75 years of spruce geese. Whose idea was the ‘tree goose’?

On November 2, 1947, the Hughes H-4 Hercules made its first and only flight. The flying boat, nicknamed the Spruce Goose, was long considered the largest ever.

If you say playboy, tech geek, philanthropist, rock star status, a bit of a megalomaniac… It could be about Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos or maybe even Richard Branson. But the prototype of such men is the film producer, entrepreneur and, above all, aviation geek Howard Hughes.

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From the beginning of his life, Howard Hughes was a mystery. So no one knows exactly when he was born and where. Some keep it in Humble, a town in Texas that experienced explosive growth in the early twentieth century when a giant oil field was discovered beneath it. Others believe it was the great Texas city of Houston. In any case, Howard was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, which subsequently instilled entrepreneurship and a love of technology.

Besides airplanes, Hughes had two other hobbies: making movies and capturing beautiful actresses. In this case the famous Jean Harlow. © Bettmann/Getty Images

His father, Howard Robert Hughes, found two cone roll bits out, a drill head with which oil wells could be drilled in hard-to-reach places. Instead of selling the patent, he made the lucrative decision to manufacture the drill heads himself and then lease them to oil companies. His Hughes Tool Company provided enough money for a comfortable family capital of millions of dollars, which, after the senior’s death in 1924, came largely into the hands of the then 18-year-old junior. But he soon left the running of the family business to others and used his fortune for the main passions of his life: feature films, shapely actresses and airplanes.

After some other projects, Hughes produced and directed a film in 1930 that united all three passions: Hell’s Angels, an epic about the air battles of the First World War. During filming, Hughes flew around in a Thomas-Morse biplane, got into trouble and crashed. It was the first of four plane crashes he would have.

Two years after Hell’s Angels the young filmmaker decided to put some of his assets into airplanes. He assembled a small team of engineers and designers and started the Hughes Aircraft Company. The company’s first creation, the H-1 (also known as the Racer), foreshadowed what a genius like Hughes could bring to aviation.

Total loyalty

Many aviation enthusiasts consider the H-1 to be the most beautiful aircraft of all time. In an interview with the American magazine Air & Space Magazine says historian Richard Hallion: “The H-1 was an extremely advanced example of what we now call a technology demonstrator. The load-bearing skin, the countersunk rivets, the hydraulic landing gear… To someone fresh out of the starting blocks, it was a remarkable achievement.”

Hughes had his second flying accident with the H-1. The aircraft had a 14-cylinder 25-liter radial engine. Normally it was good for 522 kW (700 hp), but Hughes thought that wasn’t enough. He had his technicians increase the output to more than 750 kW (or 1000 hp). On September 13, 1935, he made the first flight of that aircraft from a field near Santa Ana, California…and promptly broke the speed record with an average of 350 mph (567.12 km/h).

To keep the aircraft’s weight as low as possible, there was a minimum of fuel in the tanks. Not a problem per se until Hughes decided to pitch a seventh after six runs. Before he could complete it, the engine began to simmer and he had no choice but to make a belly landing in a beet field.

Both the H-1 and Hughes himself escaped unharmed, but the tone was set. By those around him, Hughes was described as an eccentric who expected total loyalty from his employees, friends and family. And as someone who struggled with OCD, was impulsive and stubborn. But also as a determined guy who, if necessary, threw lots of money at him to achieve his goal. For example, without batting an eyelid, Hughes bought a Lockheed 14 Super Electra. He had the plane fitted with two new engines, extra fuel tanks and the necessary navigation equipment to be the fastest in the world.

In July 1938 he took off with a crew of four and sailed for Paris. He then flew to Moscow, Omsk, Yakutsk, Fairbanks (Alaska), Minneapolis and then back to New York – all in three days, 19 hours and 17 minutes. Hughes thus smashed compatriot Wiley Post’s previous record by no less than four full days, a feat that has come with accolades, fame and a ticker tape parade in New York was awarded.

Flying Wood Trade

In the run up to World War II, Hughes Aircraft Company had increasingly focused on the development of military aircraft. In 1942, this led to the construction of the gigantic H-4 Hercules, a flying boat to transport troops and equipment across the Atlantic. The cargo ships on which this happened proved to be very vulnerable to German submarines, so the Americans looked for a safer alternative. The largest aircraft ever would have a payload of 68,000 kilograms, which was enough for 750 fully equipped soldiers or two Sherman tanks.

Because raw materials were scarce, Hughes could not have enough aluminum. This is why the H-4 was largely built of wood. This gave the aircraft various nicknames, such as ‘flying lumberjack’. But it would go down in history as Grangåsen (loosely translated: spruce goose, although birch wood was mainly used).

