Historian marks 65th anniversary of 'Spruce Goose' flight

The "Spruce Goose," as Howard Hughes' critics called it, was the largest airplane ever built, and they doubted it would ever fly.

But the billionaire aviator proved them wrong 65 years ago on Friday, when he manned the controls of the massive flying boat and let its eight engines lift it off the Long Beach, Calif., harbor channel for its first and only flight: a mile-long jaunt that ended safely just before the breakwater.

"If you put it on a football field, the wing tips would touch the goal posts," Hughes aviation historian Bob McCaffery said.

McCaffery, who was an engineering consultant for Hughes Helicopter in Culver City, Calif., marked the 65th anniversary of the Spruce Goose flight while standing in front of one of the behemoth's spare engines that a Las Vegas friend keeps in an aerospace collection .

While Hughes preferred to call his experimental, World War II-era transport plane the H-4 Hercules, Republican Sen. Owen Brewster of Maine dubbed it the Spruce Goose during the 1947 hearings into Hughes' alleged misuse of millions of dollars from a War Department contract to build it.

According to McCaffery, Brewster said, "The Spruce Goose is a flying lumberyard and will never fly."

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."

McCaffery said "Spruce Goose," was a misnomer because there was no spruce in it. Instead it was built from laminated, hardwood birch hauled by trains from Wisconsin and Minnesota to Southern California.

Under his contract, Hughes was tasked with building an airplane that could carry either 750 combat-ready soldiers or one Sherman tank to overseas war zones. But construction carried on well after the war had ended in 1945.

When challenged by the Senate committee, Hughes put up $9 million of his own money to finish building the flying boat on top of $27 million he had received from the War Department contract.

"It's still the biggest plane ever built," McCaffery noted. "He liked to do things in a big way. He liked to make a name for himself in aviation."

On Nov. 2, 1947, Hughes announced to newspaper and radio reporters that he would conduct three high-speed taxi tests in the choppy water of the Long Beach harbor. When asked by his associate, Glenn Odekirk, "'If it feels good, are you going to hop it?' Hughes just smiled," McCaffery said, adding that on the last taxi run, Hughes couldn't resist the urge to take it airborne.

The plane flew for more than a minute, and he spent the next minute trying to land it, "and that vindicated him."

After being kept for years in a climate-controlled hangar, the Hercules was acquired in 1980 by the California Aero Club for display in a dome at Long Beach. When the club lost it s exhibit lease in 1990, McCaffery and Odekirk organized a committee to save the flying boat with plans to move it to Las Vegas as a convention centerpiece.

Much to McCaffery's dismay, it was instead disassembled and shipped up the Columbia River to the Evergreen Aviation Museum in Oregon.

"I thought it was like moving the Washington Monument to Searchlight. You'll never see it," he said.