A black and white photo showing the Spruce Goose plane in flight.

The Spruce Goose on its maiden (and only) flight.

When I lived in California in the late ’60s-early ’70s, we kept our old sailboat in Long Beach, right across the channel from a large airplane hanger on Terminal Island. We heard that it housed the “Spruce Goose,” a gigantic airplane built by Howard Hughes during World War II. Sailing by, we could just make out a big silver tail section through the dirty glass windows. I did some research on the plane and found that it was the largest in the world and held the record for the longest wingspan right up until 2019. The most amazing thing was that it was constructed entirely of wood! The idea was conceived by Hughes and Henry J Kaiser during the war when German submarines were prowling the Atlantic Ocean sinking our ships on a regular basis.

The premise was that we could transport troops to and from the fighting in Europe safely above the waves, avoiding submarines. Raw materials, especially aluminum, were in short supply during the war, so Hughes designed a wooden plane, thus bypassing the shortages. By the time the plane was finished the war was over and Hughes was being criticized for wasting government funds on a cockamamie project that would never fly. To allay any of this talk, he loaded the plane with three other pilots and a group of newspaper, radio and newsreel reporters to “taxi” around Long Beach Harbor.

As they cruised along with Hughes at the controls, he pushed the throttles all the way forward and the eight 1,200 hp engines lifted the plane into the air, flying a couple of miles before he set her safely down again. When he arrived back at the hanger, everyone on shore was yelling at him: “Are you crazy,” “What the hell did you think you were doing?” etc. He just grinned, winked at the reporters and replied, “I couldn’t help it, she just got away from me.” After that there was no more talk about her not being able to fly. She was then put into the hanger where she sat for several decades. Now she is on display in the Spruce Goose Museum in Washington State for all to see.

Hughes himself was an interesting guy. He was a rich kid who managed the family business well and became much richer so he could support his hobbies. He started building airplanes and at one time in the 1930s and ’40s he held several speed records for flying across the country and around the world. He also purchased RKO, a major motion picture studio and TWA Air Lines. Later on, he bought a number of Las Vegas casinos including the Desert Inn, Sands, Frontier and several others, and the Landmark and Harrah’s in Reno.

I mentioned this to a friend from New Jersey and he said, “Oh, my brother lives in California and I think he used to work for Hughes. You should give him a call.” So I did and I invited him and his wife to lunch. We spent a great afternoon together, them regaling me with one bit of Howard Hughes trivia after another.

My friend had never worked directly on the Spruce Goose, but he was quite close to Hughes and had been instrumental in the design of several engines for his racing planes. He said Hughes would call him up at 2 a.m. and talk for 45 minutes about some project he was working on, then his wife chimed in “Yeah, and you were expected to be at your desk at 8 a.m., then Hughes would show up at 11:30 with a starlet on each arm, talk for another half hour, then take the ladies out to lunch!”

He told me that the most interesting things he worked on were the flying boats or seaplanes, because it involved him spending a lot of time on (and above) the water.

He said they always tested the new designs on the Long Beach to Catalina run because it had the toughest conditions available. (Catalina is an island 26 miles off the mainland and takes about a half hour to fly there or five to six hours to sail.)

One time, he remembered they brought a plane back into the lab for testing after one year and upon checking the logbook, found that it had over 3,600 takeoffs and landings! When they measured the dimensions against the original plans, they found that the wings were three quarters of an inch closer to the keel than they were when she was built! When they unscrewed a panel from the wing, about 30 gallons of salt water poured out on them!

I could really identify with the Catalina story because we used to sail over there for the weekend once or twice a month and tie up to a mooring in Avalon harbor right next to the channel where seaplanes landed. It was neat to see a plane land on the water just a few yards from where you were sitting with your cocktail in hand. Then it would taxi into the dock, disgorge a group of 13 passengers, load up with another group and take off, spreading a fine mist of salt water to cool off all the boats moored along the channel. Half an hour later the same thing would happen all over again. (Note: It’s a short flight, so there’s no co-pilot, and it’s a twelve-passenger plane, so if it’s fully loaded, the thirteenth passenger sits up forward in the copilot’s seat next to the pilot!)

I remember one weekend seeing a plane landing, as some boater strayed out into the channel in front of it! The pilot swerved to avoid the boat and in so doing, clipped a mooring buoy, tearing the float off one of the wings! Immediately, that wing started to dip down into the water as the other one rose up into the air, threatening to capsize the plane! The pilot told two passengers to scramble out onto the high wing, which they quickly did, and the plane righted itself. Soon the Harbor Master arrived in his launch with a couple of crewmen. As soon as he pulled up beside the plane, the two passengers on the wing jumped down into the launch, and the plane started to flip over again! The two crew members on the launch quickly grabbed the wing and pulled it back down, then climbed up and sat on it while the Harbor Master loaded the passengers into the launch, ferried them into shore and came back to tow the plane in. No one was injured, and I understand that the plane was flying again in a week or so.

They say, “If you can remember California in the ’60s, you really weren’t there.” Well, I sure was there, and I do remember it well. There are still a lot more stories to come.”

Photo: Courtesy Wikipedia