By Kyle Thede, former SC&A intern and recent graduate of the WSU Public History program
Seventy years ago this fall, on November 2, 1947, the residents of Long Beach, California who cared to glance out over the harbor were witness to a profoundly unfamiliar sight; a giant white airplane, vaguely shaped like a winged ocean liner and seemingly rivaling one in size, lumbering back and forth across the choppy surface. The roar of eight mighty engines rolled across the waves as the huge craft cut a churning trail of foam in its wake from one end of the harbor to the other, before slowly wheeling around and doing it again. And again. A curious spectacle, to be sure, but when it came to the doings of multi-millionaire/film mogul/playboy/record-setting aviator Howard Hughes, a certain degree of peculiarity had to be expected. This was demonstrated most memorably by the now-legendary first-and-only flight of the H-4 Hercules – better known to history as the “Spruce Goose” – perhaps the most celebrated short hop in aviation history since the Wright brothers’ Flyer lifted off a rail into the chilly Kitty Hawk breeze in December of 1903.
For how ostensibly bizarre the flight of Hughes’ flying boat appeared, the enormous vehicle was no mere indulgence of an eccentric with more money than he knew what to do with. It was the culmination of years of work, delays, negotiations, and even investigations by the United States Senate, all for the purposes of fulfilling a military requirement identified nearly half a decade prior. The American entry into the European theatre of World War II naturally enhanced the need to protect U.S. shipping of supplies and personnel across the Atlantic from the German Kriegsmarine’s U-boats intent on sinking them. Developing a transport capable of simply flying over the danger was a clearly logical pursuit. Less ostensibly logical, but just as critical to the project, was the condition that such an aircraft be constructed entirely of non-wartime-critical material – wood.
Best known for his prominent involvement in building Liberty ships, industrialist Henry J. Kaiser took the initiative in meeting the government’s 1942 request, envisioning a massive flying boat capable of carrying hundreds of troops, or alternatively, two Sherman tanks. To devise such an unconventional craft, Kaiser partnered with Howard Hughes, already well established within the aviation community as an extraordinarily capable aircraft designer and aviator with more than one record under his belt. Drawing up blueprints for the airplane, Hughes and co-designer Glenn Odekirk crafted plans for a 218-foot-long flying boat with a 321-foot-long wingspan (still a world record to this day) and powered by eight radial engines, each capable of 3,000 horsepower. As the plane was primarily constructed of birch, the appellation “Spruce Goose” – a concoction of a derisive press – would become a continued source of annoyance for Hughes in the years ahead. He would always insist on the plane’s proper nickname: “Hercules.”
As the development and construction process for the flying boat’s prototype – initially designated HK-1 (for Hughes-Kaiser) – stretched on to torturous lengths, enthusiasm for the project waned among nearly all involved parties except for the notoriously obsessive Hughes himself. By 1944, he had re-negotiated his government contract – this time without Kaiser, dictating the re-designation “H-4” – to require the delivery of only a single aircraft. The construction itself continued on well past the conclusion of the war, and although Hughes’ out-of-pocket financial contributions to the project were significant, the extravagance of the “monumental undertaking” led to the Senate’s 1947 investigation into whether the government funding for the craft had been appropriately used. The resulting hearing became best known, however, for Hughes’ bold claim that if the Hercules failed to fly, “I’ll probably leave this country and never come back. And I mean it.”
Though Hughes’ achievement at Long Beach on November 2 allowed him to continue his residency in the United States, it signaled a conclusion in another sense; the flying boat was on its way out. In the years immediately following World War II, the prominence of these unique aircraft swiftly waned, owing in part to the proliferation of runways which had accompanied the air war and in part to the increasing performance of (often jet-powered) land-based airplanes. Primarily relegated in the current age to niche roles such as fire-fighting or air/sea rescue, the story of flying boats stretches back decades from the legendary flight of the Hercules – all the way, believe it or not, to a certain pair of brothers from Dayton.
“H-4 Hercules Flying Boat.” Boeing: A Historical Snapshot. http://www.boeing.com/history/products/h-4-flying-boat.page
Odekirk, Glenn E. Spruce Goose: HK-1 Hercules, A Pictorial History of the Fantastic Hughes Flying Boat. Published by the author, 1982.