My Love Affair with the
Hughes Flying Boat
By Bob McCaffery
I worked at the Hughes Helicopter Company
as a design engineer on the AAH Apache helicopter program in the 1970’s.
My department manager and friend, Merle Coffee, was the radio operator on
the one and only flight of the Hughes Flying Boat. Merle took me in to see
this magnificent seaplane in its secluded hangar in 1971. As a pilot
myself, I fell in love with her. She was in mint condition. Howard
Hughes kept the inside temperature and humidity at 72 +/-5 degrees until
he died, at the cost of $25,000 per month He had said often; "Nothing
means more to me than my Flying Boat".
In 1980, the Long Beach Harbor Department
demanded that the aircraft be removed so that a large depot for unloading
fuel tankers could be built. The hanger lease had expired. Further, in
the absence of a Hughes will, legal agreements were about to be enforced
that called for the cutting up of the Spruce Goose for distribution to
nine Smithsonian museums. That didn’t make sense to me!
I organized “The Committee to Save the
Hughes Flying Boat" with Glenn Odekirk, the designer of the airplane as
honorary chairman, and recruited hundreds of aviation individuals and
organizations to petition Congress, the Department Interior and the public
to get the aircraft on the National Register of Historic Places. In just
six months and with the help of the media and aviation enthusiasts, we
were successful in keeping the plane in one piece.
The airplane was gifted to the Aero Club
of Southern California and became a major tourist attraction in Long Beach
called "The Queen Mary - Spruce Goose" for nearly a decade. In 1990 the
exhibit lost its lease. I made an effort to move the plane to Las Vegas as
a convention centerpiece however; the giant airplane now rests in
McMinnville, Oregon at the Evergreen Aviation Museum, 90 miles South of
The Hughes Flying Boat, much to Hughes’
disdain, is commonly known as the “Spruce Goose” and is still the largest
aircraft ever built even with the recent introduction of the European
Airbus 300. The Hercules, as Hughes preferred to call it, was designed to
carry 750 combat ready troops to war theaters over oceans and long
distances to avoid German submarines that were wrecking havoc on our troop
and supply ships. This handcrafted giant aircraft was constructed using
all hardwood birch (no spruce) and built by the finest cabinet makers from
all over the world. It was the forerunner of wide-body jets, pioneered
advanced communications, hydraulic systems and a flyby wire flight control
technology that's used in aircraft today.
The war ended in 1945 and the giant
airplane was not completed until 1947. It missed its moment in history.
Hughes came under fire from his critics who attempted to discredit him as
the pilot, airline operator and accused Hughes of making excessive profits
from the from war contracts. Hughes' testimony was brilliant in the Senate
The Senate investigation committee was
chaired by Senator Owen Brewster, who was crooked as a stick and deep into
the pockets of Juan Trippe, President of Pan American Airways and the chief
rival to Howard Hughes’ TWA airline. The hearings publicly focused on the
flying boat and Hughes' great wealth and influence. But behind the scenes
was the political fight for the very lucrative national and international
government regulated airline passenger routes and mail routes. It was
underhanded politics, pure and simple.
Senator Brewster publicly stated; "The
Spruce Goose is a flying lumberyard and will never fly". Howard Hughes
countered with; "I have my money and my reputation wrapped up in this
airplane, and if it doesn't fly, I'll leave the country and I won't come
back, and I mean it". The Senate hearings then recessed in August 1947
and were scheduled to adjourn in late November.
Glenn “Ode” Odekirk was carrying most of
the responsibility for the final completion of the giant airplane. The
XF-11 crash had taken its toll on Howard’s health and he was busy fighting
the political battles for TWA and mending his health. The two of them had
many discussions on the flight worthiness of the seaplane.
Hughes announced to the media that on
November 2, 1947 they would conduct three high-speed taxi tests in the
Long Beach harbor. It was agreed that Ode would not be on board for the
tests but would observe the hydrodynamics of the taxi operations. “Howard
did not want another licensed pilot aboard the aircraft’. I asked Howard
that day; "If it feels good are you going to hop it?" He just smiled at
There were over one hundred newspaper and
radio reporters on hand. Hughes loaded the upper deck with reporters
and engineering staff. He maneuvered the giant seaplane into the outer
harbor and made two high-speed taxi runs reaching air speeds of 80 mph.
It must have felt right. Hughes taxied back to unloaded all
of the media except for James McNamara, a radio reporter who had the
latest wireless recording device and sat directly behind Hughes.
Hughes then proceeded to taxi out to the
outer harbor. The water was choppy and wind steady as he maneuvered the
eight engine behemoth seaplane into position for the third and final taxi
test. The co-pilot Dave Grant, who was a young 26 year old brilliant
hydraulics engineer and not a pilot said; "When Howard asked me to put
down 15° degrees of flap, I knew it was going to fly because the big bird
wanted to lift off the water at 70 mph on the previous taxi runs. Reporter
McNamara recorded the historic flight and I suspect that is exactly what
Howard Hughes had in mind when he asked him to stay on board.
Chuck Jucker, the crew chief, said; "It
popped off the water at 75 mph like a fast elevator, it was exhilarating.
We had been waiting for this moment for five years" In the recording you
can hear the roar of the engines, then the quietness as it lifted off and
then the jubilant yells from the crew. It was high- five- time.
Ode said "Howard spent the next 30 seconds scrambling just to get it
back down on the water". Jucker said; "We had a mechanic stationed behind
each engine inside the wing; those poor guys didn't know what the hell was
going on." There were no parachutes on board.
