In July 2011 I took a journey to the town of McMinnville, Oregon, USA and the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum. Apart from having an excellent collection of military, civilian and space aircraft, the museum is home to the famous Hughes H-4 Hercules or as it is more commonly known the “Spruce Goose“.
The idea for the aircraft was conceived in the early 1940’s by industrialist Henry J. Kaiser (a leading Liberty Ship builder during World War 2) but was designed and built in partnership by Howard Hughes (1905-1976) and his company Hughes Aircraft in Los Angeles, California. The H-4 was to become the largest flying boat ever built.
The H-4 was built by Hughes Aircraft to the requirements of a World War Two contract issued by the US government in 1942 to build a large transatlantic transport aircraft that would a) avoid the needs of sending war supplies by ship, which at that time were being sunk in numbers by German U-Boats and b) not use materials such as aluminium that were required for the war effort. So the aircraft is 95% made of wood, hence the somewhat sarcastic nickname of “Spruce Goose” given by its critics (ironically it was mainly built from Birch wood). Howard Hughes hated that nickname and I do not think anyone would have uttered it in his presence!
The 1942 US government contract required 3 aircraft to be constructed for transport use within 3 years. The development process was going slowly and construction of the aircraft did not begin until 16 months after the contract was awarded. Progress was too slow for Kaiser who left the project in 1944 (he blamed the slow going on restrictions acquiring strategic materials to build the aircraft and Hughes insistence on it being perfect!).
Hughes continued on alone, signing a new government contract for just one aircraft. The aircraft was originally designated HK-1 for Hughes-Kaiser, but when Kaiser withdrew from the project it was redesignated the H-4 Hercules.
The original plan for the aircraft was to have huge clam shell doors in the nose (not uncommon in large transport aircraft that were starting to be used during World War Two such as the Messerschmitt Me-323 Gigant in 1943 and those that followed the H-4 such as the Douglas C-124 Globemaster II in 1950). Hughes was worried though that in the event of an accident the mighty flying boat could well fill with water through those doors and sink. As such he re-designed it to have a solid nose and came up with a rather unique (and unusual) method to increase the buoyancy of the H-4 by filling the void spaces in the lower hull and wing floats with inflatable bladders and beach balls (the one pictured on its own was recovered from a wing float during the reassembly of the aircraft in Oregon in 2001)!
Unfortunately for Hughes by the time the prototype H-4 was built, the war was well and truly over and the aircraft was no longer required. The H-4 was one of a kind and only ever flew once. All for the cost of $2,500,000 (it was literally a huge undertaking to build an aircraft of that size)!
On November 2nd, 1947 with Howard Hughes as the pilot, he took the big bird up for an unannounced flight over the water at Long Beach, California. It was only for 1 mile (1.6km) at a height of about 70 feet (21 metres). A top speed of 135 mph /217 kmph was achieved during the short flight. Hughes had proven a point to his detractors and the government that the H-4 could fly. It was then sadly put away in storage never to fly again.
Strangely despite the fact it never flew again, the H-4 was kept flight worthy in a climate controlled hangar at a cost of $1 million per year until Howard Hughes died in 1976 at the age of 70 (up to 300 people were employed to maintain it until the early 1960′s when this number was reduced to about 50 people)! He was a rich and eccentric man (one of the wealthiest in the world) and this was his baby which I guess he could never let go of.
After the 1976 death of Howard Hughes the H-4 went through numerous hands and was on display in a domed hangar next to the Queen Mary at Long Beach, California from 1980 until the early 1990’s (owned by the Disney company from 1988). A new owner was sought over a number of years until finally it was sold to Evergreen Aviation and was transported by sea to Portland, Oregon in early 1993 after 138 days at sea! The H-4 then had to sit in Portland for months until river water levels dropped enough to get the barge under bridges! Finally it was then on to McMinnville where the rebuild and restoration began.
The restoration of the H-4 was completed in 2001. This must have been a massive job, the building alone that holds it is huge (temporary hangars were used during the restoration)!
The Hughes H-4 Hercules is a huge aircraft and still has the longest wing span of any aircraft to date (97.5 metres). The Airbus A-380, Boeing 747-8 (transport) and the massive Russian Antonov AN-225 Dream (a one-off aircraft that was built to transport the cancelled Russian communist era space shuttle Buran – a second An-225 was started but never completed) are all longer aircraft (the H-4 was 66.6 metres long, the A-380 is 73 metres, the 747-8 is 76.4 metres and the AN-225 84 metres long). Although the aircraft wasn’t a success, the H-4 design did influence these and other future large transport aircraft and the Hughes legacy still lives on in the skies of today.
Standing beneath the “Spruce Goose” and walking around the airframe you can’t help but be in awe of the size of the flying boat. It is seriously one big aircraft! Also having read so much over the years about Howard Hughes the business magnate, aviator, engineer and film maker (and his sordid sex life, eccentricities, fear of germs, paranoia, near fatal air crashes etc.) it was a real highlight to finally see the machine that was so much a part of his life.
You are also allowed to go inside the fuselage of the H-4 via a side door. Inside you can see from behind glass the large cargo area of the cavernous hull. As you can see in my photos, over the years modifications have been done to the fuselage such as the glass panels behind the cockpit to allow more light for people to view inside and access doors to facilitate touring of the aircraft.
Inside the H-4 they have the flight log book on display. It has only one entry recorded of course!
For a fee you can go up into the cockpit and have a photo taken (in a Howard Hughes like pose), for a higher fee you can get a tour of the cockpit and crew area, and take your own photos. I was lucky enough to get up there to take some photos of my own and also get to go into the crew area, view the radio operation and flight engineer control stations, and see inside the wings which were big enough for someone to stand up straight in! Fascinating stuff!
Exploring the inner areas of the H-4 was a unique experience. It was a great way to end the day spending time in a part of aviation history and walking in the footsteps of Howard Hughes himself. Something I will never forget.