Friday, November 2, 2012


She only flew once, sixty-five years ago today, and she never flew higher than her own height. The man who built her was a maniac, and the man who first conceived of her knew almost nothing about aircraft. Both men hated the nickname the press pinned on her. Yet today, she's one of the most famous airplanes in the world.
"What do you know? The damned thing *will* fly!"

The State of Play in 1942

Germany had Britain on the ropes at the beginning of 1942. Although the United States had been shipping lend-lease equipment to the U.K. for several years, Atlantic-cruising Nazi U-boats sank dozens of cargo ships full of armaments, with little effective interference from Allied surface ships. Without manufactured goods and raw material delivered successfully across the Atlantic, the island nation of Great Britain would lose by attrition.

Henry Kaiser, livin' on the edge.
One American industrialist who understood the stakes was Henry Kaiser, a ship builder and engineering contractor who owned a shipyard in Richmond, California. Kaiser held the British contract on building Liberty ships - - a Blighty-designed series of welded-frame cargo vessels able to be assembled from keel-laying to freight-ready in a matter of a few weeks. The Liberty ships were a prime target of the U-boats, and Kaiser wanted to build some kind of craft that couldn't be touched by Nazi torpedoes.

The simplest method, Kaiser thought, would be to pick the ships up, out of the water, and fly the things straight to England. Could someone build wings and propellers big enough to make one of his ships fly? He proposed this scheme to one of the few men  in America smart enough and crazy enough to think the idea was plausible.


Howard Hughes was a Texas maniac. Orphaned in his teens, he inherited his father's hugely successful oil drill bit company. The sudden millionaire Howard dropped out of the engineering program at Rice University, got married, and moved to California to get into the movie business.
He produced multi-million dollar motion pictures, divorced his wife, and spent most of the 1930's dating top box-office actresses.

Nutty Howard and his beloved H-1 Racer.
None of those events has anything to do with Kaiser's flying boat plans -- except that Howard had a short attention span. Besides his dabbling in his dad's oil business, and the movie making, and the actress-chasing, Howard Hughes had a monumental fascination with aviation. In 1932, Howard created a new division of the Hughes Tool Company in Culver City, California. The new division, Hughes Aircraft, would build experimental monoplanes and pioneer high-performance aircraft engines. Howard would do most of the flight testing himself, buzzing through the sky in prototype aircraft such as his H-1 Racer. The H-1 would set and break several transcontinental speed records with Hughes in the cockpit, and influence the design of most fighter planes of WWII.

Pardon my dust: Howard lands his plane a little too much in Beverly Hills.
Hughes didn't quite "get" the idea that risking the CEO's life in experimental planes was not a good thing to do. He felt that, as President of his company, he had every right to stress the latest equipment and see what parts would break off during flight. Howard obsessively kept this flight test role through several spectacular experimental plane crashes throughout WWII and beyond, including a fantastic smasheroo in the middle of a Beverly Hills neighborhood, when a prop on a prototype twin engine fighter decided to reverse direction in mid-air. Despite some horrible damage to Mr. Hughes's skull, he continued to test the planes his company built.

Kaiser met with Hughes in late 1942, explaining his idea for a "flying boat." The winged ship would need to be able to carry 750 troops from New York to London without landing. Hughes sketched out a gigantic craft, with eight engines and a 320' wingspan.

The War Department greenlit development for the ship, now named "Hercules," but refused to release rationed aluminum to build the craft. Without the availability of lightweight metals, Hughes turned to the old aviation standby, wood. Birch plywood, coated with phenolic resin, would be laid and bent over huge frames to form the outlines of the ship. When the frame was completed, the outer surface was covered with starched canvas and painted. Despite being the largest plane ever built, Hercules would use the same structural materials as the Wright Brothers' first aircraft. The press had a field day, nicknaming the plane "The Spruce Goose" and "The Flying Lumberyard."

Howard Hughes became obsessed in making Hercules the world's greatest aircraft. Redesigns and construction changes pushed delivery of the aircraft past the end of World War II. The Army no longer needed such an aircraft, and a post-war Congress wanted to know why money was being wasted on the project. Hughes was aghast: could Senators not understand the important breakthroughs in aviation made by the very construction of the Hercules? During a break in a Senate investigation about war-profiteering, Hughes left DC to return to his completed ship.

