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 Portland.
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 Hearings.
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 me.
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
Hughes: These 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 opposition.
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. . . .
The services 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.
Now, 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 airplane.
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 distances.
"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.
Hughes had 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.