The Only Flight of the Largest Fixed-wing Aircraft Ever Built: Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose

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A Brief History

On November 2, 1947, eccentric airplane designer Howard Hughes performed the maiden and only flight of his Spruce Goose (also known as the H-4 The Hercules), the largest fixed-wing aircraft ever built.

Digging Deeper

Howard Hughes was a veritable renaissance man.   The businessman dabbled in everything from film making to flying.  One of the wealthiest men of his day, he had a net worth of $1.5 billion at the time of his death.  A man of such wealth and such diverse interests is not surprisingly going to sometimes use that wealth for attempting to make his most ambitious dreams a reality.

The Spruce Goose is a famous case in point!

In 1932, Howard Hughes founded the Hughes Aircraft Company.  The company employed around 80,000 employees by the end of World War II.

During the war, the United States War Department considered ways to transport supplies to Britain in a manner that would diminish the threat of German submarines.  Hughes, along with a ship builder, worked on a design for an airplane capable of transporting either an M4 Sherman tank or 750 fully equipped soldiers.  Their design would be for what was in effect a flying transport ship.

Due to wartime limits on aluminum, Hughes instead utilized wood for the Hughes H-4 Hercules (“Spruce Goose” was a nickname from critics).   Due to delays, the plane was not finished until two years after World War II concluded.

The flying boat (it could float on water), was 218 ft 8 in (66.65 m) long with a wingspan of 320 ft 11 in (97.54 m) and a height of 79 ft 4 in (24.18 m).  The massive plane weighed 400,000 lb (180,000 kg) and could travel at 250 mph (407.98 km/h).

To prove these capabilities, Hughes piloted the plane on its maiden flight on November 2, 1947 with thirty-five others along for the ride.  It flew at about 135 miles per hour for a relatively short distance, but it never flew again.  Nothing disastrous happened, it was just never needed.  It did, however, have a secret crew of hundreds of workers who maintained it for the next thirty years (just in case!).  Today, it is on display at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in Oregon.

Question for students (and subscribers): Would you fly in the Spruce Goose?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

Many trees have been felled to not only contribute to the building of this large plane, but also to provide the pages of the numerous articles and books on its history.  A good place to start is Howard Hughes And His Flying Boat.

Barton, Charles.  Howard Hughes And His Flying Boat.  Charles Barton Inc, 1998.

If you would rather watch a documentary instead, we recommend the good work of the History Channel.

Man, Moment, Machine: Howard Hughes and the Spruce Goose.  Lionsgate, 2007.  DVD.


About Author

Dr. Zar

Dr. Zar graduated with a B.A. in French and history, a Master’s in History, and a Ph.D. in History. He currently teaches history in Ohio.