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This Week in Military History: October 27th - November 2nd

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November 2nd: The Spruce Goose Flies

The Hughes H-4 HerculesThe Hughes H-4 Hercules.

Anybody who so much as skims military related stories in the news or online is no stranger to instances of over budget, overhyped aircraft that walk the line between military industrial punchline and shameful example of government waste. It’s a tale as old as military aviation. Sometimes it ends with the aircraft being worthwhile, sometimes it ends with the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter (the West German Air Force called it “The Widowmaker” because of how many pilots died in accidents). But, in most cases, the story centers around a particular airframe. A design, or family of designs, for aircraft. Not a single airplane. Except in the case of one of the most famous (and largest) individual airplanes of all time: Hughes H-4 Hercules, better known as the Spruce Goose. Though it was mostly made from birch, not spruce.

Size comparison of the Spruce Goose with current record-holding large airplanes.Size comparison of the Spruce Goose (in yellow) with current record-holding large airplanes.

As World War Two’s Battle of the Atlantic raged, German u-boats continuously ravaged the merchant convoys bringing supplies to the Allies from the Western Hemisphere. America’s entry into the war only intensified the fighting as it allowed the Germans to directly target their commercial and naval vessels. It’s no wonder then that the US military soon began looking for ways to transport high volumes of goods and materiel overseas that would bypass the enemy’s dreaded submarine fleet. The call went out for someone to design an aircraft that could cross the Atlantic with a hold full of vital equipment. And it couldn’t be made out of aluminum, which was reserved for more direct use in the military’s war effort.

The cargo ship SS Pennsylvania burning after being struck by a torpedo.The cargo ship SS Pennsylvania burning after being struck by a torpedo.

This seemingly impossible task was right up the alley of several uniquely talented and prominent men. One was Henry Kaiser, an American industrialist who’d been an early advocate of the US aiding the allies even before their entry into the war. Once that happened, he proved himself an essential figure in supplying the war effort as owner of the Kaiser Shipyards in California where vast fleets of the famous Liberty ships (and, later in the war, the improved Victory ships) were built. When the War Department contacted Kaiser regarding their desire for an aircraft that could ferry cargo across an ocean, he leapt at the idea of a “flying cargo ship.” But to design and build it, he needed help from someone who knew their way around planes. So the War Department reached out to a second man, the one who would provide the aircraft expertise, one of America’s most famously eccentric millionaires: Howard Hughes.

Howard Hughes during WWII.Howard Hughes during WWII.

Hughes, an early Hollywood film tycoon turned aircraft engineer and designer, and Glenn Odekirk (Hughes’ personal assistant and an engineer at the Hughes Aircraft Corporation) began the design process of the tentatively named “HK-1” (for Hughes and Kaiser) after the development contract was signed in 1942. It was planned to be gigantic, particularly by the standards of airplanes at the time, and capable of carrying up to 150,000 pounds of materiel, 750 fully-armed troops, or two M4 Sherman tanks. Three of these giant flying boats were to be completed in the next three years. It was an ambitious and groundbreaking plan for what would be an industry-changing vehicle.

Henry J. Kaiser, co-creator of the flying cargo ship project.Henry J. Kaiser, co-creator of the flying cargo ship project.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the whole process went very poorly from the start. It took Hughes and Odekirk seven tries to decide upon a design before they even began building one. Construction on the first (and what would be the only) of the HK-1’s didn’t begin until 16 months after the contract was awarded. Without available aluminum, the plane was constructed primarily out of Duramold, a composite of plywood and resin, which led to the planes nicknames: the Flying Lumberyard and the abovementioned one (which Hughes absolutely hated). Kaiser, frustrated by Hughes’ vehement perfectionism and the difficulty of working without typical aircraft materials, left the project before long. But Hughes continued to refine the plane, renaming it the H-4 Hercules.

Interior of the H-4.Interior of the H-4.

Work on the plane continued through 1945 and beyond, so it didn’t exactly prove useful to the war effort. Hughes was even called in front of the Senate War Investigating Committee in 1947 to answer for the vast government resources (nearly $300 million, or the equivalent of about three F-35s, in today’s money) spent on a single aircraft that had yet to leave the ground. Hughes, defiant and determined to prove the H-4 was not a failure, used a break in the Senate hearings to travel to where it was stored, near Pier E in the harbor of Long Beach, California, and give it a try.

Hughes in the cockpit of the Hercules.Hughes in the cockpit of the H-4.

On November 2nd, 1947, Hughes (as pilot), his copilot, two flight engineers, two other flight crew members, and 16 mechanics manned the Spruce Goose to conduct taxi tests in the harbor. Accompanying them were seven members of the airplane industry and seven members of the press, although four of them departed to file their stories before the final test. It was on this final run that the Hercules took to the skies, although not very high in them. Or for very long. It reached a maximum altitude of 70 feet and flew about a mile at 135 miles per hour. The whole flight took 26 seconds.

Flight of the Spruce Goose.Flight of the Spruce Goose.

Even after such a short flight, Hughes was vindicated. The aircraft worked and that was enough to prove that, however little use it proved to the military, it was not a total failure. But the Spruce Goose never flew again. Today, the still-whole aircraft sits on display in the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.

The Hercules on display in its current location.The Hercules on display in its current location.

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