The Aviator Lives On

Howard Hughes’ famous “Spruce Goose” is alive and kicking seventy years after its inaugural (and only) flight

By Alex Starace

“New York hails Hughes and companions, New York City — In the greatest reception since Lindbergh’s, Howard Hughes and his four gallant companions paraded up Broadway July 15 almost smothered beneath Manhattan’s ticker-tape accolade recognizing their record-smashing Round-The-World flight. This picture shows Hughes, center, waving to the cheering thousands. On the left is Grover Whalen, commissioner of the New York 1939 World’s Fair and on the right is Al Lodwick, Hughes’ flight manager. 7-15-38. Credit Line (ACME).”

Howard Hughes’ life swung wildly between genius and madness, so it’s only fitting that the story of the “Spruce Goose” feels more like a madcap caper than fact. A large flying boat made entirely of wood? Check. A project that was finished years too late? Indeed. A triumph that was preserved at great expense for decades? Yes. This is the story of the Spruce Goose, one of America’s oddest flying machines.

Howard Hughes at the cockpit of the Spruce Goose

Aeronautic Genius
The biopic of Howard Hughes’ life, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is entitled The Aviator for good reason. His aeronautical derring-do included surviving four airplane crashes, setting the landplane airspeed record and flying around the world in 3 days, 9 hours, 17 minutes – four days fewer than the previous record. To honor the latter, he was given a 1938 ticker-tape parade in New York’s Canyon of Heroes.

So, in the midst of World War II, when the United States needed to get supplies across the Atlantic without risk of being sunk by U-boats, Hughes was asked to develop a massive flying transit ship on behalf of the U.S. War Department. There was just one catch: The project couldn’t use any metal, as that was already dedicated to current war efforts.

In 1942, in collaboration with steel magnet Henry Kaiser, Hughes decided upon an eight-engine colossus six times larger than any plane yet constructed. It would be made almost entirely out of birch. (The derisive appellative “Spruce Goose” stuck despite very little use of spruce.) As with any unprecedented undertaking, there were delays. Kaiser dropped out and it wasn’t until 1947 that a prototype was completed, using $18 million in federal dollars and $7 million of Hughes’ money.

Hughes H-4 Hercules Spruce Goose in flight

The Spruce Goose Takeoff
The result: a wingspan exceeding the length of a football field, an aircraft roughly five stories high, with its tail reaching eight stories. It had yet to leave the ground. As part of a media push, Hughes and crew took the press aboard and taxied on the water off Long Beach, California. The craft had not yet flown, nor was that part of the plan. However, Hughes had other ideas. On the third taxi along the channel, he unexpectedly took off with 32 people on board. The plane, officially known as the H-4 Hercules, flew about a mile, at 70 feet above the water, reaching a speed of 135 mph.

The Spruce Goose

After proving the Spruce Goose could fly, Hughes built a custom hangar and hired a staff of 300 to maintain it indefinitely, at a rumored cost of $1 million a year. The staff was reduced to 50 in 1962, and all were let go upon Hughes’ death in 1976. No one knew what to do with the Spruce Goose; it was almost chopped up and distributed to museums. Instead, it was saved as a tourist attraction in Long Beach, next to a docked Queen Mary (also a tourist attraction), but that proved to be a money-loser.

Saving The Behemoth Plane For Public Viewing
In danger of being junked a second time in the early 1990s, the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, proposed to keep the marvel in perpetuity, putting it back on display in 2001 after an eight-year restoration. “It’s an amazing thing to see in-person,” said private pilot and International Opulence EVP Dan Brooke. “You’re wondering, ‘Is this real’? You’re knocking on the spars and the walls and reminded that it is actually wood.” On the VIP tour, you can sit in the cockpit, stand on the wing and walk through the fuselage. The level of restoration and the knowledge of the staff make for a truly remarkable experience, said Brooke, who recommends a pilgrimage to aviation enthusiasts of all stripes.

Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” (2004)

Now that the Spruce Goose is 70 years old, and still in mint condition, it may be time to make the journey.

The Aviator Lives On