The original idea did not come from Howard Hughes. German submarines were sinking supply ships making their way across the Atlantic during World War II. Industrialist Henry Kaiser built many of those ships and wondered if cargo could be safely sent by air. He approached Hughes for his aviation experience in 1942 after other companies said it couldn’t be done.
The build could not take scarce materials away from the war effort. This led to using wood as the primary building material. The press called the airplane the “Spruce Goose” but it was made mostly of birch rather than spruce.
A wingspan over 320 feet/97 meters was the widest airplane built until the Scaled Composites Stratolaunch that first flew in April 2019.
Kaiser withdrew when Hughes took too long to build the airplane. The flying boat was originally called HK-1 but became formally known as the Hughes H-4 Hercules after Kaiser withdrew.
The US government spent $18 million. Hughes personally spent over $5 million. Many in the government were skeptical. The only flight came during a break in Senate hearings in 1947 and where Hughes proved it could fly. It flew off the coast of Long Beach, California for a mile, 70 feet above the water. Innovations such as hydraulic flight controls paved the way for large airplane design.
Today, the Spruce Goose rests comfortably in the care of the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon. The story of how it got there deserves its own post someday...
Cheers to the visionaries, the vanguards and the builders. Not every idea works to plan but they may still be worth pursuing.