Howard Hughes surely defined the word eccentric. One of the richest men in the world, he was famous for his maverick movie-making, addiction to drugs, and love of beautiful actresses. On one occasion, he became obsessed with designing a complicated cantilevered bra for one of the stars in his movie The Outlaw. He was also an accomplished aviator and innovative aircraft manufacturer who was, for a time, considered a crucial cog in visionary plans to defeat Hitler.
When the war came along, Hughes’ aircraft company was only employing a handful of people. By the end of World War II, it would be employing tens of thousands, and along with aircraft development, his subsidiaries would go on to supply the US military with everything from radar to air-to-air missiles and on-board fire-control systems.
In 1942, he was approached by the industrialist and shipbuilder Henry Kaiser, who was concerned by the 800,000 tonnes of shipping which had been sunk by German U-boats. Kaiser’s plan was to build a huge aeroplane, capable of carrying 750 troops, and even tanks, across the Atlantic. Hughes enthusiastically embraced Kaiser’s idea, and together they managed to obtain $18 million in funds to build a huge flying-boat, to be called the HK-1.
The brief was to build three HK-1 prototypes to be ready within two years, and work duly began building the plane on a site in southern California. Like many of Hughes’ films, the final design was truly epic. The wingspan of the ‘Spruce Goose’, as it was nicknamed by a newspaperman of the day, was 320ft. Its wings were 13ft thick, and the tailfin alone was the height of an eight-storey building.
The beast weighed 400,000lbs, and its propellers were more than 27ft long. Because of wartime restrictions, it had to be made out of wood rather than metal – hence its moniker, although in fact the Spruce Goose was mostly made out of birch plywood, not spruce.
But all the time required to carry out research on such an enormous plane, as well as various supply problems and Hughes’ debilitating perfectionism, meant that construction dragged. And in 1944, Kaiser decided to quit the project, sensing the way the wind was blowing.
The end of the war came and went, and the aircraft, now officially called the H-4, still had not made it to its dockside hangar. But Hughes did not care: he shovelled another $7 million of his own money into the plane’s manufacture, despite the fact that, with the conflict over, the original need for such an aircraft had gone. Then, in summer 1946, Hughes suffered terrible injuries when, piloting his other experimental plane for the government, the XF-11, he crashed into a housing estate.
That was not his only difficulty. The government had started to ask questions. Where exactly had all its money gone? Why had no aircraft been delivered in four years? In 1947, the US Senate War Investigating Committee began its hearings into Hughes’ company, amid lewd allegations of a history of sleazy backhanders involving Hollywood starlets.
Critics began to describe Hughes’ beloved creation as a ‘flying lumberyard’, taunting him that it would never fly. He loathed its derogatory Spruce Goose nickname. Hughes decided it was time to show them all. During the hearings, he had the only Goose ever completed delivered to Long Beach, California, and readied the craft for its first flight.
On 2 November, with Hughes himself at the controls, the plane skimmed across the water before suddenly gliding into the air for the first time. Hughes flew it at just 70ft for a total of one mile. It was not much, but Hughes had proved that the Spruce Goose could fly. The investigation into Hughes’ affairs never really got anywhere, but the government still cancelled its order for the plane.
Hughes, who subsequently became a recluse, could never let go. For the next quarter of a century, he kept it in a specially designed, climate-controlled hangar at a cost of $1 million a year. After his death in 1976, no-one quite seemed to know what to do with it. Even Disney did not want it. Finally, in the 1990s, the Goose found a buyer who wanted to make it part of his own collection of wartime aircraft. And, in 2001, the fully restored dinosaur went on display at its new home, the Evergreen Aviation Museum in Oregon. There the plane remains as a fitting memorial to a man who just did not know when to stop.