As late as 1977, the
party that commissioned the H-4, the U.S. government, was thinking
about flying it again. The U.S. government almost embarrassed itself
The idea for a giant
seaplane was initially championed by industrial magnate Henry Kaiser,
who had masterminded the Liberty Ship construction program, which
cranked out freighters in an unbelievable 48 days (record: five days).
Kaiser wanted to transport war materiel overseas by air, where it would
be safe from enemy torpedoes. But he knew nothing about airplane
building and was happy to hook up with Hughes, who'd assembled a team
of crack aeronautics engineers that, among other things, helped him
design a plane that set a speed record in 1935. Despite opposition from
the military and the aircraft industry, Kaiser and Hughes landed a
government contract to build three prototype planes. The catch: the
long-shot project could make only minimal use of strategic materials
such as metals. That meant using wood, common in small aircraft but
untested in one so large.
hobbled the project from the start. Kaiser found his partner impossible
to work with and was relegated to the sidelines. Hughes micromanaged
every design detail, and work soon fell far behind schedule. By early
1943 the metals shortage had eased and many urged that aluminium be
substituted for wood, but Hughes, apparently enamoured of the advanced
plywood fabrication methods his team had developed, declined to switch.
Sceptics almost succeeded in killing the project in 1944, but somehow
Hughes got the OK to continue. The war ended before the plane was
assembled into one piece. The project dragged out until 1947, when a
U.S. Senate committee began investigating Hughes for defence contract
irregularities, particularly regarding the Spruce Goose. As if to
demonstrate that he hadn't defrauded the government, Hughes, who always
test-piloted his own planes, flew the H-4 about a mile in less than a
minute during what was supposed to be a taxiing test on November 2.
Why did Hughes never
fly the plane again? Some said he was afraid to, but his closest
associates denied it. The explanation is that the Long Beach
authorities had prohibited Hughes from actually flying the aircraft in
their harbour. The short hop made by Hughes resulted in the Spruce
Goose being confiscated by Long Beach.
The war was long over.
The need for big seaplanes had evaporated. Wood construction was
obviously a dead end. Even before the flight Hughes admitted that the
plane was too large to be economical. Claiming there were still
research lessons to be learned, he stubbornly kept the work going until
around 1952. But he was distracted by other ventures and increasingly
reclusive. Eventually everyone moved on to other things. After Hughes's
death in 1976, the plane was put on exhibit and now may be seen at the
Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.
Was the Spruce Goose an
impractical disaster? Absolutely. Nevertheless, in 1977 the U.S. Navy
seriously considered test flights with the H-4 as part of research into
low-altitude transoceanic flight. It didn't happen, which is probably
just as well.