When Howard Hughes Helped the CIA on a Top-Secret Mission

The reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes.
The reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. / Alan Band/Keystone/Getty Images

Howard Hughes was one of the most famous, and most complicated, public figures of his time—a billionaire businessman who led a dashing existence as a “playboy” and record-breaking aviator, while harboring a debilitating fear of germs and obsession with privacy that ultimately played a role in his withdrawal from society

In 1968, when the CIA needed help with an audacious Cold War operation, officials decided that this eccentric character would be the perfect man for the job.

It was a brazen heist that began with a maritime catastrophe. In March of 1968, a Soviet submarine plunged to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, resulting in the deaths of 98 sailors. K-129, as the submarine was called, had contained three nuclear-tipped missiles that could be launched from beneath the sea, along with valuable code books. The Soviets tried and failed to find the sunken sub, but with the help of acoustic surveillance networks in the Pacific, the U.S. Navy and Air Force were able to locate K-129 some 1500 miles northwest of Hawaii. 

Hoping to find a trove of intelligence information, the CIA began brainstorming ways to haul the massive sub from the ocean floor. “Lifting a submarine weighing approximately 1750 tons from a depth of 16,500 feet had never been attempted or accomplished anywhere before,” according to a declassified CIA document [PDF] detailing the operation. And it all had to be done without attracting the attention of the Soviets.

Starboard-side view of the ship 'Glomar Explorer' in Benicia, California, 1977.
Starboard-side view of the 'Hughes Glomar Explorer' in Benicia, California, 1977. / Janet Fries/Getty Images

Ultimately, officials settled on a plan to send a giant claw to the depths of the ocean, which would surreptitiously pull K-129 into the hull of a huge ship. From the start, “Project Azorian,” the mission’s code name, seemed like an outlandish scheme; initial estimates predicted just a 10 percent chance of success. 

For help keeping Azorian under wraps, the CIA turned to Hughes, who agreed to announce that he was building a giant ship that would be used for mining manganese nodules at the bottom of the sea. It was a cover story for the vessel’s true purpose, and a plausible one. Hughes had a “known interest in deep sea mining,” according to a 1975 article in The New York Times, and his “penchant for secrecy” helped explain why details about the ship’s mission and destination were not disclosed to the public. 

In the summer of 1974, six years after K-129 went down, the Hughes Glomar Explorer was finally ready to head to the location of the sunken submarine. Two Soviet vessels hovered around the Explorer, but did not notice anything amiss as the claw stretched to the ocean floor, grabbed the sub, and began to pull it upwards. The mission faced a major setback when part of the claw suddenly broke, sending a portion of the submarine hurtling back to the bottom of the sea. But the Explorer was able to sail off, undetected, with the remainder of K-129.

The CIA hoped to launch another expedition to recover the rest of the submarine, but its plans came to a halt when a robbery at the Summa Corporation, a holding company for Hughes’s business ventures, resulted in the theft of documents—including one that connected Hughes to the CIA. The search for the paper “drew attention,” according to the CIA website, and the sensational story of Project Azorian made its way into the press.

Precisely what the Explorer managed to salvage from K-129 remains unclear, as some details of the mission are still classified. While the CIA acknowledges that Project Azorian “did not meet its full intelligence objectives,” the agency considers the mission to represent “an engineering marvel” and “one of the greatest intelligence coups of the Cold War.”