This week I want to look back to a time in aviation history that has always held my attention. The time period was the 1940s. Military aircraft development was at a fever pitch due to the war in the Pacific and Europe and those developments led to huge advances in commercial aviation. However, one of the more interesting stories is how Howard Hughes and the Goose came to being and who was actually responsible for the Goose.
The man who put the concept of the Goose on the table was Henry Kaiser – the man who made the “Liberty Ships” for the war effort. (I will have a few statistics on Liberty Ships and a video at the conclusion of this article.) Now it may seem a little strange that a ship builder suddenly wanted to build airplanes but this was not his plan. Henry Kaiser was going to have Howard Hughes build his brainchild. Now, you know why the original designation of the Goose was HK-1 – H is for Hughes and K is for Kaiser; however, the final designation of the Goose was H-4 after Kaiser pulled out of the project and Hughes put his reputation, and money, on the line to prove his critics wrong.
Now, why did Uncle Sam need the Goose…………
The geographic isolation of the US was an advantage, reference keeping the war off our shores, during the Second World War, but this also led to logistic problems with ferrying men and machines to war theaters. Henry Kaiser, a civil engineer who had a habit of thinking big, was building Liberty Ships and had an idea for a large flying boat, which would avoid the U-boat menace in the North Atlantic. He approached Howard Hughes to build the huge craft, which would be called the HK-1.
The HK-1 contract was issued in 1942, as a development contract, and called for three aircraft to be constructed under a two-year deadline to be available for the war effort. The HK-1 was to have eight Pratt & Whitney 3 000 hp engines, a wingspan of 320 feet and a length of 218 feet. It was designed to be capable of carrying 750 fully equipped troops or two 30 ton Sherman tanks. Its fully loaded cargo capacity was 150,000 pounds and all cargo would be loaded through front doors.
The HK-1 would be built from wood, because of wartime restrictions on the use of aluminum and concerns about weight, and the HK-1 critics nicknamed it the “Spruce Goose” despite it being made almost entirely of birch rather than spruce. The plane was covered with duramold, which involved laminating and molding thin sheets of veneer together and one of the most amazing aspects of the construction was that the Spruce Goose had almost no nails or screws. The duramold process used layers of 1/32 inch wood veneer laid in alternating grain direction and then bonded with glue and steam-shaped. Duramold made the Goose both strong, and lightweight, for its size.
As we know the airplane suffered extensive delays. Part of the time delay was due to Hughes insistence on perfection; however, the technological problems that had to be overcome in the design were numerous and included the testing of new concepts for the large hull, flying control surfaces, and the incorporation of power boost systems for control.
Henry Kaiser pulled out of the program because of the delays and Hughes continued the program alone and redesignated the HK-1 the “H-4 Hercules.” Hughes signed a new contract with Uncle Sam, which now limited production to one prototype. Work proceeded slowly, with the result that the H-4 was not completed until well after the war was over.
The airplane was shipped over the roads/highways to Pier E in Long Beach, California by a company specializing in house moving. It was moved in three large sections consisting of the fuselage and each wing, and a fourth smaller shipment containing the tail assembly parts and other smaller assemblies. After final assembly, a hangar was erected around the flying boat with a ramp to launch the H-4 into the harbor. It has been said that this new hangar was the first climate-controlled building in the United States. Imagine that………………
Now that we have an overview of the project let’s talk about one of the few men Howard Hughes trusted and why the history books are wrong about who conceived the idea of the HK-1.
(The Man Who Built the Spruce Goose for Howard Hughes)
Glenn Odekirk, whose life and times were indelibly entwined with Howard Hughes and who designed and built the Spruce Goose, the flying boat that became more of a success on the ground than it ever was in the air, has died.
Odekirk was 81 when he died of cancer late Monday at a hospice in Las Vegas.
Over the years Odekirk, who met Hughes on a movie set nearly 60 years ago, was the eccentric billionaire’s “shop superintendent,” “chief mechanic” and “assistant to the president” at Hughes Aircraft Co.
What he always was in fact was one of the few people Hughes ever trusted to design the planes that the young adventurer flew to the then furthermost fringes of possibility. He was involved on two important events, when the industrialist, and flier, made an unsuccessful world record airspeed run in 1935 and a nonstop West Coast to East Coast flight in 1938.
However, Odekirk’s most lasting legacy will probably be the mammoth wooden Spruce Goose seaplane with the 100-yard wingspan that has become its own museum in Long Beach Harbor, next to another memento of a Gargantuan past, the Queen Mary.
In a 1979 interview with The Times, Odekirk said he conceived of the flying boat when he heard shipbuilder Henry Kaiser complain on the radio about the huge number of vessels being lost to German submarines in World War II.
“‘Well, I guess I’ll have to put wings on my boat,’ ” Odekirk recalled Kaiser saying.
