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 twice.
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
Hughes's eccentricities 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
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