Saturday, November 30, 2013


            In the spring of 1942, the most dangerous place a person could be was aboard a merchant ship off the east coast of the United States. Just three months into World War II, 20% of our nation’s tanker fleet was already on the ocean bottom and prospects of being able to safely send troops across the Atlantic to fight in Europe were remote at best as Germany’s U-boat fleet seemed invincible. It was against this backdrop that the U.S. Military asked for bids for a giant transport plane capable of transporting 750 fully-equipped fighting men, or Sherman tanks on 3,000-mile over-water deployments.

            American industrial guru Henry J. Kaiser, already turning out “Liberty Ships” at an unheard-of rate, accepted the challenge. There was, he believed, only one aviation genius capable of coming up with such a design, and so millionaire movie-maker, racing pilot and aviation super-hero Howard Hughes became Kaiser’s partner in what many thought was a hopeless venture; especially when saddled with the requirement that no strategically-important materials such as aluminum and steel could be used.

            What came off Hughes’ drawing board was a giant flying boat, powered by eight 3000 hp engines mounted on 321 feet of aerodynamic wingspan, the whole to be made almost exclusively with wood – not spruce as the nickname implies – but an ingeniously pressure laminated birch composite.

            Hughes was not only an eccentric in his very private personal life, but a perfectionist to a degree present-day therapists would call “obsessive-compulsive” (an ailment his sadly-diminished later life would increasingly fall prey to), and delay after delay caused Kaiser to drop out of the partnership. Hughes continued on his own but ran out of time, completing the giant plane in 1947 with private money when the war was over and there was no more government funding.

            Hounded by congressional committees and government obstacles, he was grudgingly given permission to carry out taxing tests in Los Angeles bay, but not to take the behemoth aloft. On November 2nd, 1947, with 36 observers and media passengers aboard, Hughes made several taxi runs before releasing several of the media passengers who wished to get their stories into circulation and not realizing what they were about to have witnessed. Back at the controls, the irrepressible Howard Hughes made one final “taxiing” run, and with the sir speed indicator touching 135 mph artfully pulled the flying boat free from the grip of the water, flying at 70 feet of altitude for one mile.

            Despite a congressional rebuke and threats of more hearings, and castigation by critics who pointed out that the aircraft was riding on “ground effect”, Howard Hughes had proven that the Hughes “Hercules” H-1 could indeed fly and was a success. For Hughes, that had to be enough.

            For the next 33 years, the “Spruce Goose” was kept under cover and out of the public eye in the world’s largest climate-controlled hangar. What most people didn’t know was that all during that time Hughes employed a full maintenance crew who kept the airplane in virtual flying condition, as if he still believed that the day would come when it would fly again.

            Upon the death of the tragically-ill Howard Robard Hughes at age 71 in 1976, the H-1 went through a series of owners, including The Walt Disney Corp. and the Aero Club of Southern California, before finally finding a permanent home at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Oregon in February, 1993. Its final journey of over 1,055 miles and 138 days involved barge travel along the Pacific coast, into the Columbia river and – after a wait for high water – down the Willamette, and finally by rail car and truck to McMinnville.

            For what it’s worth, I am still of the “schoolboy belief” that Howard Hughes’ magnificent “Spruce Goose” was fully capable of sustained flight and could have performed the mission for which it was designed had history permitted.

(Previously in HOME COUNTRY –“ THE GOLDEN AGE OF FLYING BOATS” in 2 parts. – Jan. 2010)

Standing four stories high and with dozens of historic planes dwarfed by its shadow, the “Spruce Goose” is the center piece of the Evergreen Aviation Museum at McMinnville, Oregon.

Seated 30 feet above the museum’s floor, Al Cooper spans eight throttles with his right hand  in the cockpit of the  historic Hughes H-1 “Hercules”.  Hughes detested the nickname, “Spruce Goose.                Al Cooper Photos

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