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Hughes and the Spruce Goose


It was Nov. 2, 1947. The 31 people that Howard Hughes had aboard the Spruce Goose must have considered themselves very fortunate to have the experience of being along for the first tests - the test that was supposed to be a taxi test!

The Spruce Goose is properly known as the Hercules H-4 and is the largest aircraft ever built. Hughes hated the appellation Spruce Goose and called it The Flying Boat. It has a wing span of 320 feet, (a runway is 200 ft wide) and to get an idea of the size, the vertical stabilizer (tail) is larger in area than the wing of a Boeing 727. It was designed as a military transport and could carry 700 fully-equipped soldiers. The largest operational troop carrier in operation today can carry approximately 500. The most awesome feature of the flying boat is the interior of the gigantic wings. Hatches on the port and starboard sides of the aft section of the flight deck open to reveal a walkway nearly 49 m (160 ft) long inside each wing. Each walkway is 3.36 m (11 ft) high at the wing root. The walkways permitted flight crew members to move inside the wings to inspect the eight engines and to make certain adjustments on systems such as the carburetors. Behind each of the eight engines is an asbestos curtain that could be zipped closed during flight to serve as a fire shield.

The first tax test started. Hughes revved up the eight engines, speed increased to 40 miles an hour, and the noise of the water smashing against the hull was tremendous. Everything worked perfectly, the big ship acted exactly as it should have, and Hughes was having the time of his life. The Flying Boat travelled two miles down the Long Beach Channel, slowed, turned around and prepared to start the second run. Howard Hughes then told everyone to hold on because he was really going to get some speed up on the second run. He pushed the throttles ahead and the great ship increased its speed to 60 miles per hour. The noise was deafening from the pounding waves. Then it was 70, and the noise almost stopped - she was up on the step and planing just like a high-powered speedboat. The speed then increased to 90 miles an hour before Hughes eased the throttles back and let the ship settle back down in the waves.

Six of the seven reporters were from leading newspapers, and four of them were so excited they were anxious to get off to file their stories. Hughes obliged them by calling for a boat. The remaining two representatives from the newspapers and a radio reporter who were recording the events for his station were in for a thrill they would tell their grandchildren about. Hughes had proved all he could from the two taxi tests, but he decided to do a third - or did he? He moved the Flying Boat toward the Long Island Beach end of the channel for another run.

Hughes turned the ship around, put a bottle of milk up to his mouth and looked around at his crew and passengers. The remaining passengers badgered him with questions. He didn't speak, just drank some more milk. He had said during the Senate Hearings that if the Flying Boat wouldn't fly, he would leave the country and never return. He didn't say he was going to do a third taxi run, he didn't say he was going to fly either, he said nothing. He put down the milk bottle, put his left hand on the wheel and his right hand on a lever controlling the eight throttles. He pushed the throttles ahead and 24,000 horses responded. He told copilot (remember he was not a pilot) Dave Grant to give him 15 degrees of flap. There were only two people, possibly three including the FAA representative, who realized the significance of that order - the copilot had no idea of why Hughes asked for the lowered flap. His crew chief Chuck Jucker, the only other pilot aboard, knew exactly what it meant - Hughes was going to take off!

The noise from the pounding water disappeared as the ship reached 70 mph and lifted up off the step. Everyone aboard stopped talking and the only noise that could be heard was the roar from the eight engines. At 80 miles an hour the ship flew off the water without any effort from Hughes at the controls. The people aboard described it as being in a fast elevator. Chuck Jucker, pilot and crew chief, said that he had never been in an airplane that took to the air with such good response. Hughes levelled the aircraft at approximately 80 feet as the speed reached 90 miles an hour. Hughes let the magnificent airplane fly for approximately one minute in which time it covered approximately one mile. The touchdown in the water was as if a gentle giant was putting it back down softly and the whole thing now seems like a dream.

It has never flown again and, in all probability, never will.

If you visit Long Beach, California, visit two great ladies sitting side by side, the Queen Mary and The Flying Boat.

Howard Robard Hughes, aviation genius, was born on Christmas Eve 1905 and died on April 15, 1976.

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