Sixty-six years ago today, on November 2, 1947, the largest airplane ever built flew for almost exactly one minute–and has never flown again. This is probably the shortest flight to make history since the original one of the Wright Brothers in 1903. The plane in question was the colossal H-4 Hercules transport, the brainchild of eccentric billionaire, movie director and aviation pioneer Howard Hughes, who was at the controls during the plane’s brief flight in Los Angeles Harbor. Although he never called it that, the plane is much more popularly known as the “Spruce Goose.”
The video clip above is actual color footage of the H-4’s flight. In truth you can barely see it, because it skimmed the water, never rising more than a few feet off of it. But the flight–which was unplanned, at least officially–proved that the gigantic plane could actually fly. This was a matter of both personal reputation and business survival for Howard Hughes, whose aviation company’s business practices had been called into question during tumultuous Congressional hearings in the summer of 1947. Hughes himself was fighting a lifelong battle with mental illness. These events are dramatized, with considerable embellishment and artistic license, in the fine 2004 Martin Scorsese film The Aviator, which featured Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes and has as its finale the flight of the Spruce Goose.
I have seen the Spruce Goose in real life many times. I live not far from where it’s currently on display, at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Oregon. It really is a gigantic plane. It has a wingspan of 320 feet and the top of its stabilizer stands 79 feet off the floor. As is well known, Hughes designed during World War II as a heavy transport plane. It could theoretically carry many tons of war supplies, a Sherman tank, or 750 troops at one time. That’s small by ship standards, but you could make a lot of Atlantic crossings by plane in the time it takes a ship to get from one shore to another, and of course you wouldn’t have to worry about U-boats.
That being said, I’m not certain the Hercules would have made as good a transport in World War II even if it had been completed before the war was over. I can’t imagine the fuel consumption of a plane this large would have made numerous trips very economical, and toward the end of the war, from 1944 on, the German U-boat threat had mostly been neutralized. Ferrying supplies by ship would probably have been cheaper and safer in the long run anyway.
But it’s still an impressive plane. Below is a picture I took of it at the Evergreen Museum in November 2009.