The reporter asked Hughes if he was
surprised. Hughes responded; "No, I thought I'd make a surprise”. And
that he did. That successful flight put an end to the senate investigation.
When the Senate hearings resumed later that month Hughes was vindicated
and he publicly reamed Senator Brewster viciously. He said to one of his
executives in private "find out who's running against Senator Brewster and
give them anything they want." Brewster was never reelected.
A hermitically sealed, temperature
controlled custom hangar was constructed around the flying boat located at
Pier J in Long Beach, California. Hughes ordered regular periodic
preflight electrical systems continuity checks and engine start up
procedures until 1954. The flight crew anxiously awaited a call from
Hughes for the next test flight; this was a call that never came.
The Flying Boat, a.k.a. the Spruce Goose
In His Own Words
three pages . . . I feel do not give a clear or fair picture of the
overall subject being covered here. In other words, if you found these
quotes in my testimony [the 1947 Senate Hearings] then undoubtedly I
testified in this manner, but this was a small part of a great deal of
testimony and I think that here we have singled out a very weak portion of
my testimony and used it to rebut some very strong statements by the
In other words
my summary of this would be as follows: From the outset - now this is what
I would call a fair statement in lieu of and in substitution for pages
200, 202 and 203 - From the outset the Army, the Air Corps and the
Navy were opposed to this project because it had not originated through
normal Army, Navy or Air Corps channels. It had originated through an appeal to
the public made by Henry Kaiser. The Army, Navy, and Air Corps did not
like projects to originate in this way. . . .
liked to participate in the design of their product and I'm not going into
argue the merit or demerit of this particular policy.
. . . now
getting back to the Flying Boat. In this particular situation the Services
were even more opposed to this project than they would have been had
Douglas or Boeing, for example, designed and built an airplane on
speculation without Air Force participation. The Services were violently
opposed to this airplane because they felt it had been pushed through by
political pressure. It was not wanted by the Services. The Services
considered it, in truth, a sort of slap or insult to their own efficiency
up to that time. In other words this project was pushed through by Henry
Kaiser on the basis that there was a crying need for it and why hadn't
somebody built some cargo planes up to that time.
In other words,
this thing was a black sheep. Nobody wanted to fool around with it or
become contaminated by it and that probably accounts for the meager
information. I don't believe anybody harried me for any reports to reveal
progress or any of the rest of that. I just don't believe that occurred.
Now, I say, up
to that time this airplane, and I think you will find this in my
testimony, represented a lesser cost per pound to the taxpayers and a
quicker delivery per pound than any . . . and consequently I think this
represented a very, very cheap and very quick job.
Now in this
particular airplane, however, the increase in size beyond the largest
airplane ever designed or built prior thereto, was 3 times. In other
words, I think this airplane was roughly 3 times larger than the largest
airplane that had ever been built or designed thereto. Now this made such
an enormous increment of increase that it carried us beyond the point on
any available curves of known design criteria - beyond the point where
extrapolation was possible. In other words, we were just way off the end
of the paper and there was no way to take existing design information,
design criteria, and extrapolate the curves a little ways beyond and say
this is what ought to happen if it is this much bigger than the one
before. This airplane was so much bigger than the one before, than
anything that anybody had ever conceived up to that time, that we were
working in a complete vacuum as to information based upon prior
performance and prior design.
furthermore, I may say that this airplane for the very first time in
history reached into a size where manual control was utterly impossible,
and this was just as important a barrier to cross as crossing the sonic
barrier in speed.
Now in the case
of this aircraft, the Hughes flying boat, the controls were so large, so
much larger than any designed before, that for the first time we crossed
into the area wherein it is absolutely impossible for any human being,
whether he be Jack Dempsey or Joe Lewis rolled into one, it's utterly
impossible for any human being to move the controls of this airplane -
consequently it became necessary for the first time to design a power
control system which was as safe, let's say, as the structure of the
So, although I
may have admitted here that we could have done the airplane faster had we
been less cautious and less careful in some respects, this was not
intended to acknowledge that in any way the design or the manufacture of
this airplane by standards of cost or time was in any way inferior to what
it should have been. In fact, I say again, the facts show that it was a
damn sight better than anyone could have expected.
Needless to say,
I implore that this be deleted in its entirety. This would be an extremely
unfair statement to make. The design of this airplane is not obsolete in
any way. As a matter of fact, it is still way ahead of the power plants
available. . . . The design is not obsolete; in fact I defy anyone today
to design an airplane substantially more efficient than this one for its
purpose; namely the economical hauling of large heavy pieces of military
equipment, such as tanks, field guns, artillery pieces, etc., over long
"It was not a
very long flight, but it was a very dramatic occasion. Hughes taxied the
plane from its mooring out through the opening in the breakwater of the
inner harbor and on into the large area of Long Beach and Los Angeles
outer harbor. This was the first time the Flying Boat had been out of
dry-dock or mooring under its own power.
announced that he had no intention of flying the airplane; he was merely
going to taxi it around the harbor and make certain tests on the water. No
one had any idea that he would consider flying the airplane . . . .
However much to
the surprise of everyone, Hughes took the airplane off the water and flew
it briefly to a height of about 70 feet. Then he landed it. The newsreels
ground away as the 450,000 pounds of airplane - by far the biggest in the
world - touched the water gently in a perfect landing."
Despite Hughes insistence as late as 1954 that test
flights and development of this aircraft would continue,
ushering in a new age of aviation, the Flying Boat never flew again.