By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
On November 2, 1947 the Hughes H-4 Hercules drifted out of its hanger in Long Beach Harbor at the end of a tow rope pulled by a small boat. The authorities had cleared the water so the massive flying boat could do some taxi tests. Hughes, taking a break from congressional testimony over his government contracts (including the $18 million one for the H-4), decided it was time to get the massive plane out and see how she handled on the water. He invited the press and even the members of the committee he was testifying in front of. The politicos didn’t show, but the press did. The first run was a leisurely 40 knots, the second a much more brisk 90 knots. The plane lined up for a third run; Howard Hughes himself at the controls. The eight propellers spun up to speed. The plane lurched forward. Speed increased, and increased, and increased, and then it happened. The eight story tall Hercules took to the air.
To understand what a momentous event this was you need to understand three factors; the times, the plane, and the man.
The early days of America’s involvement in the Second World War were costly, and America hadn’t even declared itself at war. Tons of ships and materials were being sent to the bottom of the Atlantic every month by German U-boats. We needed a way to move a lot of cargo weight a great distance, and to do it quickly. While the ship building industry began to ramp up production to an unequaled pace, some people looked to the skies to transport more. Seaplanes were used far more prevalently than they are now and were far from being a primarily private aviation phenomenon. Military and commercial carriers had sizable seaplanes, carrying upwards of seventy people.
Howard Hughes was a man who thought big. He was brash and arrogant, but also pioneering and adventurous. He was born into privilege, but longed for meaning. He sought that in everything from business, to engineering, to Hollywood to flight. He had the arms of the most beautiful women in the world and the envy of the masses, but he longed for the respect of the powerful.
At the intersection of America’s need and Hughes’ ego was the Hercules. The largest seaplane ever built. A wooden gamble for the Hughes Aircraft Company. A five year project that cost millions of dollars, personal relationships, and congressional intervention.
The call for a new seaplane went out and amongst the bidders was an audacious project. A plane that could carry multiple tanks, hundreds of troops or huge amounts of supplies. It was so crazy it took Hughes himself to sell the project. By this time it was 1942 and the United States was no longer a sideline player in World War Two. This new design of Hughes’s could revolutionize troop deployment and materiel transport. Best of all, it would be easy on the precious commodities of metal and rubber. The Hughes H-4 Hercules would be made of wood. The press thought it was a huge mistake. The Flying Lumberyard and The Spruce Goose were the mocking names the media gave to what they saw as a colossal waste of money and time. Hughes hated the derisive nicknames, especially the Spruce Goose (especially because it was made mostly of birch).
It wasn’t actually Hughes’s brainchild alone. Henry J. Kaiser, a builder of Liberty Ships, came up with the initial idea of a flying cargo ship. Kaiser knew very well that he knew more about hydrodynamics than aerodynamics and that to pull off his enormous plan he would need to get an aircraft builder to help. Hughes was just the man. The problems began to pile up almost immediately. Building a plane mostly from wood solved some of the problem but there were still restrictions on strategic wartime materials like aluminum. The other problem was the partnership. Kaiser was from an industry that ran its production up to unheard of levels during the war. Hughes insisted on perfection over punctuality. The frustrations caused Kaiser to pull his support from the project and caused a rift between the two men from then on. It took sixteen months to go from approval to production start.
Five years after the initial approval, in 1947, Hughes still hadn’t gotten his magnum opus off the ground. The Senate Investigating Committee was looking into the project with a very skeptical eye. The war it was supposed to have helped fight had been over for more than two years. Hughes vowed to the committee that he would prove the plane was not a failure or he would “probably leave this country and never come back.” He left the hearings during a recess, went home and flew the plane on what was supposed to have been a taxi test. It reaches an altitude of seventy feet and was aloft for a single mile. This was all Hughes needed to feel that he had vindicated himself. The plane was moved back to its hanger, kept air ready by a crew of 300 employees, then cut to 50 in 1962 and finally just left in its hanger in 1976 after Hughes died.
The plane remains. You could go and see it in Long Beach, California for many years as it passed from one hand to the next several years until it was finally moved to its current home at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in Oregon. It’s on display for all to come and marvel at the folly and the genius and the audacity of one man’s need to be better than everybody else, and it still has the largest wingspan ever created.
- Biplanes, Triplanes and Seaplanes, Sharpe, Michael YA 629.13334 SHA
- Flight 100 Years of Aviation, Grant, R.G. 629.13009 GRA
- Howard Hughes His Life and Madness, Bartlett, Donald and Steele, James B Hughes
- Howard Hughes The Secret Life, Higham, Charles B Hughes
- Jane’s Encylopedia of Aviation, Taylor, Michael J. H. ed., R 629.13 JAN
- The Timechart History of Aviation, Lowe & B. Hould Publishers, 629.13009 TIM
- Time Magazine (Vol. 50 No. 19) November 10 1947 p27
- Hughes H-4 Hercules (Spruce Goose) at Military Factory https://www.militaryfactory.com/aircraft/detail.asp?aircraft_id=349#specs