Meet the Massive Spruce Goose: A Wooden Plane Built to Dodge Nazi U-Boats
Brilliant or insane?
In 1942 the German Navy was wreaking havoc on Allied shipping to Britain, and convoy duty from the United States to Britain was one of the most dangerous places to be. German U-Boats plied the North Atlantic in battle groups known as wolf packs.
So great was their success against Allied convoys, that German U-Boat submariners called 1942 the Zweite glückliche Zeit, or the Second Happy Time. Hundreds of thousands of tons of shipping sank to the bottom of the Atlantic. The sea was not a safe place to be, so American war planners turned to the air for safety.
That year, the War Department put out a tender for a plane that had a wide enough range to cross the Atlantic, with a heavy payload—and it could not be made of aluminum, a strategic material which the war effort required for other airframes. The United States War Department needed a big idea, and one eccentric man had one.
Hughes and the Bird
Howard Hughes was a businessman, director, investor and in his day one of the richest people alive. A man of eclectic interests, Hughes was also an airplane enthusiast and had set several world records—and was in several airplane accidents that killed or injured several people, Hughes himself included.
The airframe that Howard Hughes built was the largest plane ever built—and almost entirely of wood, the so-called “Spruce Goose” or H-4 Hercules. The H-4 was a flying boat design and had a smooth, boat-like underbelly and pontoons on the wings to land on the ocean.
The Goose was intended to be a heavy lifter: it had eight radial engines and its massive cargo hold was designed to carry 750 troops with equipment, or two 30-plus ton Sherman tanks. The entire airframe—including the outer surfaces of the plane and control surfaces—were made of laminated wood rather than the usual aluminum, though admittedly builders used birch rather than spruce.
A few years later in the war, the Spruce Goose was no longer needed as acutely. Allied shipping had changed tactics and was better able to fend off German U-Boats. Moreover, the war effort shifted focus to building bombers and fighters rather than transports. Despite the lack of interest by the War Department, Hughes took it upon himself to continue development. In 1947 he took the H-4 on its maiden flight.
After conducting some taxiing tests, Hughes and his engineering team flew the plane off of Long Beach Harbor in California for a sub-one minute flight test. The Spruce Goose’ record flight was a paltry 80 miles per hour, 30 feet off the surface of the ocean. Still, it was one for the books and remained the widest plane to have ever flown until 2019, when the Stratolaunch aircraft took the title. It was to be the Spruce Goose’s first and last flight.
Hughes had been injured in multiple airplane crashes in 1943 and 1946. Though his body recovered, his mental health appeared to deteriorate. Until his death in 1976, the H-4 was kept in a climate-controlled aircraft hangar — Hughes even paid to have a flight crew keep the airframe in flight-worthy condition and be available to fly the plane.
In 1988 The Walt Disney Company acquired the property where the Goose was kept. Having no use for a wooden airplane, no matter the size, Disney sold the airframe. Despite not doing much for the Allied the war effort, the H-4 lives on in an aviation museum in Oregon, where the Spruce Goose can still be seen today.
Caleb Larson holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics, and culture.