Spruce Goose

Conceived to transport troops to Europetheatre of action, the H-4 Hercules aeroplane-nicknamed the Spruce Goose-was so complex to construct that by the time it had been completed, World War II was over. Indeed, despite its astonishing craftsmanship, this pet project of the obsessive magnate Howard Hughes became the ultimate white elephant (albeit one with wings).

Above: in the cockpit, the pipe by the pilot s seat brought up fresh air to Howard Hughes s face. Left: the hatch (so called because the craft was designed as a giant flying beat} allows boarding via the nose-either from a boat or a pier. Note the cleat for mooring and a plumbline to test the depths. Below: the top deck, behind the captain s seat. The big tank at the rear holds 287 gallons of oil, which engines would guzzle dangerously-spills were common. Opposi: because of the complexity of the eight engines, two flight engineers were employed to oversee this panel, whose many gauges monitor RPM, manifold pressure, oil quantity, fuel, pneumatic and hydraulic systems, and so on

THATTHE Spruce Goose was an eccentric boondoggle is not really in question. Until those World War II years no such grandiose aeroplane had ever been conceived, let alone actually built-and nothing would ever come close to rivalling it in the future. Apart from unimaginable wealth, its creation required a perfectionist obsessed with all aspects of aviation. That man, born in 1905, wras the maverick business magnate, engineer, film producer and philanthropist Howard Hughes.

Spruce Goose

The idea fora giant flying boat to transport troops, however, was the brainchild of Liberty ship construction mastermind Henry J. Kaiser. The freighters he cranked out (one a month) wTere sitting ducks for the German U-boats, so Kaiser reasoned that a ’that could fly over the danger might be the answer. But he knew nothing at all about aircraft design or construction. Enter Mr Hughes and his hand-picked team of top aeronautical engineers-a team that had helped him design a plane in which he broke the airspeed record in 1935. Three years later he flew round the world in another record-breaking 91 hours. Hughes was a driven man.

Together Kaiser and Hughes formed the HK Corporation and landed a government contract in 1942 (then w orth $18 million) to build three prototypes. But there was a serious catch: because of wartime restrictions on the use of metal, the aircraft had to be made out of wood. Although common in small aircraft this had never before been tried in such a behemoth. So it was no surprise that

the resultant HK-1 Hercules was soon nicknamed, much to Hugheschagrin, the Spruce Goose, though the wood used was predominantly birch, with only a negligible amount of maple, poplar and spruce.

Spruce Goose

Hughesobsessive/compulsive nature blighted the project from the start. Since he was-along with chief designer Glenn Odekirk-essentially creating new systems, techniques and materials, work soon fell behind schedule. (He perfected, for example, a process called Duramold, a complex plywood derivative that was used throughout the plane. Though considered a technical tour de force, it inevitably took a long time.) Every aspect of the aircraft came under his ruthless scrutiny.

Kaiser became increasingly impatient with the constant delays, and eventually pulled out of the project entirely in 1942, partially blaming Hughesinsistence on *. The eccentric aviator then assumed full control, renaming the aircraft H-4 Hercules.

In vesting $7 million ofhisown money (a huge amount, but small change for the tycoon), Hughes oversaw production as it inched along, with research and testing dogged by delay, the team forever waiting for results and components to arrive. In fact, the war ended before the plane could be assembled, and it wasnuntil November 1947 that it was finally ready for taxi tests. Meanwhile Hughes had been summoned by the Senate War Investigating Committee over the misuse ofgovernment funds in relation to the H-4. Hercules wras a monumental undertaking/ said Hughes. is the largest aircraft ever built. It is over five storeys high with a wingspan longer than a football field. Thatmore than a city block. 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 ita failure Iprobably leave this country and never comeback. And I mean it.’During a break in the hearing Hughes returned to California and as if in a deliberate poke at all his detractors, he lifted the plane out of the water on its third taxi, flying for about a mile at about 25m above the surface. He was vindicated-but the plane never flew again.

Spruce Goose

The intricate, faultless craftsmanship of the fuselage is immediately apparent even to the uninitiated. Its interior has an unimagined scale and a stark surreal beauty. The wooden ribs-larger than if made of aluminium-appear to spiral down in a vortex to the tail fin. Without seats or other object to determine its horizontal position, the empty, windowless space seems to come from a dream. Towards the front is a station for the hydraulic engineer to check fluid levels and pressures. A narrow spiral staircase leads up to the flight deck, which, apart from the captainand main-crew positions in front of their monitors, has just a few rows of basic padded seats available for any guests and invited press. To the rear of this ’it is possible to step, without bending, into the wing. During aircraft tests, engineers actually took up positions in the wings to correct any rising or falling fluid levels.

After its short maiden ’the extravagance bestowed on the Spruce Goose by Hughes continued. The aircraft was maintained in a climate-controlled hangar by a crew of300 workers, sworn to secrecy, with an order from Hughes for it to be kept permanently flight ready’. At a cost of roughly SI million a year it hibernated in this way for over 30 years, until its by then reclusive owner died in 1976-with cruel aptness, in an aircraft. It is still unclear where the plane was heading.

Having narrowly escaped disassembly soon after Hughesdeath, the Spruce Goose became an exhibit in Long Beach until 1990, when its then owner, the Walt Disney Company, decided to close the dome where it was displayed. A long search for a new resting place ensued, with Evergreen Aviation Museum, an hourdrive from Portland, Oregon, finally winning custody. The plane was broken up into manageable sections and either shipped by barge up the coast or by truck for the 1,000-mile trip to its new home, where it arrived in 1993.

Since then, this grattde dame o(the sky has been regally dominating the vast glass-walled hangar it shares with some 60 aircraft, a living monument to one very rich manfolly and a symbol for Americans of the extraordinary wartime schemes their government would consider to transport men and supplies into action across the pond ¦ Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, 500 Northeast Captain Michael King Smith Way, McMinnville, OR 97128, USA. Eor opening times, ring001 50J 434 4006, or visit evergreenmuseum.org