Howard Hughes known as it the H-4 Hercules—a becoming identify for the biggest and strongest airplane of its time. The press, nonetheless, dubbed his prized creation the “Spruce Goose”—a reputation Hughes despised. However the label caught, and the massive airplane grew to become one other a part of Hughes’ enigmatic legacy—a narrative of how one man’s uncompromising ambition propelled his outstanding ascendancy and eventual descent into insanity. This yr marks the seventy fifth anniversary of the notorious seaplane’s maiden (and solely) flight.
In the course of the early phases of World Struggle II, German U-boats just about feasted on Allied cargo vessels within the Battle of the Atlantic. These heavy losses prompted the U.S. Struggle Manufacturing Board to discover other ways of transporting materiel and troops to Britain. Metal magnate Henry J. Kaiser, extensively considered the daddy of recent American shipbuilding, proposed making a fleet of flying cargo ships that might move over the menacing Nazi wolf packs. Earlier than he might do this, although, he wanted a accomplice with aviation experience. The gregarious businessman approached a number of main aeronautical producers, however all of them handed on the scheme. Undaunted, Kaiser turned to Hughes. The celebrated film mogul turned record-setting aviator had constructed his status by taking big dangers and proving naysayers fallacious. Constructing a 200-ton flying boat needs to be no completely different.
Howard Robard Hughes Jr. was born on December 24, 1905, in Harris County, Texas. His father, a Harvard-educated lawyer, patented a specialised drill bit that permit him pioneer the exploration of beforehand unreachable fossil gasoline reserves. The invention led to hefty earnings in the course of the Texas oil growth, wealth his 18-year-old son later inherited as the only real inheritor of the household’s property. Not surprisingly, the footloose teenager dropped out of school and headed for the West Coast along with his eyes set on the flicks. The 1927 WWI drama Wings (winner of the primary Academy Award for finest image) impressed Hughes to make his personal air fight epic, however one which was greater and higher. Commencing manufacturing in 1927, Hughes’ Hell’s Angels endured a gentle barrage of mishaps over the subsequent three years. The expensive setbacks concerned at least 5 administrators (together with Hughes), 4 fatalities, a number of flying accidents (additionally together with Hughes), the 1929 inventory market crash, and the arrival of sound within the motion pictures, which required reshoots and recasting. Nonetheless, Hell’s Angels triumphed as a outstanding cinematic achievement (albeit with some clunky appearing) upon its launch in 1930.
The lanky Texan leveraged the film’s success when he got down to conquer his subsequent business: aviation. In 1932 he based the Hughes Plane Firm, a enterprise spurred by his curiosity in air racing. As a pilot, Hughes set a number of world airspeed information and received quite a few awards, together with the Harmon Trophy in 1936 and 1938, the Collier Trophy in 1938 and the Bibesco Cup of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, additionally in 1938. That yr he accomplished an around-the-world flight in simply over 91 hours, smashing the earlier file by nearly 4 days. Upon his return, New York Metropolis showered him with a ticker-tape parade. Extra prizes adopted. He acquired a particular Congressional Gold Medal in 1939 “for advancing the science of aviation and thus bringing nice credit score to this nation all through the world.” Moreover, the younger entrepreneur acknowledged the potential of business air journey and step by step grew to become the bulk shareholder of Transcontinental & Western Air (the predecessor of TWA). Together with his cash and his aviation experience, Hughes appeared like the proper man for Henry Kaiser’s undertaking.
Kaiser and Hughes made an odd couple. The portly industrialist was 23 years older than Hughes and had an oval, bespectacled face that gave him the air of a nearsighted bullfrog. Exuding a boisterous affability, he attended church commonly and preached healthful household values. Hughes, a playboy who stored firm with the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, didn’t. Kaiser was the son of German immigrants and started working at age 13 as an errand boy at a dry items retailer in Utica, New York, honing a piece ethic that might serve him nicely. In 1914, he based a paving firm that superior the usage of heavy development equipment and later grew to become the first contractor for the Hoover, Bonneville, and Grand Coulee dams. He then revolutionized shipbuilding by mass-producing Liberty Ships for the USA authorities’s warfare effort.
