The Spruce Goose wasn’t made of Spruce
During the Second World War, the prevalence of German U-Boats forced the War Production Board (WPB) to consider alternatives to shipping large numbers of troops across the Atlantic by sea. Hughes and Henry Kaiser contracted with the WPB to produce flying boats to transport men and materiel across the Atlantic.
After Kaiser withdrew from the project, largely due to objections from the military that it would disrupt the flow of strategic materials such as aluminum needed elsewhere Hughes decided to go it alone, producing the largest flying boat ever built. It was also to be the largest aircraft ever built from wood. The airplane was designated the H-4 Hercules and was built in California, although the war ended before the Hercules was ready to fly.
The aircraft was controversial throughout its development. It was criticized for its size, for its cost, for its construction of wood when nearly all airplanes were built of aluminum (the DeHavilland Mosquito was a notable exception), and most of all for its lengthy delays in development. The media took to derisively calling the airplane the Spruce Goose, despite the main material in its construction being birch.
The nickname stuck, although Hughes despised it, and vigorously defended the huge airplane in the press and in eventual senatorial hearings over the lengthy delays and increasing costs of the two prototypes. Hughes stated in Senate testimony that if the aircraft was a failure, “…I’ll probably leave this country and never come back. And I mean it.”
In November 1947, the airplane was scheduled for taxi tests near Cabrillo Beach, California, and the press was there to record the plane taxiing in the water. After a few tests, most of the press left to file their stories. With Hughes at the controls of the airplane and with thirty-six souls on board, Hughes began what should have been the final taxi run and instead lifted the airplane into flight.
The Hercules flew for about one mile, a clear indication that the use of taxpayer money to fund the project was vindicated, despite the need for the massive flying boat being overcome by events. The airplane never flew again. After lengthy disputes over ownership of the aircraft, it is currently on display at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.