First flown on November 2, 1947, in Long Beach Harbor, the Hughes H-4 Hercules (originally designated HK-1) was one of the largest aircraft ever built. It continues to hold title as the largest flying boat ever built and the largest wingspan of any aircraft ever built. Only one prototype was constructed and its single test flight occurred at an altitude of 70 feet and lasted for only a minute crossing over one mile of water.
The aircraft was as a response to serious losses of American cargo ships in 1942 to German submarine attacks in the North Atlantic. The U.S. Government contracted for development of a concept proposal to build a “flying cargo ship.” The proposal was a collaboration between Liberty ship-builder Henry J. Kaiser and aircraft-builder Howard. The original concept was that of Kaiser, but he brought in Hughes and Hughes’ aircraft designer Glenn Odekirk for their aircraft design expertise.
The contract specified that the aircraft must be able to carry 150,000 pounds of cargo or 750 fully-equipped troops or two M4 Sherman tanks. The key restriction was that it could not be constructed from “strategic” materials (such as aluminum). This and the need for minimal the weight led to the choice of using wood to frame the aircraft. Later a U.S. Senator derisively dubbed the concept aircraft the “Flying Lumberyard.” The press added their more famous nickname, the “Spruce Goose.” Not only did Hughes despise the nickname, but the aircraft frame was actually constructed of birch rather than spruce.
By 1947, the war had been long over but the H-4 prototype had cost the government $22 million (about $300 million in 2016 dollars). Kaiser, frustrated with the pace of the project and Hughes’ obsession over minute details, was no longer involved with the project. Hughes was being called to testify before a U.S. Senate committee investigating his wartime contracts. Many suggested that the project was monstrous waste of taxpayer money and that the aircraft could never fly. Hughes pushed on to complete the prototype late that year and hired a house-moving company to transport it in three sections along the streets between its Playa Vista, Los Angeles, construction hanger and its test site in Long Beach Harbor.
On November 2, 1947, with himself at the controls, Hughes initiated taxi tests in Long Beach Harbor. After two taxi runs, he decided then to finally silence the critics and prove that his aircraft could fly. Pointing the H-4 westward, he picked up speed and lifted the aircraft up to 70 feet above the water. The flight covered just under a mile and lasted for just under a minute. The brief flight was the first and last for the H-4.
Hughes considered the H-4 one of his greatest aviation achievements and, from 1947 until his death in 1976, maintained the aircraft in a climate-controlled hanger at Long Beach Harbor. The aircraft was actually owned by the U.S. Government, but Hughes maintained it at his own cost.
In 1980, after five years of back-and-forth wrangling between Hughes’ company, Hughes’ estate, the U.S. Government, the National Air and Space Museum and aviation preservationists over whether the H-4 would be cut-up and apportioned among different museums, the aircraft ended up intact and wholly-owned by the Los Angeles-based Aero Club of Southern California. The club arranged for its exhibition in a giant specially-built dome next to the Queen Mary in Long Beach Harbor. When the Walt Disney Company, which had taken over control of the dome site, decided to discontinue the H-4 exhibition, the Aero Club had to find a suitable new home (and owner) for the aircraft. A long search ended with Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Oregon. Its journey from Long Beach to Oregon took several months from 1992 to 1993. A collection of construction photographs and blueprints of the H-4 are held by the Western Museum of Flight in Torrance, California.
The Long Beach dome that once housed the H-4 from 1980 to 1992 now serves as a cruise line terminal.