The H-4 Hercules in transit to Long Beach for its historic flight, June 16, 1946 – Source: Welcome Home, Howard Digital Collection, UNLV University Libraries Special Collections.
2017 marks the 70th anniversary of the Spruce Goose’s one and only flight.
The infamous aircraft that is now commonly known as the “Spruce Goose” originated in the mind of Henry J. Kaiser, owner of an Oakland-based ship manufacturing company, in response to the escalating threat of Axis Powers submarines in the early years of World War II. The submarines were sinking Allied ships almost as quickly as American companies were manufacturing them. In the first nine months of U.S. involvement in the war, over 500 Allied ships were sunk by Axis submarines. By the end of 1942, the American public was deeply concerned about the depletion of U.S. naval power.
To remedy this problem, Kaiser proposed a fleet of giant flying boats to carry manpower and supplies over the Atlantic without fear of destruction. The American public’s imagination was soon fixated on the potential of this new technology, but the military and the aircraft industry had serious doubts. They viewed the project as completely unrealistic and feared that it would take much-needed raw materials from more vital aircraft manufacturing.
Nevertheless, with popular support behind him, Kaiser traveled to Washington, hoping to gain a contract from the federal government. He was successful, and in September of 1942, he began searching for an aircraft manufacturer to work with him on the development of the new aircraft. He admired Hughes’ reputation as a maverick inventor and appreciated Hughes Aircraft Company’s experimental work.
Though initially skeptical of the tight 10-month deadline, Hughes eventually agreed to team with Kaiser on the project and at last had a government contract. The company was to design and produce three flying boats. Plans were drawn up for the plane, which was known as the HK-1. It was to have eight engines, a hull taller than a three-story building, and a wingspan longer than a football field. It was to be made entirely of wood and was projected to weigh an astonishing 200 tons, almost three times heavier than any existing plane.
Though Hughes assured the government that meeting the 10-month deadline would be no problem, privately he doubted that it was enough time for the production of even one plane, let alone three, as his contract promised. His concerns proved to be justified. Hughes Aircraft Company, still small at the time, was not equipped with the manpower, space, or organization to build such an aircraft. In fact, the company constructed Buildings 14, 15, and 16 in the Hughes Industrial Historic District specifically to complete the project.
Often hard to find or involved in other interests, Howard Hughes was not the reliable manager the company needed for such a project, and he neglected to appoint anyone else for the role. Research and development on the Flying Boat was slow. The ten-month deadline passed, and the aircraft’s design and production had barely begun. Hughes eventually hired a general manager, but he lasted only two months, frustrated by the inefficiency of the company and Hughes’ refusal to delegate responsibility. Eighteen months after signing the contract, Hughes Aircraft had not delivered a single plane to the government, and the contract cancelled.
Hughes campaigned passionately to be allowed to continue to develop the Flying Boat, under the new project name “H-4 Hercules,” and succeeded when the government informed him that they would cancel the $18 million contract for three planes and grant his company a contract to build one plane for the same amount. The Flying Boat, by now jokingly called the “Spruce Goose,” a moniker of which Hughes himself was not fond, was completed in June of 1946, nearly a year after the war had ended. The 150-ton aircraft – incidentally constructed of birch wood, not spruce – was moved from the Hughes Aircraft campus in Playa Vista to Long Beach in multiple sections by overland transport in a fleet of trucks. On November 2, 1947, Hughes flew the experimental aircraft for the first and last time, piloting over the area for approximately one minute.
Although not completed in time to fulfill the original government contract, the aircraft was a decidedly innovative aviation achievement. Its electronic systems were highly sophisticated, and it had proved Hughes’ assertion that his experimental wood-laminate process could be utilized for large aircraft production. The Spruce Goose, although it only flew once, is credited with greatly advancing aviation technology and contributing to the development of jumbo aircraft.
Over thirty years would pass between the Spruce Goose’s one and only flight and its next major move. Hughes hid the plane from public view during his lifetime, but after his death in 1976, his Summa Corporation a, holding company for his remaining interests, gifted the giant plane to the Aero Club of Southern California. The Aero Club leased it to the Wrather Corporation, the media company founded by acclaimed television producer Jack Wrather, and moved it to a domed hangar in Long Beach, California. When Disney acquired the Wrather Corporation in 1988, they inherited the Spruce Goose’s lease from the Aero Club. Four years later, the Aero Club sold the aircraft to the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon. The Evergreen Museum constructed a temporary facility to house the plane and plotted its final course.
The Spruce Goose was disassembled in Long Beach and transported by barge up the West Coast and along the Columbia and Willamette Rivers to Portland. There it remained for several months, waiting for the Willamette’s water levels to be low enough to permit its passage under the river’s many bridges. In February of 1993, the aircraft reached its destination in McMinnville. Volunteers worked to restore the plane, while the museum constructed a new building to be its permanent home. In 2001, both the restoration and construction were complete. The Spruce Goose remains on display and open to the public at the Evergreen Museum to this day. In the museum’s original pitch to the Aero Club, it promised to protect the aircraft and display it intact in perpetuity.
For additional reading on the Hughes Industrial Historic District, Howard Hughes, the Spruce Goose, and the history of aerospace in Southern California, see the following sources, which were used in the preparation of this website.