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The Flight of the Spruce Goose

WORLD HISTORY | August 6, 2019

Hughes H-4 Hercules (HK-1). Source: (Wikimedia)

During World War II, Allied shipping came under heavy attack by German U-boats. As a result, the Allies looked for ways to transport men and materials safely across the Atlantic. The most obvious way to the eccentric aeronautic designer, Howard Hughes and Henry Kaiser, was to fly rather than sail. What they created was a landmark in aviation history.

Howard Hughes (1905-1976) Source: (Wikimedia)

A contract for the design was signed by Hughes and Kaiser on November 16, 1942. The aircraft, a flying boat, was designated HK-1 (for Hughes and Kaiser) was to be monumental in proportions. It was designed to carry 65 tons of cargo and 750 troops or 350 wounded on litters. In comparison, a Boeing 747 can carry 660 passengers maximum. It was budgeted for $18 million.

Due to shortages in aluminum, the craft was made primarily of wood. It eventually was given the nickname “Spruce Goose” as a result, although there was no spruce in the construction, instead, it was mainly birch plywood glued together instead of nails. By all accounts, Hughes hated the nickname.

Scale models for size comparison between Hughes H-4 and a DC-3. Source: (Wikimedia)

As the war continued there were delays in construction. The U-boat threat had been contained and there were concerns about its design from the War Production Board. Construction was also hampered by Hughes whose erratic, OCD style prevented Kaiser from obtaining all relevant information. Kaiser eventually came to the conclusion that the wooden aircraft would never be massed produced and withdrew from the venture. The plane would ultimately become designated as the Hughes H-4 Hercules.

The Spruce Goose on the water. Source: (Wikimedia)

Work continued and gained favorable reviews from other designers. Hughes, however, expended all of the $18 million. He funded the rest of the construction from his own pocket. The total cost was $23 million.

A factory specifically for the construction of the Spruce Goose was built at Culver City, California. To produce the immense aircraft, lots of space was needed. The production building was 100 feet high, 750 feet long, and 250 feet wide.

When Hughes was finished with construction in 1947 it was two years after World War II ended. The Spruce Goose had a wingspan of 320 feet. It was 218 feet long and it weighed 150 tons. The wingspan was only slightly shorter than the length of a football field. It was powered by eight, 3,000 horsepower engines.

Howard Hughes puppet in the cockpit of the Spruce Goose. Source: (Wikimedia)

On November 1, 1947, the plane was floated off Terminal Island in Long Beach Harbor. Practice taxiing maneuvers were carried out. On November 2, 1947, the Spruce Goose became airborne at 1:30 pm with Hughes at the controls. It soared for one mile at an altitude of 85 feet. In sixty seconds it was over. There is some debate as to whether this actually constituted a flight. Regardless the Spruce Goose would never be airborne again. Critics held that the wooden frame was not sturdy enough for long flights. The Hughes H-4 Hercules never went into production and the Spruce Goose was one-of-a-kind.

The Spruce Goose on display at the Evergreen Air and Space Museum. Source: (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

Hughes docked the plane at Terminal Island and built a protective covering over it. Hughes, whose mental condition was deteriorating and who was obsessed with preserving his fine piece of aviation history, paid a $1 million a year to provide optimal environmental conditions to preserve the plane.

After Hughes died in 1976, the plane was put on display by Disney and then the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon in 1992 where it still on display today. The Spruce Goose holds the record for being the largest flying boat ever built and it held the record for aircraft with the longest wingspan until 2019 when it was surpassed by the Scaled Composites Stratolaunch.

Although it only flew once, and then doubtfully, the Spruce Goose is indelibly etched in the history of aviation. 

Tags: aviation | the Spruce Goose

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