Odekirk approached Kaiser on behalf of Hughes and together the three men conceived the HK-1 (for Hughes and Kaiser), known popularly as the Spruce Goose, even though a preponderance of the wood used was birch. Odekirk was the designer in charge of the flying boat that was to carry 750 fully equipped troops across the Atlantic to fight in Europe.
However, the plane, 218 feet long and 79 feet high, made only one brief flight. That was on Nov. 2, 1947, 70 feet above the water with Hughes at the controls. It was then placed in storage until converted to a popular public attraction a few years ago.
Shortly after that, Odekirk left Hughes to start his own company and the two men saw each other infrequently, if at all, until Hughes’ death in 1976.
Odekirk contended over the years that the old flying boat, with some mechanical adjustments and checks, could be flown again.
“To me it would be (as simple as) ABC,” Odekirk said.
OK, so now we know the rest of the story about the concept, and design, and the man/men responsible for bringing the Goose to life. So, let’s talk about what happened after that historic flight we are all familiar with.
What happened to the Goose after the first/last flight is a story all to itself. The number of people involved maintaining the airplane, the modifications that Hughes ordered performed, and his constant expectations that he was going to fly the airplane again will be covered in pat three of the series. Stand-by for the rest of the story.
I hope you have enjoyed part one on the Goose but before I wrap it up I wanted to give you a brief overview on “Liberty Ships” which will help everyone better understand why Uncle Sam was looking for a boat with wings.
The origins of the Liberty Ship can be traced to a design proposed by the British in 1940. Seeking to replace wartime losses, the British placed contracts with US shipyards for 60 steamers of the Ocean class. These steamers were of a simple design and featured a single coal-fired 2,500 horsepower reciprocating steam engine. While the coal-fired reciprocating steam engine was obsolete, it was reliable and Britain possessed a large supply of coal. While the British ships were being constructed, the US Maritime Commission examined the design and made alterations to lessen coast and speed construction.
This revised design was classified EC2-S-C1 and featured oil-fired boilers. The most significant change was to replace much of the riveting with welded seams. A new practice, the use of welding decreased labor costs and required fewer skilled workers. Due to their plain looks, the Liberty Ships initially had a poor public image. To combat this, the Maritime Commission dubbed September 27, 1941, as “Liberty Fleet Day” and launched the first 14 vessels. In his speech at the launch ceremony, Pres. Franklin Roosevelt cited Patrick Henry’s famed speech and stated that the ships would bring liberty to Europe.
In early 1941, the US Maritime Commission placed an order for 260 ships of the Liberty design. Of these, 60 were for Britain. With the implementation of the Lend-Lease Program in March, orders more than doubled. To meet the demands of this construction program, new yards were established on both coasts and in the Gulf of Mexico. Over the next four years, US shipyards would produce 2,751 Liberty Ships. The majority (1,552) of these came from new yards built on the West Coast and operated by Henry J. Kaiser. Best known for building the Bay Bridge and the Hoover Dam, Kaiser pioneered new shipbuilding techniques.
Operating four yards in Richmond, CA and three in the Northwest, Kaiser developed methods for prefabricating and mass-producing Liberty Ships. Components were built all across the US and transported to shipyards where the vessels could be assembled in record time. During the war, a Liberty Ship could be built in a about two weeks at a Kaiser yard. In November 1942, one of Kaiser’s Richmond yards built a Liberty Ship (Robert E. Peary) in 4 days, 15 hours, and 29 minutes as a publicity stunt. Nationally, the average construction time was 42 days and by 1943, three Liberty Ships were being completed each day.
The speed at which Liberty Ships could be constructed allowed the US to build cargo vessels faster than German U-boats could sink them. This, along with Allied military successes against the U-boats, ensured that Britain and Allied forces in Europe remained well supplied during World War II. Liberty Ships served in all theaters with distinction. Throughout the war, Liberty Ships were manned members of the US Merchant Marine, with gun crews provided by the US Naval Armed Guard. Among the notable achievements of the Liberty Ships was SS Stephen Hopkins sinking the German raider Stier on September 27, 1942.
Initially designed to last five years, many Liberty Ships continued to ply the seaways into the 1970s; in addition, many of the shipbuilding techniques employed in the Liberty program became standard practice across the industry and are still in use today. While not glamorous, the Liberty Ship proved vital to the Allied war effort. The ability to build merchant shipping at a rate faster than it was lost, while maintaining a steady stream of supplies to the front was one of the keys to winning the war.
While it can be agreed that the number of large transport airplanes, like the Goose, produced would never rival the number of “Liberty Ships”, I think it is easy for everyone to see that the concept of the Goose was the building block for what we refer to today as an “Air Bridge.” The “Air Bridge” concept was used effectively in Iraq, and Afghanistan, by the US military to support ground operations using the C-5, which looks like the Goose by the way, and the C-17.
Have a good weekend, stay close to family and friends, and remember all aviators/aviation enthusiast are “Gatekeepers of the Third Dimension.”
June 14, 2019