The forty-year old native Texan pilot taxied the airplane, not down a runway, but across the bay. The pilot had previously set several world speed records. It was a blustery day with wind gusts of 20 mph and the temperature had risen from 47 degrees at daybreak into the mid-sixties. On board the aircraft were thirty-six people. In addition to the pilot and co-pilot there were two flight engineers, 16 mechanics, two additional members of the flight crew, seven members of the press, and seven industry representatives. On shore were thousands of spectators. The visibility was eight miles, and midway in the third trial run the pilot lifted the massive craft into the air. There were only supposed to be three trial runs with no takeoff. The pilot would later say that at 95 mph with the flaps lowered it just felt good, so he pulled back on the wheel and lifted off.
The aircraft is over 218 feet in length. It has a wingspan of 320 feet, more than the length of a football field, and the largest wingspan of any aircraft ever built! Its fuselage is 30 feet high and its total height is over 79 feet. It weighs 250,000 pounds empty, and with its eight 3,000 horsepower engines in can carry an additional 75 tons of cargo a distance of 3,000 miles. The fully loaded aircraft can fly at 250 mph at an altitude of 20,900 feet. It is a gigantic machine.
The impetus to develop this aircraft began in 1942 when the United States needed to transport vast amounts of materiel and personnel to Britain. At that time Allied ships were being sunk at an alarming rate by German U-boats. The solution appeared to be an aircraft that could cross the Atlantic Ocean with a large payload. However, there was a shortage of strategic materials.
Henry J. Kaiser, a steel magnate, developed the idea for this aircraft after developing and building Liberty Ships. Kaiser solicited Howard Hughes to design and build his creation. Hughes accepted the challenge to build an aircraft entirely of wood that would be six times larger than any other aircraft at that time. Both steel and aluminum were considered strategic materials that could not be used on this project. The original designation of the aircraft as “HK-1” reflected the partnership between Hughes and Kaiser.
The development contract that was issued by the government in 1942 called for three aircraft to be built within two years. Construction of the first aircraft began in 1944; sixteen months after the contract had been signed. At that time Henry Kaiser withdrew from the project and Hughes signed a new contract that stipulated only one prototype. The designation of the aircraft was changed at that time to H-4 Hercules. Construction dragged on. Hughes blamed the delays on the shortage of materials. Others blamed the delays on Hughes’ insistence on perfection. The H-4 Hercules did not progress as successfully as World War Two did.
When the United States and its Allies defeated the Axis nations, the prototype had not been completed. In 1947 a house moving company transported the aircraft in three sections to Pier E at Long Beach, California. In August of that year, Hughes was subpoenaed to testify before the Senate War Investigating Committee. Part of his testimony was that if the aircraft was not a success he would probably leave this country. During a recess in the hearings, Hughes returned to run tests on the H-4 Hercules. And so it was that sixty-nine years ago, on November 2, 1947, the first and only flight of the “Spruce Goose” took place with Hughes at the controls. As with many things, a name given by the media becomes fixed in the public’s mind. But the name isn’t accurate. The aircraft is made mostly of birch.
Possibly because he contemplated a second flight, Hughes engaged a full staff to maintain the mammoth plane in a climate-controlled hangar for the next twenty-nine years. After Howard Hughes’ death in 1976, it was gifted by Hughes’ Summa Corporation to the Aero Club of Southern California. There were other transfers of ownership, and today the aircraft is on display at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.
Doc Halliday can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo from fly.historicwings.com