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This Day in History: Howard Hughes’s “Spruce Goose” flies

On this day in 1947, the “Spruce Goose” flies for the first and only time. With a wingspan of 320 feet, it was the largest airplane to ever take to the sky—or at least it was until a few months ago. Did you know that such a record-breaking plane was designed by Howard Hughes? And that it flew decades ago, in 1947?

The idea for the seaplane was born during World War II.

When the United States first entered World War II, the Battle of the Atlantic was in full swing. It was not going well. German U-boats were a formidable force, and they were sinking hundreds of Allied vessels. The difficult situation prompted an idea: What if Americans had something even bigger than a cargo plane? What if troops and supplies could be transported by large flying boats?

Soon, industrialist Henry J. Kaiser seized on the idea. He was then known for constructing huge hydroelectric dams and American Liberty ships. Now he proposed to build a fleet of flying boats, too.

Kaiser had just one problem: He had no experience in the aviation sector. At first, it seemed that his idea might flounder, but then two things swung in his favor: First, public pressure was building to do something. The casualties at sea kept climbing. Second, the renowned Howard Hughes agreed to help.

By September 1942, Kaiser and Hughes were authorized to begin building prototypes for the military, but they were also instructed not to use certain materials that were considered critical to the war effort. Hughes would have to figure out how to build the world’s largest airplane—out of wood.

Critics began calling it the “Flying Lumberyard” or the “Spruce Goose,” which irritated Hughes. The official name of the plane at that juncture was HK-1.

If only the plane had been finished in time to help with the war! But it wasn’t. Everything took time. The vast majority of the plane would be made of birch, created through a special process of layering wood and bonding it together with heat, glue, and a layer of varnish. Moreover, new processes for bonding glue had to be developed for the immense plane. The seaplane itself was huge, a “monumental undertaking,” as Hughes would say. When completed, it would have a wingspan of 320 feet and a length of 218 feet.

While the plane was in process, the nature of the war changed. Soon, the War Production Board began to question the necessity of the plane. “If we are going to keep abreast of development in aviation,” Hughes responded, “then we must reconcile ourselves to the necessity of building bigger and bigger airplanes. This being true, why throw away the $14,000,000 already expended on the HK-1 and later start from scratch on another?”

Hughes’ contract was reinstated in March 1944, but this time Kaiser was out. He and Hughes had not worked together well. Now that Kaiser was gone, the aircraft was renamed the Hughes H-4 Hercules.

You won’t be surprised to hear that the long timeline began to spark congressional concern. Hughes was called to defend his work before a Senate committee in 1947. “I put the sweat of my life into this thing,” he stormed to the committee. “I have my reputation rolled up in it and I have stated several times that if it’s a failure, I’ll probably leave this country and never come back. And I mean it.”

On November 2, Hughes was performing a taxi test in Long Beach Harbor. He took the plane 70 feet up in the air for about one minute before landing again on the water. It was a short, low flight, but he’d proven his critics wrong.

The war might be over, but his behemoth plane could, indeed, fly.

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