1947: The Spruce Goose, with Hollywood producer-aviator-tycoon Howard Hughes at the controls, makes its first — and only — flight, skimming the waters of Long Beach Harbor in California for roughly one minute.
That short hop, made mostly for the benefit of the press and newsreel cameras, was the climax of a story that began more than five years earlier, at the height of World War II.
Appalled at the heavy toll being taken on Allied shipping by the German U-boats, Henry J. Kaiser, builder of the Liberty ships, proposed a fleet of gigantic flying transports to move men and material across the Atlantic. After Kaiser enlisted Hughes’ support, the two men sold their idea to the government and walked away with an $18 million contract (about $250 million in today’s money) to build three flying boats.
Hughes, who had attracted Kaiser’s interest because of his reputation as an aircraft designer, set to work with his engineers. They came up with the Hughes H-4 “Hercules,” an eight-engined behemoth with a wingspan of 320 feet, wider than the length of a football field. The plane was to be capable of carrying 750 troops.
Because of restrictions on the use of materials deemed critical to the war effort, Hughes built the prototype, HK-1, not out of steel or aluminum but of wood. And while the seaplane would become known worldwide as the Spruce Goose (a name Hughes despised), it was made largely of birch, not spruce.
Hughes used a process called Duramoid, a fluid-pressure method of molding plywood, to create a material generally agreed to be both lighter and stronger than aluminum.
Despite the innovation, the project bogged down in cost overruns and red tape. Kaiser withdrew in 1944, but Hughes had the bit between his teeth and assumed sole responsibility for continuing. When the government cut off funding and began investigating Hughes for misappropriation of funds involving this and another project, he plowed $7 million of his own into the H-4.
Hughes was determined to get his plane off the ground (or, more accurately, off the water) and on Nov. 2, 1947, he did.
Following its short flight, Hughes had the Spruce Goose stored in a custom-built hangar and maintained in a state of flight readiness. After Hughes’ death in 1976, the plane passed through a succession of owners, was put on public display in Long Beach Harbor, and was finally relocated to Oregon, where it now serves as the centerpiece of the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum.
Source: Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum
Photo: Howard Hughes sits in the cockpit of the Spruce Goose. (Bettmann/Corbis)
This article first appeared on Wired.com Nov. 2, 1947.
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