Howard Hughes & the Spruce Goose Flying Boat

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SpruceGooseThe largest aircraft ever constructed was flown only one time!  After Pearl Harbor and US entry into World War II, the War Department commissioned the Hughes Aircraft Company to construct a “FLYING BOAT.” They needed an aircraft capable of carrying hundreds of troops across the Atlantic to England.  Transport ships were far too vulnerable to Nazi U-boat torpedoes.

Hughes Aircraft was owned by none other than Howard Hughes, the Donald Trump of his day!.  The tall and handsome Hughes was a famous tycoon, real estate mogul, aviator and film maker.  He dated many of the film starlets of the period, including Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis.  He owned, for a time, the famous RKO Pictures movie studio.  He purchased not one but FOUR Las Vegas casinos: the Desert Inn, Frontier, Sands and Silver Slipper.  In 1938, Hughes set the world record for an around the world flight in just 3 days, 19 hours.

He also suffered from a serious Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and germ-phobia which only worsened the older he got.

Because of wartime rations on aluminum & steel, Hughes decided to build his H-4 Hercules aircraft entirely out of wood. Although constructed of birch, the plane’s long wing span and whitish-gray colour earned it the nickname the “Spruce Goose.”  It had a wingspan of 320 feet and was powered by no less than eight giant propeller engines.  By contrast, the wingspan of a modern 747 is only 196 feet.

The Spruce Goose cost $23 million (a huge sum for its time) and took so long to design & build that the war was over by the time it was complete in 1946. The aircraft had many detractors, including Washington politicians of course, who demanded Hughes prove the plane airworthy.  In 1947, Hughes was called to testify before the Senate War Investigating Committee to explain WHY development had taken so long after costing so much.

So under intense pressure, on 2 November 1947, a strained and exhausted Hughes took the H-4 out onto Long Beach Harbor in California for an unannounced ‘taxi test.’ Hundreds of onlookers had come to watch the massive aircraft taxi on the water.  The roar of its 8 propeller engines was impressive enough as it lumbered across the bay like a blue whale with wings.  The crowd was startled when, with Hughes himself at the controls, he actually lifted his wooden behemoth 70 feet above the water and flew a little over one minute for one mile.  Though short and brief, Hughes proved to skeptics, and the world alike, that the monster could actually fly.

Despite this success, the Spruce Goose never went into production.

Its critics claimed the wooden framework was insufficient to support its cargo during long oceanic flights. Nevertheless, the eccentric Hughes refused to neglect what he saw as his greatest aviation achievement. Until his death in 1976, he kept the Spruce Goose hidden in a massive hanger and ready for flight at any time, to the tune of $1 million per year.

The Spruce Goose was moved in 1993 and is today housed at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.   Howard Hughes became increasingly eccentric and reclusive after 1950, retreating to his penthouse at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, never to be seen by the public again.  The OCD billionaire is said to have lived virtually naked, cutting his hair and nails only once a year.  Sadly, this is the image we have of Hughes today, not the daring, famous aviator.  Addicted to pain medications, he died virtually emaciated of kidney failure at age 71.

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