Spruce goose
The wooden hull of the Spruce Goose. The beach balls you see at the front of the picture were fitted for extra buoyancy in case the plane punctured during taxi. © Brian Burger/CC BY 2.0

Hughes, of course, intended to conduct the test flights again himself. To prepare for it, he bought a twin-engined flying boat, a Sikorsky S-43. That unit became, next to actresses like Katherine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland and Rita Hayworth, his new great love. And a dangerous one.

On May 17, 1943, Hughes lifted the Sikorsky into the air with two aviation inspectors, two employees and his current girlfriend, movie star Ava Gardner on board. She was dropped off in Las Vegas (possibly escaping death), then Hughes headed for Lake Mead farther away to practice some water landings. Probably due to a heavy toolbox placed in the wrong place, the balance of the aircraft was not good. On the first water landing, the Sikorskyen rolled forward, after which one of the propeller blades crashed through the hull. An inspector and one of the employees did not survive the crash. Hughes was pulled from the plane by the other two passengers with a large cut on his forehead.

Despite his immense wealth, Hughes was unable to save the goose. During the development of the device, he came up with a constant stream of adjustments which made the project even more complicated than it already was. And when the first example rolled out of the factory, the war was over. The H-4, which at the time had cost $23 million (today it would be well over $200 million), flew only once. On November 2, 1947, with Hughes at the helm and 35 crew and passengers on board, he broke loose off the coast of California and skimmed over the water for 26 seconds at a speed of 217 km/h at an altitude of 21 meters. The white goose covered 1.6 kilometers.

Howard Hughes in Spruce Goose
Howard Hughes conducted almost all test flights of the aircraft developed by the Hughes Aircraft Company itself. This is also the case with the giant wooden transport plane, which, among other things, was nicknamed ‘flying timber trade’. © Bettmann/Getty Images

Crash number four

Over the years, Hughes became increasingly impulsive and headstrong. It seemed as if he made a sport of saying yes and amen nicely and then doing something completely different during a test flight. And when asked why he did it, he casually replied, “Well, I don’t like doing it that way.” It was exactly that attitude that would get him into trouble again on a test flight, this time with serious consequences.

Almost simultaneously with the H-4 Hercules, the Hughes Aircraft Company was working on the XF-11, a reconnaissance aircraft that could take high-altitude pictures of enemy territory. In a fit of hubris, the US military ordered as many as 100 of these aircraft in 1943, the first of which was to be delivered in 1944. This was despite protests from armed forces experts, who rightly pointed out that the company lacked the experience to handle such a monster job.

Nevertheless, Hughes liked it – as always – and the device was – as always – another great leap forward in technology. Among other things, it had two engines with counter-rotating propellers, which gave more stability and better performance.

But also with this aircraft, the first flight could only be completed after the Second World War had already ended. Hughes took his seat in the cockpit on July 7, 1946, took off and immediately threw the agreed test procedures overboard by staying in the air twice as long as planned. At first everything seemed to be going fairly well, except for a landing gear not fully retracted.

But then a serious problem arose with one of the propellers on the right engine. As a result, the aircraft began to pull hard to the right. Instead of shutting down the unwilling engine—which would likely have allowed him to land on the other engine—Hughes tried with all his might to regain control. All this was complicated by the fact that the radio was on the wrong frequency, so no one could advise Hughes.

The XF-11 crashed into two homes in Beverly Hills. The plane exploded and caught fire, nearly cremating Hughes prematurely. This fourth crash of his life heralded the aviation pioneer’s doom as he became addicted to painkillers during his 35-day hospital stay. Combined with his obsessive-compulsive neuroses and haughty behavior, it had to go wrong in the end.

When you see this debris from the crashed XF-11, it’s a miracle anyone got out alive. Hughes was left with a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a collapsed left lung and multiple third-degree burns from the crash. © Bettmann/Getty Images

adorable hermit

In the mid-1950s, Hughes slowly but surely withdrew from public life. Ten years later he moved to Las Vegas, where he took refuge at the Desert Inn Hotel. In a darkened room, naked with only a handkerchief over his private parts, he watched movies for days. When the hotel threatened to kick him out, he bought it, along with its casino, for $14 million. It wasn’t until three years later that he left, only to rent hotel suites around the world and move from place to place.

Although he was initially still able to manage his business empire under these circumstances, his addiction worsened more and more. Hughes died on April 5, 1976, on a plane flying from Mexico to a hospital in Houston. His body was emaciated and neglected. In his thin arms were five broken needles. Because almost no one had seen the now 70-year-old for two decades, the insurance company demanded that his fingerprints be checked. They agreed.

This Return Flight episode can also be found in KIJK 11/2021 and in part 2 of the special High Flyers, which can be easily ordered online via the button below.

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