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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Spruce Goose Flies, November 2, 1947

Today in 1947, the Hughes H-4 Hercules made its one and only flight off Long Beach, California for a distance of one mile and a maximum height of 70 feet. The man at the controls was Howard Hughes, the eccentric millionaire who had seen this plane, dubbed by the press the Spruce Goose, grow from a wartime drawing board fantasy all the way to a flying modern marvel.

The story of the Spruce Goose begins in early 1942, several months after the United States entered the Second World War. The convoys carrying precious cargo to the Allies in Europe were being decimated by German U-boats. If Britain and Russia could not be supplied from the Arsenal of Democracy, it was doubtful that they would remain in the war. The only solution open to the war planners in Washington was to build a plane large enough to act as a replacement for the cargo ships of the era.

It was Henry J. Kaiser, the man who built the Liberty ships, who first approached Howard Hughes about building a gigantic flying boat. But Kaiser knew almost nothing about the aircraft industry and soon turned the entire project over to Hughes. Almost every metal used in manufacturing was in short supply during the early years of the war, so the Hughes design team drew up plans for an aircraft made largely of laminated birch, not spruce. It would hold 700 troops and have a range of 3000 miles. It would be able to take off and land from any calm body of water.

The H-4, on display today at The Evergreen Aviation Museum in Oregon, is a monster. At 319 feet, her wingspan is the largest of any aircraft built to this day. She is nearly 220 feel long and stands 80 feet high at her tail. She is pulled through the air by 8 Pratt & Whitney engines, each capable of production 3,000 horsepower. Even by today’s standards, she is an aviation masterpiece.

The Spruce Goose was not completed in time for using during the war. In fact, the construction ran so far over on time that Hughes was called to testify before the US Senate War Investigation Committee to explain his usage of the government funds for some of the aircraft’s development costs. The committee was far from friendly to Hughes, who was already starting to display many of the obsessive traits that would plague him for the rest of his life. During a break in the testimony, Hughes flew back to California. He had a point to prove.

And so it was the Howard Hughes ended up at the controls of his airplane on November 2, 1947. The event was only supposed to be for engine tests, but as the speed of the craft increased, it became clear that the Spruce Goose was going to fly. Although the flight was short and some critics said that the plane was using ground effect and was too underpowered to fly any higher, Hughes had disproved those in the Senate who were claiming that the plane could not fly at all.

The H-4 was never put into production and never flew again after that day. Until his death in 1976, Hughes paid to have the plane kept in a climate-controlled hangar and ready for flight. The US Navy nearly flew the plane in 1977 as part of a program to study low level heavy lift aircraft, but the project was cancelled. The Spruce Goose will probably never fly again, but it will always remain as a testament to one man’s vision and determination.

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