Kaiser’s three way partnership with Hughes secured an $18 million authorities contract for designing, engineering and developing three flying boat prototypes. The undertaking, nonetheless, got here with a laundry checklist of restrictions. The mandate, for instance, forbade them from utilizing vital supplies like metal or aluminum or hiring anybody already engaged within the warfare effort. And yet one more factor: the prototype needed to be accomplished in 24 months. Kaiser boasted they’d have it achieved in lower than a yr. With marching orders in hand, the 2 disparate tycoons went to work within the fall of 1942.
Hughes insisted that the airplane, initially designated HK-1, would have a gross weight of 400,000 kilos and be able to shuttling 750 totally geared up troops or two 30-ton M4 Sherman tanks throughout the ocean. Progress was sluggish. Along with his obsessive-compulsive tendencies, Hughes typically disappeared for months at a time, participating in a spate of actions that included his manufacturing of The Outlaw (1943), for which he utilized his engineering abilities to design a brassiere for star Jane Russell. The last decade additionally noticed Hughes survive two horrific air accidents. In March 1943, whereas test-flying a modified amphibian Sikorsky S-43, he crashed into Lake Mead in southern Nevada. Two males died, and Hughes needed to be rescued by one of many different crew members. Three years later, his twin-engine XF-11 reconnaissance airplane, which the U.S. Military Air Forces had commissioned, developed a propeller malfunction mid-flight. He tried to land on a golf course however went down in a Beverly Hills neighborhood, destroying three homes. Hughes barely escaped the burning, mangled wreckage earlier than being rushed to the hospital, the place emergency room employees didn’t count on him to reside. He spent the subsequent 5 weeks laid up with a collapsed lung, 9 fractured ribs, damaged vertebrae and third-degree burns. Miraculously, he managed to recuperate (however needed to develop a mustache to cowl scars on his higher lip). Hughes additionally developed a extreme habit to opiates—a situation that plagued him for the remainder of his life.
By 1944, Kaiser had had sufficient of Hughes and dissolved the partnership. The self-made millionaire promptly returned to constructing standard floating transports, ultimately leaving his mark on every thing from cars (Kaiser Motors) to x-rays (Kaiser-Permanente). In the meantime, Hughes pressed ahead with a crew of handpicked personnel, headed by his chief designer, Glenn Odekirk. The federal government agreed to increase the deadline, however steady delays and wasteful spending required Hughes to pump tens of millions of his personal cash into what was now referred to as the H-4. Actual figures of the fee range, owing to Hughes’ notoriously secretive nature and penchant for exaggerating the reality, however the work continued.
Building of the hull relied on an elaborate course of utilizing Duramold, a light-weight materials like plywood wherein layers of skinny veneers have been bonded along with waterproof resins. Its catchy nickname apart, the airplane consisted primarily of birch and was lined in material. The big scale offered distinctive challenges—obstacles that Hughes resolved with ingenuity. The filmmaker arrange projectors at his plane facility to show blueprints onto the ground, permitting his engineers to fabricate components to measurement. Hughes’s aptitude for innovation prolonged to pioneering the primary hydraulically actuated management unit, which complemented a 120-volt D.C. electrical system to control the large management surfaces. A sequence of intercom radio factors enabled rapid communication with engineers positioned contained in the cavernous fuselage. Most impressively, the wingspan measured 320 toes 11 inches, a file that stood till 2019. Eight Pratt & Whitney R-4360 28-cylinder radial engines with 17-foot propellers generated a mixed 24,000 horsepower for an meant vary of three,000 miles at a cruising velocity of round 200 mph. The sheer measurement of the mammoth components necessitated transferring them from Hughes Airport to a bigger facility in Lengthy Seaside, a sluggish, 28-mile trek wherein energy traces needed to be lowered on streets alongside the way in which. The winged freighter lastly neared completion in 1947, when the warfare had been over for 2 years. Leaders in Washington accused its well-known builder of malfeasance and warfare profiteering.
On August 6, 1947, Hughes appeared earlier than the Senate Struggle Investigating Committee to defend himself towards accusations that he had misused authorities funds. Throughout 5 days of intense questioning within the sensationalized listening to, Senator Owen Brewster of Maine led the assault, declaring, “The Spruce Goose is a flying lumberyard and can by no means fly.”
