In 1942, the outlook seemed grim for the Allies. Continental Europe had fallen to the Nazi onslaught, leaving England to stand against the forces of Fascism alone. In the East, Soviet forces buckled under the brutal weight of the largest land invasion in history, Operation Barbarossa. For her part, America was beginning operations against Japan, still reeling from the surprise attack in Pearl Harbor and the less well known Nazi U-boat attacks on the East Coast.
During these desperate times, Allied planners were willing to consider any scheme that might confer an advantage, no matter how ludicrous it might seem in retrospect. One such plan was dubbed Project Habbakuk, which involved a no less ambitious scheme than building a floating island of ice to act as an aircraft carrier impervious to assault from German U-boats.
Habbakuk barely made it off the drawing board, but one audacious plan meant to circumvent German U-boats made it much further than designer blue prints. U-boats were creating havoc among Allied shipping in the Atlantic. Henry J. Kaiser, a steelmaker who conceived of the Liberty ships, the very ships being torn to shreds by Nazi subs, hit on the idea for an utterly massive transport plane. Weighing in at 400,000 pounds and sporting a titanic 320 foot wingspan, the plane would be larger than anything the world had ever seen fly up to that point. It would be a flying boat, capable of transporting 700 troops, constructed entirely of wood. The last point was a stipulation of the US government, who wanted the planes to be built out of materials deemed non-essential for the war effort.
The task of designing the mammoth machine fell to the brilliant but eccentric aviation designer and entrepreneur, Howard Hughes. Working with a small team, Hughes threw himself into designing and building the plane, which was designated the HK-1, even as controversy surrounded the funding of the project. A Senator dubbed the machine a “flying lumberyard,” from which its more common nickname “the Spruce Goose” later arose (it was actually constructed from birch.)
Hughes himself was part of the controversy. He constantly meddled with the design of the craft, obsessed with making it perfect. His perfectionism resulted in delays. By 1944, the monstrous plane was still not finished, and the outcome of the war was almost a foregone conclusion. At the very least, the original reason for building the HK-1 in the first place was gone, as better tactics and aircraft technology allowed the Allies to beat back the submarine menace. Henry Kaiser backed out of the project at this point, not wanting his name associated with the controversial contraption. Hughes re-dubbed the machine the H-4 and continued work on the project without Kaiser’s backing. Meanwhile, the myriad delays caused by Hughes’ perfectionism led to a Senate committee to look into the project.
Finally, five years after being commissioned, the Spruce Goose was completed in 1947. The government’s price tag was $22 million, with an additional $18 million coming out of Hughes’ own pockets. On November 2, 1947, Hughes, a small crew of his staff, and journalists from various media outlets climbed aboard the massive plane for a taxi test in Los Angeles Harbor. Hughes took the pilots seat, and fired up the plane’s 8 engines. Whether on purpose or other wise, what was announced as a taxi test became the Spruce Goose’s first and only flight. Hughes gunned the engines and the huge craft lifted off the surface of the harbor, wowing onlookers assembled on the shore. The Spruce Goose lifted some 33 feet off the surface of the water and reached a speed of 80 mph before Hughes set her down a mile from the point of take off. Hughes was coy as to whether the flight was on purpose–some speculated it might have been accidental–but it’s at least possible he did the flight on purpose to see whether all his time, effort, and money had paid off.
The Spruce Goose was returned to its special hangar, where it would remain for decades. Hughes ordered the engines to be fired up every month, indicating that he possibly toyed with the idea of continuing work on the project or perhaps taking the massive plane out for another spin. However, the Spruce Goose never flew again. Hughes died in 1976.
The Spruce Goose itself has long outlived its creator. The massive plane has moved from owner to owner after Hughes’ death. It currently resides at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, where it continues to wow visitors with its massive size and radical design.
Neely, Mike. “Hughes HK-1 (H-4) ‘Spruce Goose’” TheAviationZone.com. The Aviation Zone. January 31, 2015. http://www.theaviationzone.com/factsheets/hk1.asp
Patterson, Thom. “Museum: Iconic Spruce Goose is safe.” CNN.com. January 20, 2014. CNN. January 31, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/20/travel/spruce-goose-museum/
“The Spruce Goose.” Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum. January 31, 2015. http://evergreenmuseum.org/the-museum/aircraft-exhibits/the-spruce-goose/