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A huge aircraft, so big that its critics claimed it could never fly, took to the air 70 years ago today with its designer Howard Hughes at the controls.

It was an incredible and unexpected sight, but the Hughes H-4 Hercules, nicknamed the ‘Spruce Goose’, flew for less than half-a-minute and at a height of just 70 feet. Hughes had proved his critics wrong, but his gargantuan aircraft would never fly again.

The idea for a large flying boat – an aircraft which took off and landed on water – was born after America’s entry into World War Two in 1941. It had to capable of carrying troops and equipment over long distances and the fact it could land on water eliminated the need for long runways.

The US Government commissioned the Hughes Aircraft Company to carry the idea forward, committing millions of dollars to the project. At that time Hughes was best known as a successful Hollywood movie producer, but he had made his millions in engineering and was also a keen aviator who founded his own aircraft company in 1932. It produced cutting edge aircraft to his own designs, which he personally test-flew.

In 1939 he had flown around the world in a record time of three days, 19 hours and 14 minutes in one of his own aircraft. But Hughes was also a perfectionist, whose obsessive attention to detail would later manifest itself in growing eccentricity and reclusiveness. It meant progress on his herculean flying boat was painfully slow and expensive.

Because of wartime restrictions on steel and aluminium, Hughes chose to build it out of wood, laminated with plastic for strength and covered in fabric. The vast majority of the wood used was birch, but the spruce used in some areas led to its nickname, the Spruce Goose, quickly seized on by Hughes’ critics who quickly branded the project an egotistical folly.

Costs spiralled to $23 million (almost $300 million in today’s money) and by the time Hughes’ prototype was finally ready in 1947, the war was over. Concerned at just what they had got for their huge investment, the US Congress summoned Hughes to testify at a series of Senate hearings, where some Senators openly accused him of creating a plane which could never fly.

Stung by their lack of faith, Hughes arranged for operational tests to be carried out at Long Beach Harbor, California, on November 2nd, 1947. It was announced that the Hercules would make a series of ‘taxi runs’, reaching take-off speed, to test its eight Pratt and Whitney propeller engines and its structural integrity, with Hughes himself at the control. A total of 36 people were on board, including the flight crew, mechanics, aviation experts and journalists.

The first two taxi runs went as expected and without a hitch, then on the third run – to the complete surprise of thousands of onlookers – Hughes pulled back on the joystick and the huge aircraft took off. It flew for just a mile at 135mph, some 70 feet above the water, before touching down safely, proving it could fly and vindicating the use of government funds.

Despite this symbolic victory, doubts remained over whether the aircraft could fly fully loaded, at altitude, over long distances. With a 320ft wingspan and standing almost 80ft high, it weighed 125 tons empty and would be 200 tons when loaded. Many experts claimed its wooden structure simply could not withstand that weight in prolonged flight.

The truth would never be known as the Spruce Goose would never fly again, though Hughes refused to lose faith in it. He stored the aircraft in a climate-controlled hangar, meticulously maintained by a full-time crew of 300 workers at an estimated cost of a million dollars per year. Only after Hughes’ death in 1976 was the project abandoned.

Now the massive aircraft is on permanent display at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville Oregon, where it takes pride of place, dwarfing a Douglas DC-3 parked under it sport wing.

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