Beach Balls

Senate testimony? I'll give you "testimony."
On November 2nd, 1947, Howard Hughes put the Hercules in the waters of Long Beach Harbor, and began a series of taxi tests with a flight crew of 22, plus seven invited journalists and seven CEOs from the aviation industry. To ensure that the Hercules wouldn't sink with such an elite passenger list on board, the development crew stuffed dozens of inflated beach balls into the tail section, in case anything leaked while the ship began its tests on the water. Hughes wheeled the ship out to the harbor, fired up all eight engines, and taxied twice back to the Long Beach hangar. After dropping off most of the guests, Howard pointed the nose of the Hercules toward the Pacific, and began another taxiing run. This time, he throttled the engines up to 117 knots, and eased the wheel back.
Zoom. Whoosh. Mission Accomplished.

 The Hercules lifted off the water and rose to an altitude of 70 feet, just nine feet shy of its own structural height. Hughes kept the ship above the waves for about a mile, and then landed back in the harbor. The aircraft worked, and that was good enough for Mr. Hughes. The ship returned to its hangar, and would never take to the air again.


Hughes kept Hercules in its Long Beach hangar - the largest climate-controlled building at the time of its construction - for the rest of his life. A staff of 300 kept the ship prepped and ready to fly until 1962. As Hughes's mental issues became more serious later in his life, his company reduced the Hercules staff to a mere 50 workers, who maintained the equipment until Hughes's death in 1976.

The Hughes Aircraft Company sold the Hercules in 1980 to a museum organization that peddled a tour of the Hercules with the retired cruise ship Queen Mary that was parked nearby in Long Beach Harbor. In 1988, the museum company managed to sell the thing to Disney, who tried for years to come up with a way to make money off the dinosaur plane. Disney gave up and handed the plane back to the museum organization. The museum organization didn't want the ship anymore, and scrambled to find it a new home.
Well, THAT was a mistake.
 In McMinnville, Oregon, the Evergreen International Aviation company was building an aviation museum next to its world headquarters. Would it be possible, they asked, to acquire the Hercules as a centerpiece for their museum? Of course, replied the California museum group. The only problem was: how can one deliver the world's largest aircraft to a museum in the woods of Oregon?

One amazing proposal: fly the ship to Oregon. Since the engines and frame had been maintained in flight-ready condition, it didn't seem like much of a stretch to clean up the motors, fill up the tanks, and zip up the coast to the mouth of the Columbia River. From there, it would only be another 100 miles or so to fly over the treetops and land at Evergreen's industrial airport in the woods. Insurance issues nixed that idea: nobody would underwrite a trip that could cause the loss of one of the rarest aircraft on the planet. Plus: who knew how to fly the thing? The flight crew was mostly dead or in their 90s, and the original staff of 16 engineers (two for each engine) spoke volumes about the reliability level (or lack thereof) with the Hercules.
The more-boring, but safer, option.

Instead of the flight, Evergreen paid for technicians to disassemble the Hercules into several luggable pieces. The parts were loaded on barges and trucks, and driven or floated to Oregon. There, the ship was reassembled and stands in the Evergreen Aviation Museum's Exhibit Hall today.

Me, a Sopwith Camel, and the only Spruce Goose in the World - - McMinville, Oregon.
What happened to Henry Kaiser? He got out of the ship building businesses (both boats and airplanes) and bought an aluminum company (Kaiser Aluminum). Kaiser also bought into a home construction business, building many post-war neighborhoods that dot the suburbs of America to this day. Kaiser's ship building company, before Henry divested it from his portfolio, was a pioneer in health care benefits for its employees. Their health insurance department expanded into the company's cement manufacturing site in Permanente Creek, California. Kaiser's wife liked the name of the area so much, the company named the hospital it helped build the Permanente Hospital. Eventually, the health insurance section would spin off into its own company, becoming the ancestor of what's now Kaiser-Permanente.

Yep. Those guys.


  1. I don't comment often because I don't have a lot to contribute, but wanted to make sure you know I'm reading and really appreciating these posts. Each is a well-composed little gem. Thanks for writing them.

  2. Thanks, Brian - always appreciate the feedback. The blog gives me an excuse to obsess over all the topics I don't normally get a chance to talk about, and it's nice to know at least one other person is interested in all this minutiae.