On This Day

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The Spruce Goose

On This Day: The “Spruce Goose” Makes Its First and Last Flight

November 02, 2010 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Nov. 2, 1947, aviator Howard Hughes successfully tested the H-4 Hercules flying boat, better known as the “Spruce Goose,” the largest fixed-wing aircraft ever built.

The Spruce Goose

During World War II, the United States was faced with the problem of having to transport weapons and troops across the Atlantic Ocean for the Allied cause in Europe. The only way to transport materials at the time was by ship, but German U-Boat attacks made this an increasingly dangerous and costly endeavor.

Shipbuilder Henry Kaiser approached famed film producer and aviator Howard Hughes with an idea for a ship that could fly over dangerous areas. Hughes and Kaiser received an $18 million grant from the federal government to build three flying boats.

Hughes and his team were forced to build an aircraft out of wood due to wartime restrictions on metals. They designed a massive, single-hull vessel with eight engines and a 320-foot wingspan. It was capable of carrying 750 men or two tanks.

In 1944, as construction dragged on and costs soared over budget, Kaiser dropped out of the project. The flying ship, called the H-4, was not completed before the end of the war in 1945, but Hughes pressed on. The media ridiculed the H-4, dubbing it the “Spruce Goose,” and Congress called Hughes to Washington to defend the project.
Hoping to prove the value of his project, Hughes returned to California during the congressional hearings to finally test the Spruce Goose. On Nov. 2, 1947, with media members gathered, Hughes piloted the ship in Long Beach Harbor.

On his first two test trips, Hughes successfully drove the boat through the water, reaching 90 miles per hour. “During the third taxi test Hughes surprised everyone as he ordered the wing flaps lowered to 15 degrees and the seaplane lifted off the water,” writes the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum. “He flew her for a little over a mile at an altitude of 70 feet for approximately one minute. The short hop proved to skeptics that the gigantic craft could fly!”

Despite its successful take-off, the Spruce Goose served little purpose in post-war America. Hughes kept it in a hangar for the next 33 years until his death. It is currently kept in the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Ore.

Biography: Howard Hughes

Howard Robard Hughes Jr. was a modern day renaissance man. He was a successful aviator, an engineer, an industrialist and an Academy Award-winning film producer.

In 1933, he started the Hughes Aircraft Company to build and fly airplanes. “He held no engineering degree, and he lacked experience at the drawing board or on the shop floor,” writes T.A. Heppenheimer in American Heritage. “But he could hire people who had this background, and he knew enough to respond intelligently to the best technical suggestions.”

On Sept. 13, 1935, Hughes set the world speed record of 352 miles per hour in his H-1 aircraft. He set another record in 1938, when he flew around the world in 91 hours—four days faster than the previous record.

In 1939, Hughes began purchasing shares of TWA and eventually took control of the airline. He oversaw the construction of the Constellation airplane, which helped transform TWA into a powerful company.

Hughes was known for eccentric behavior, which began to negatively affect his business ventures and led to him losing control of TWA in 1960. He also developed a painkiller addiction following a 1946 plane crash that nearly killed him.

In the 1960s, he grew increasingly paranoid. “During that decade his mind, his health, and his appearance continued to deteriorate,” writes Heppenheimer. “He ate little; though more than six feet tall, he weighed less than 100 pounds. His hair rolled down his back, his beard trailed onto his chest, and his toenails were so long that they curled up.”

He died on April 5, 1976, of kidney failure.

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