"Promoting the science of aerospace medicine"

5th of November 2012

Today in History: The flight of the Spruce Goose

In 1947, the Senate War Investigating Committee called Howard Hughes to testify regarding government money spent on his H-4 Hercules experimental aircraft. During a break in the hearings, Hughes returned to Los Angeles to perform taxi test flights on the aircraft.

The results of the Nov. 2, 1947, taxi tests were reported the next morning in a Page 1 Los Angeles Times story:

Lifting gracefully from whitecapped waters into the teeth of an erratic 20-knot wind, Howard Hughes' $25,000,000 plywood flying boat yesterday took to the air and flew at 70 feet for a mile during its first taxi tests in Los Angeles-Long Beach Harbor.

Hughes was at the controls of the 400,000-pound plane when it took off midway in the third and final trial run before thousands of surprised spectators who jammed the shore line.

Brought down on the choppy waters lightly, the behemoth was towed back to its moorings to await an abatement of the gusty winds that prevented redocking at Terminal Island.

As he returned to shore, the Texan sportsman-pilot was grinning broadly and munching an apple.

"I think the airplane is going to be fairly successful," Hughes commented. "When we got up to 95 m.p.h., I lowered the flaps to take-off position and it felt so good, I just took it off."

The flyer said the eight 3,000-horsepower engines were turning up 2,200 revolutions per minute at the take-off, "but I throttled back to 1200 r.p.m. and she settled down like a feather at the end of the course."

Men aboard the flying boat said the hull skipped from wave to wave when the speed increased and that a violent motion shook the cockpit. An engineer stationed in the plane's after section reported that the huge fuselage twisted with each wave.

With a hollow booming of its hull, the huge plane began its test runs under the two inboard engines that pulled it to the Outer Harbor at 10 m.p.h.

As the other engines were started, Hughes steered the craft through waves four feet high for the first water-borne trial from east to west. The brisk, gusty wind and choppy sea offered no apparent difficulties to the 219-foot-long plane as it made an initial run at an estimated 40 m.p.h.

The gigantic winged boat maneuvered easily at the end of its first run in turning for a second thundering race at nearly 90 m.p.h. in the opposite direction. On the second sweep the ponderous hull lifted onto its step and completed the downwind taxi in a wide-flung spray of water.

Hughes piloted the boat on a course roughly paralleling the shoreline from Terminal Island Navy Base to offshore from Pier A in Long Beach.

An estimated 15,000 persons jammed beaches and piers along the course to watch the boat's trials...

Hundreds of small boats ranging from fishing craft to row-boats swarmed waters adjacent to the taxing lane. A Coast Guard cutter stood by to warn spectators clear of the plane.

In addition to the multimillionaire planemaker, 30 engineers, technicians and observers were aboard the plywood giant for its first movement under its own power.

Acting as copilot was Dave Grant, Hughes' chief hydraulic engineer...

After the flight Hughes was asked if he believed the test would have any effect on the attitude of Senate committee members toward his plane.

"I think not," Hughes replied. "I don't think the committee is concerned whether the flying boat flies or not."

The flyer is scheduled for an appearance Wednesday before the Senate committee investigating war contracts. Hughes' wartime contract for the construction of the huge plywood seaplane, under investigation by the committee, was under an $18,000,000 government contract handled by the Reconstruction Finance Corp.

Hughes has put more than $7,000,000 of his own money into the project.

Following the flight, the H-4 Hercules returned to its Terminal Island dock - never to fly again. Hughes built a custom climate-controlled building around the airplane. In 1980, the Spruce Goose was moved and put on display next to the Queen Mary.

Today the aircraft is on display at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Ore.