Billionaire Howard Hughes & the Spruce Goose Flying Boat

Tycoon Howard Hughes aboard the Spruce Goose
Tycoon Howard Hughes aboard the Spruce Goose

The largest aircraft ever constructed was flown only one time!  After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and US entry into World War II, the War Department commissioned the Hughes Aircraft Company to construct a huge “FLYING BOAT.” They needed an aircraft capable of carrying hundreds of troops across the Atlantic to England.  Transport ships were far too slow and vulnerable to Nazi U-boat torpedoes.

Hughes Aircraft was owned by none other than billionaire Howard Hughes, the Elon Musk of his day.  The tall and handsome, Hughes was a famous tycoon, real estate mogul, aviator and Hollywood film maker.  He dated many of the film starlets of the period, including Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis.  He owned, for a time, Trans World Airlines (TWA) and 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.

Howard Hughes also suffered from a serious Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and germaphobia which only worsened the older he got.

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

The Spruce Goose cost $23 million (a huge sum for its time). Hughes was known perfectionist and it took so long to design & build that World War II 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 damn plane was even 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.  He famously said:

“Now, I put the sweat of my life into this thing. I have my reputation all rolled up in it and I have stated several times that if it’s a failure, I’ll probably leave this country and never come back. And I mean it.”

Howard Hughes
The Spruce Goose Flying Boat
The Spruce Goose Flying Boat

So, under intense pressure, on 2 November 1947, a visibly strained and exhausted Hughes took the H-4 out himself onto Long Beach Harbor in California for an unannounced ‘taxi test.’ About three dozen invited guests, mechanics and members of the press were on board. 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. He flew a little over one minute for about one mile at 135 mph.  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.

The Hercules H-4 was never flown again. Its flight distance and lifting capacity were never tested by the military.  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 with 300 employees who kept it ready for flight at any time, to the tune of $1 million per year.  In the 198O’s it was kept in Long Beach Harbor under a massive dome next to the ocean liner and now hotel, Queen Mary.

The Spruce Goose was carefully moved in 1993 and is today housed at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon outside of Portland. Howard Hughes became increasingly eccentric and reclusive after 1950, investing in real estate rather than aviation. He retreated to his penthouses at places like his Desert Inn Casino in Las Vegas, never to be seen by the public again.  The OCD and germaphobe billionaire is said to have lived virtually naked, cutting his hair, beard and nails only once a year.  Sadly, this is the image many have of Hughes today, not the handsome and daring aviator he once was.

Addicted to codeine and other pain medications, Howard Hughes died of kidney failure and malnutrition in 1976 at age 71 in a Learjet on its way to Houston, Texas.  He had two ex-wives and no children. Hughes’s $2.5 billion estate was eventually divided up in 1983 among 22 of his cousins. His early life was presented in a 2004 movie The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, with a special appearance by the famous Spruce Goose at the end of the film.

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LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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