On July 19,1942, Henry J. Kaiser- whose construction company had helped to build Boulder Dam and was now grinding out Liberty Ships by the dozen—attended the launching of the Harvey W. Scott in his yards and presented the assembled crowd with a vision he believed would win the war for America: “We will be able to put down a vast army, anywhere in the world, within a single week. We will be free once and for all of the fear of having our Armies cut off in some place distant from our shores. . . . The whole world will be our front yard. And our enemies will be beaten to their knees.”
What Kaiser had in mind was a fleet of monstrous flying boats capable of carrying cargo and soldiers high above the Atlantic. Kaiser had never built an airplane, but he thought he knew of someone who could: Howard R. Hughes, Texas tool-company millionaire, Hollywood movie producer, holder of transcontinental and aroundthe-world flight records, and president and owner of the Hughes Aircraft Company at Culver City in Southern California. Hughes, never a man to shun the grandiose, agreed. By the fall of 1942, his engineers had developed preliminary designs for the plane, and in November the government granted a contract—not for a fleet, but for three prototypes. Each was to be constructed of plywood, to conserve the nation’s metal supply, and each was to be large enough to ferry seven hundred men or a load of sixty tons across the sea.
The contract authorized the expenditure of as much as $18,000,000, a sum more than adequate to do the job in those times. But even in 1942, as Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele have disclosed in Empire (1979), the thirtysix-year-old Hughes was showing signs of the dementia that would befuddle the last twenty years of his life, cost his various companies millions of dollars, and cloud with mystery his death in 1976. For all his wealth and genius, he was a dreadful administrator, meddlesome, indecisive, vague, and apparently incapable of delegating authority. By the spring of 1944 so little had been accomplished on the project that the government cut its order down to just one prototype—and that was not completed until November of 1947.
The flying boat was called the HK1—more commonly the Hercules and even more commonly the “Spruce Goose” after the wood from which it was made—and it was, and remains, the largest airplane ever built. Its tail assembly was as tall as an eight-story building; its wingspan was longer than a football field; the propellers for each of its eight engines were seventeen feet in length; the hull stood thirty feet high; each wing was so thick a man could stand up inside it; and it weighed 400,000 pounds, more than today’s Boeing 747. And it worked. On November 2, 1947, with Hughes himself at the controls, the Hercules roared across the water of Long Beach harbor, lifted into the air, and flew for a little over a mile before Hughes put it down.
It was the last time the plane ever flew. The war over, the government lost interest. But Hughes continued to revere his creation. He had it placed in a specially designed hangar with orders that it be kept in such a condition that it could be made ready for flight with ninety days notice. After his death, however, the Las Vegas-based Summa Corporation, the conglomerate which had taken most of the Hughes companies under its wing in 1972, began to look askance at the $1,000,000 a year it was costing to keep the plane in shape. Still, as if the ghost of Hughes yet hovered on the premises, the company could not quite bring itself to dismantle the plane and simply sell off its 3,000,000 square feet of plywood. In July of 1980 it announced that it was turning it over to the Wrather Corporation, operators of the Disneyland Hotel, who would set it up as a public museum in Long Beach not far from where the Queen Mary (also now a museum) is currently berthed.