What are your best bet materials in creating a superb aircraft? More likely aluminum, strong yet lightweight. Maybe steel and titanium, which are great ideas too. How about wood? Probably not a brilliant idea, but not if you ask Howard Hughes, who, in the 1940s, started a notorious aircraft project called the Hughes H-4 Hercules, better known as the Spruce Goose: a wooden amphibious aircraft.

The Man Behind Bold Aircraft Inventions

Before Elon Musk and his empire of companies like SpaceX, we had Howard Hughes in the 1930s— a well-known movie personality, real estate investor, and aviator. Not only did he invest in creating bold and daring aircraft, but he also flew these planes himself.

In 1939, he created the Hughes D-2 aircraft, an experimental bomber that could have been turned into military development had its hangar not been struck by lightning. Oh, well. To Hughes, that meant better luck next time, so he tried again, this time, with his highly controversial Hughes XF-11: an all-metal reconnaissance aircraft that was made to carry two pilots. The two prototypes of the CF-11 were sent to the military for consideration, but they were not granted funding.

None of these failures were enough to discourage Hughes and instead encouraged him to create his most extensive and boldest prototype: the Hughes H-4 Hercules.

Howard Hughes sits in the cockpit of the Hughes H-4 Hercules in Los Angeles on November 6, 1947
Howard Hughes sat in the cockpit of the Hughes H-4 Hercules in Los Angeles on November 6, 1947. (J.R. Eyerman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images via allthatsinteresting.com)

Spruce Goose

After the United States entered World War II in 1941, the US War Department approached the Hughes Aircraft Company and asked him to design an ambitious project: three massive aircraft that could each carry 750 fully-armed troops and, even more, a tank. Hughes agreed, and the military gave him two years to come up with something, along with one rule he must abide by, which was that he should only use non-strategic materials. Unfortunately, that translated to not using aluminum and other metals highly needed for the war effort, so he would need to use something else.

The result was the “Spruce Goose,” an aircraft-boat hybrid constructed from birch wood laminated with plastic, thick planks bent, carved, and ironed into shape as the plane’s body, and then fabric. When the Hughes H-4 Hercules was constructed, it became the largest aircraft made from wood and had the largest wingspan compared to any other plane.

Spruce Goose construction
Spruce Goose construction. (Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Hughes was a bit late from his two-year deadline, but he continued to work until it was fully completed and ready to be used in the war effort.

Twenty-Six Glorious Seconds

A few years and 23 million USD, the craft had its first-ever liftoff attempt from the water on November 2, 1947. It managed to fly for about one mile at an altitude of 70 feet and lasted for 26 seconds. Despite the apparent failure, Hughes defended Spruce Goose to the US Senate War Investigating Committee in an aviation hearing,

The Hercules was a monumental undertaking. It is the largest aircraft ever built. It is over five stories tall with a wingspan longer than a football field. That’s more than a city block. Now, I put the sweat of my life into this thing. I have my reputation all rolled up in it and I have stated several times that if it’s a failure, I’ll probably leave this country and never come back. And I mean it.

The 26 glorious seconds became the first and last flight of the Spruce Goose and perhaps the most expensive flight ever. It was kept in the hands of Hughe’s corporation, where 300 dedicated crews were assigned to ensure that the plane’s mechanisms were working smoothly.

From 1947 until he died in 1976, Hughes kept this wooden plane ready for flight in a climate-controlled hangar that cost him 1 million USD per year. Today, the Spruce Goose can be found at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.