled, supercharged Wright Aeronautical Division Curtiss Conqueror, a V-12 engine rated at 745 HP. With a 2-bladed propeller, the Gamma had 7 fuel tanks: 3 in each wing and 1 in the fuselage. Total capacity was 486 gallons with 29 gallons of lubricating oil. A second fuselage tank was later added bringing the total fuel capacity to 586 gallons. The Gamma 2G had an empty weight of 4,727 pounds and a maximum gross weight of 8,037 pounds.

Jackie Cochran’s Northrop Gamma NX13761 after radial engine installation, photographed at Clemenceau, near Cottonwood, Arizona, circa 1935. (Ruth Reinhold Aviation Collection, Arizona Memory Project RRA-AMP107)

While being ferried to New York by Jackie and her new copilot, Royal Leonard, problems with the engine’s supercharger forced them to land in Arizona.  Cochran continued east by airliner while Leonard and a Curtiss-Wright’s mechanic continued east in the Gamma. Flying at night, a continuing problem with the supercharger forced them to make an off-field landing near Tucumcari, New Mexico, using light from dropped flares. The Gamma was seriously damaged and had to be returned to Northrop for repair.

The Northrop Gamma 2G, NR13761, at Newark, New Jersey, 14 January 1936. (UNLV Libraries Digital Collection)

Repairs completed, it was now powered by an air-cooled, supercharged Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp Jr. SA1-G 14-cylinder radial engine with a three-bladed Hamilton Standard controllable-pitch propeller.

Jackie Cochran flew the Gamma in the 1935 Bendix Trophy Race, but, approaching severe weather over the Grand Canyon, landed the airplane and did not finish the race.

Howard Hughes had seen the Gamma and wanted to buy it. Jackie Cochran tells how Howard Hughes acquired the airplane:

One night about 11:30 I was exhausted in my hotel room and the telephone rang. . .

“Jackie,” the voice says, “this is Howard.”

“Howard who?” I say, still sleepy and getting frustrated.

“Howard Hughes,” the man says.

“Howard who?” I ask again.

“Howard Hughes,” he repeats.

. . . We argued about who he was a bit more. Finally, he says, “I want to buy your airplane.”

I’m thinking that this is an incredible conversation. “It’s not for sale, Howard,” I reply. “I’m going to fly it in the Bendix.”

“I don’t want to fly it in the Bendix,” he answers. “I want to fly it cross-continental.”

“So do I,” I say.

Howard Hughes and I negotiated over the Northrop Gamma for about four weeks. . . Howard wanted my Northrop so badly, but it would break my heart to consider handing over my rights to it. . . when he offered to rent it, with an option to buy, I caved in. . . .

Howard Hughes with the record-setting Northrop Gamma. (UNLV Special Collections)

January 14, 1936 Howard Hughes set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Speed Over a Recognized Course (Los Angeles, California, to New York) in 9 hours, 26 minutes, 10 seconds, at an average speed of 259.1 miles per hour. Most of the flight was made at altitudes of 15,000–18,000′ flying Jackie Cochran’s Northrop Gamma 2G, serial number 11, which he had leased from Jackie.

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