The Spruce Goose
The Spruce Goose
The day was late in WW II and the Allies were amassing the largest invasion fleet that ever existed at Ulithi atoll, in the Pacific Ocean. Thousands of ships were participants in this armada and they were soon expecting to receive their sailing orders to assault Japan’s homeland. Ships are efficient but slow transports and often the demands of war demand speed at the expense of economy. Strategic air transport did not truly exist in WW II, in fact most air cargo aircraft had only twin engines in a world of four engine heavy bombers. One man had an idea to vastly expand the envelope of air transport operations, presaging the concept of the air bridge. He was Howard Hughes and the aircraft prototype he proposed would carry hundreds of troops or two vehicles per mission. He named this airplane design after the strong man of myth, Hercules.
This aircraft has been officially named at least twice — at first the HK-1 then the H-4 Hercules — but the world knows this seaplane by the press-given nickname “Spruce Goose”. Mr. Hughes disliked the moniker, but a good name cannot help but stick.
Strangely, the development of this aircraft instigated a controversy between Howard Hughes and the United States Congress. Notably, and somewhat rarely, Howard Hughes prevailed in the hearings, and bettered Congress at their own game with regard to public relations.
The Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum* has restored the Spruce Goose and exhibits it within a purpose built yet graceful building. This aircraft is immense! Although I’ve not seen it next to a Boeing B‑52 Stratofortress**, it is my impression that the eight engine B-52 would be dwarfed by Hughes’s invention if they were ever to be seen side-by-side.
The Spruce Goose was made almost entirely of wood in order to not be constrained by metal alloy production. Similarly the de Havilland Mosquito and the Hawker Hurricane, among other examples, followed the same design decisions. Eight wing mounted engines were intended to power the seaplane aloft. An additional aircraft engine was mounted on the flight deck to supply power to the aircraft’s electrical generation system.
Attention to design showed experience. As an example, any aircraft of the time required frequent engine service — if only to add oil and change spark plugs. This aircraft was intended to be on the water during servicing, so a pulley system was placed in each engine nacelle. A boat would bring the tools and parts to the aircraft so the mechanics could hoist them up to the engine. A simple and elegant design feature!
Entry to the main cabin is part of the general museum admission and one enters onto the main deck to stand in a compartment where a view aft is afforded through a plastic panel. Two items stand out when looking toward the tail among the bulkheads and longerons — scores of beach balls and over a dozen carbon dioxide (CO2) gas cylinders. The CO2 cylinders were part of the fire suppression system, but what about those beach balls? Cleverly, the beach balls were formerly installed in the wing floats to ensure buoyancy should a float become holed.
Looking forward one mostly sees a tightly wound spiral stairway leading up to the flight deck. Access to the upper deck requires an additional fee and includes a tour guide as well as a photo of each of your group in the pilot’s seat. I thought it to be well worth it, enjoying the viewing of the flight deck and cockpit immensely.
The flight deck is spacious, larger in area than a studio apartment, with visibility from the cockpit being excellent. Howard Hughes particularly inserted himself in the design of the instrument panel’s layout. When I first viewed the cockpit I was also struck by the lack of instrumentation for copilot. My assumption is that the copilot’s primary duty was to assist the pilot with the flight controls. Naturally, the pilot and copilot could switch chairs during flight with the autopilot engaged. The glass panels on the port (left) side of the flight deck were installed as part of the display to allow natural light into this part of the aircraft. Arriving at the aft flight deck bulkhead brings the visitor to the main wing joint where inspection tunnels in each wing come into view.
The restoration of the Spruce Goose is a story unto itself, and beyond the scope of this post, though an excellent DVD about this is available from the museum’s gift shop. It was no small undertaking just to transport the aircraft from a port in California to the inland city of McMinnville Oregon! One of the interesting items discovered during the restoration effort work occurred when the paint was stripped from the fuselage. Dozens of signatures of the workers who built the Spruce Goose were uncovered. What better reminder can there be to us of the dedication and personal ownership those workers felt in their efforts? As it turns out, this quaint custom was a common occurrence in other aircraft factories of the time.
Let us return to the cockpit for a moment. Entering the aircraft, walking up the spiral staircase from the cargo deck to the flight deck, then sitting at the controls while looking to the front and viewing the engines along the port (left) wing almost makes this aircraft come alive. When experiencing the smells and the feel of the Spruce Goose one can almost sense what it must have been like when all her engines were running sending rhythmical vibrations through the airframe. Although the Spruce Goose, with Howard Hughes piloting, flew but once, and only within ground effect, it is both a remarkable as well as historical aircraft. We are fortunate for the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum and the volunteer restoration staff for housing and exhibiting Howard Hughes’s creation — it is a monument to innovation and the unwillingness to accept conventional limitations during harsh times.
Fortunately, the ships at Ulithi were never ordered to sail against Japan … as the war ended before they were needed. It has been said that fighter pilots make movies while bomber crews make history — but what about cargo crews? They carry the weight, perhaps? The mind wonders what it might have been like to see and feel dozens upon dozens of thundering Spruce Gooses during an air bridge operation.
* The post on this museum, Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum and the Tillamook Air Museum
** A B-52 was featured in the post entitled, Photo Funday — Orlando BUFF — Orlando B-52 Memorial Park