The defiant maverick got here out swinging. “I’m by nature a perfectionist, and I appear to have bother permitting something to undergo in a half-perfect situation,” Hughes stated. “So if I made any mistake, it was in working too laborious and in doing an excessive amount of of it with my very own two fingers.” Hughes continued to defend himself vigorously in entrance of a packed reside viewers. “The Hercules was a monumental enterprise…It’s over 5 tales tall with a wingspan longer than a soccer discipline. That’s greater than a metropolis block. I put the sweat of my life into this factor. I’ve my status rolled up in it, and I’ve acknowledged that if it was a failure, I most likely will go away this nation and by no means come again, and I imply it.”
Coincidentally, Brewster had lately sponsored a nationwide airline invoice that might have handed Pan-American Airways—TWA’s important rival—a monopoly on profitable authorities airline passenger and mail routes. Hughes seized the chance to counterattack, accusing the New Englander of blatant corruption and collusion with Pan Am. The committee quickly adjourned, having devolved right into a media circus that noticed Hughes emerge because the clear winner within the court docket of public opinion. He then returned to California and centered his undivided consideration on finishing the H-4. With crews working in shifts across the clock, the aviator set a date for a sequence of taxi trials. Vindication awaited.
Hughes was able to unveil his creation on November 1, 1947. Sporting his fortunate whiskey-colored fedora, Hughes manned the controls with the help of a 20-man crew. The seaplane additionally carried seven members of the press and 7 different invited friends. However blustery situations compelled him to postpone the occasion for a day. On November 2, Hughes guided the silver-lacquered behemoth into Lengthy Seaside Harbor. A flotilla of small boats joined 1000’s of spectators lining the shores.
Hughes accomplished the primary taxi at low velocity earlier than re-positioning for an additional run at 90 mph. The thunderous roar of eight 28-cylinder P&W engines crammed the air, however persistent winds appeared to scuttle any makes an attempt to get airborne. Consequently, many of the newsmen requested to go ashore and file their tales. They’d quickly come to remorse it. On the third trial, Hughes ordered his flight engineer to “decrease 15 levels of flap” as he throttled right into a stiff headwind. Immediately, the Hercules flexed its muscle mass, lifting out of the water for 26 seconds and reaching an altitude of 70 toes earlier than gently touching down.
James McNamara, a radio reporter who had remained on board to file a reside broadcast, excitedly turned to the pilot. “Howard, did you count on that?”
“I wish to make surprises,” Hughes stated.
The H-4 by no means flew once more. Hughes insisted that it had been constructed for “testing and analysis and to offer information which can advance the artwork of aviation.” Whether or not the colossal beast might have ever turn into operational is debatable. Regardless, Hughes had proved his level: Brewster and the opposite critics have been compelled to eat their phrases. Over time, Hughes made a number of modifications to his airplane, together with including a metal spiral staircase to the flight deck. He stored the H-4 in pristine situation and housed it in a specifically constructed local weather management facility at the price of $1 million per yr till the more and more eccentric recluse died in 1976.
The Aero Membership of Southern California later acquired the Spruce Goose and displayed it in an enormous geodesic dome subsequent to the ocean liner Queen Mary in Lengthy Seaside. However the airplane had one journey left. In 1993, following a serpentine journey by barge, prepare and truck, the historic plane arrived at its present residence in McMinnville, Oregon. There, it instructions prime billing on the Evergreen Aviation & House Museum, attracting guests worldwide who come to marvel on the jaw-dropping sight—and even sit within the cockpit whereas carrying Hughes’s iconic hat. Like its eccentric creator, the Spruce Goose is in a category by itself.
Christopher Warner is an actor and freelance author. He has written extensively about navy historical past, together with the experiences of his great-uncle, who flew fight gliders in WWII. For additional studying he recommends Howard Hughes: His Life and Insanity by Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele, and Construct ’Em by the Mile, Reduce ’Em off by the Yard: How Henry J. Kaiser and the Rosies Helped Win World Struggle II by Steve Gilford.
This text initially appeared within the Winter 2023 subject of Aviation Historical past.