Because Lofty Ambitions never stops having fun and because we promise a guest blog every first and third Monday, we have an especially good one for you here. If you’re interested in today’s earlier posts in the series “A Launch to Remember,” CLICK HERE for the video of Endeavour’s launch and CLICK HERE for the photos and commentary on the STS-134 crew walkout.
Today’s guest blogger is Stewart Bailey, curator of the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, one we have visited many times. The central piece in this museum’s collection is the one-of-a-kind so-called Spruce Goose, built by Howard Hughes. Before he became the curator at the aviation museum in MicMinnville, Oregon, Stewart Bailey was the education director at the Air Zoo in Kalamazoo, Michigan, another great museum we’ve visited. We’ve written about the Spruce Goose before at Lofty Ambitions (CLICK HERE) and welcome the insider’s take on this aviation endeavor.
WINGS OVER WATER
This year, as the U.S. Navy celebrates the 100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation, it is interesting to reflect on how the aircraft, the ship, and the technologies they embody, have shaped our world. When one looks at the centuries preceding the twentieth, the major powers that controlled the world were those that controlled the sea. From the Phoenicians to the Dutch, the Spanish and the British, the growth of commerce, the spread of knowledge, and the fruits of empire belonged to those that controlled the world’s oceans. But with the rise of the airplane, that all changed.
In World War II, the struggle between the ship and the aircraft was at its peak, and many of the world’s fiercest battles took place between these technological antagonists. Even forty years after the Wrights took to the air, there was still a question of whether or not aircraft would replace the ship (or the sub-surface ship) as the dominant factor in controlling the seas. Most notably in the Atlantic, German submarines had a stranglehold on the Allies’ ability to move men and supplies, making prospects of an American invasion of Europe somewhat dicey.
It was at this point that industrialist Henry J. Kaiser came up with a game-changing proposal: if German U-Boats are sinking so many ships at sea, why not fly over them? Kaiser proposed a fleet of “flying cargo ships,” moving vast quantities of men and material over the ocean, non-stop to Europe and Africa. Also, being a shrewd businessman, he surely saw the impact that such an idea would have on world commerce after the war was over. However, Kaiser was not an aircraft builder, so he turned to Howard Hughes to make this concept a reality. Together, they received a government contract to build three aircraft within two years that could carry up to 750 troops or two Sherman tanks and would bring the might of America to the old world’s door. But there was one caveat: these aircraft had to be made of non-strategic materials such as wood.
The result was the largest aircraft in the world. It was to have a wingspan longer a football field and be powered by eight of the largest piston aircraft engines ever built. At that size, there was no runway in the world that could handle it, so it had to be a seaplane so that it could use miles of water to take off and land. It would push the limits of existing materials and aeronautical technology to leapfrog over the threats presented by the submarine.
But there were problems. By 1944, as the two-year time frame closed in, Kaiser grew frustrated with Hughes’s perfectionist nature that delayed the aircraft; by then, it had only just begun construction. He withdrew from the project in mid-1944, leaving Hughes to go it alone with his efforts to create a flying freighter.
The aircraft that Hughes shaped was both elegant and technologically advanced. Hughes oversaw every aspect of design and was particularly concerned with the control systems, since he personally test-flew all of his designs. He wanted it to be capable of being flown by one pilot, and he insisted on the control layout being to his personal taste. An outcome of this was the hydraulically assisted controls that allowed the pilot to move ailerons, elevators, and a rudder that were the size of whole wings on some aircraft. Additionally, Hughes beat the challenge of making the plane from wood, utilizing a process called Duramold in which thin layers of birch were bonded together with resin glue and shaped under extreme pressure and temperature. The resulting material, for its weight, was stronger than wood.
Despite numerous setbacks and delays, the Hughes H-4 Hercules, (derisively called the Spruce Goose by the media), did take to the air on November 2, 1947. Its single flight became a culmination of Hughes’s vision for the flying cargo ship. But by that point, the very reason for which it existed had vanished. The Second World War had unquestionably proven that the aircraft had replaced the sea-going vessels as the new measure of global power projection.
So, was the so-called Spruce Goose a waste of time and money? No, not at all. By its very creation, it helped to pioneer technologies like the hydraulically assisted controls that make today’s transoceanic airline flights routine. It helped ensure that the aircraft would make global commerce possible on a scale beyond the imagination of ancient sea-faring nations. And it proved that, while not every technological effort is a success, there is no success without effort.
Today, the Hughes H-4 Hercules rests in the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, a reminder of a time when the struggle for control of the seas—and of the world itself—hung in the balance.