This week I want to talk about the Goose and Howard Hughes; however, before I do that I have a question….was it possible to tow the Goose ashore? No. In fact the Goose did not even have a ramp from the hangar to the water. There was no beaching gear, and indeed the size of the airplane made the concept of external gear impractical. So, where the Goose was hangared was really a dry dock, and actually the hangar had three areas that met that criteria. One for the hull, and two for the outrigger floats. When they moved the completed aircraft out of the hangar for it’s first/last flight they flooded the drydocks and floated the Goose out into the open water.
We all know, from articles of the time, that Hughes believed his accomplishment with bringing the Goose alive was something no one else could have possibly accomplished, and he was right; however, why did Hughes’ spend a million plus dollars a year in the 50s/60s/70s to protect the Goose? Why did he keep a staff of 350 employees working on, and modifying, the Goose for the next flight which never came? Was it his larger than life ego or was there something else?
Once the plane had safely landed engineers, scientists, military officials and air industry executives all flocked to examine it to see what lessons they could learn. Its vast size was something that particularly intrigued the major airlines. The design information they gleaned from the plane’s construction greatly helped in the manufacture of new kinds of aircraft, leading eventually to the Jumbo Jets of today.
Similarly, the plane’s technology was of especial interest to the military. In fact, from this date forward Hughes would began to withdraw from public life and concentrate more on air defense technology, which made the US Air Force one of his major clients. This diversification of Hughes Industries, which had started out as the manufacturer of oil-drilling bits, directly grew out of the work that went into the Spruce Goose.
By the early 1950s as the Cold War got under way, Hughes was working closely with the US Air Force and the Department of Defense in developing aircraft weapons technology. Aware of Hughes’ erratic behavior, his governmental business partners watched him closely. An FBI report of 1953 shows just how far Hughes’ mental state had declined in six short years, describing him as ‘a paranoid, vengeful, and emotionally disturbed man, whose mind has deteriorated to the point that he is capable of both suicide and murder’.
Hughes’ love of flying had ultimately led him into a world of politics, and state security, that fuelled his megalomania and growing sense of paranoia, and perhaps hastening his end. By his death in 1976 Hughes’ life had encompassed both the glamor and the tragedy of the ‘American Dream’, and, in fact, had done much to invent it.
The amount of information that is available on the hidden years is limited; however, Mr. Stewart Bailey, former curator at the Evergreen museum in McMinnville, Oregon, was kind enough to provide a few additional details. Below is his email:
The best material I have seen on the “hidden” years of the Spruce Goose is in Charles Barton’s Book; “Howard Hughes and His Flying Boat.” In the book, he talked with a number of Hughes associates who told him about what went on during the years that it was stored.
Hughes made many changes to the aircraft both internal and external, after the one and only flight. One of the most noticeable on the outside is the addition of two rows of stiffeners bolted to the outside on each side of the tail, where the tail cone attaches to the rest of the fuselage. The story is that during the flight, there was a lot of flexing of the tail which caused Hughes a great deal of anxiety. The stiffeners were an attempt to strengthen that area, which was an acknowledged “weak spot” on the aircraft. Internally, Hughes made a number of changes including a fire suppression system, the addition of a “swamp cooler” and the spiral stair case that goes up to the flight deck. (The original access was via a simple ladder.)
On the flight deck itself he re-arranged the controls to make it more user friendly, which included modifying the control panel to wrap around the pilot’s position where he had more access to various switches. Prior to that, he had had to ask the engineers seated behind him at the Engineering station to perform certain tasks rather than do them himself. He also modified the throttle arrangement. Originally he only had four throttles; one to regulate two engines at a time. He modified it to eight throttles, allowing him to control each engine individually.
In one of the more bizarre incidents of it life in captivity, the Spruce Goose was damaged by a flooding incident in September, 1953. So much oil had been pumped out of the ground on Terminal Island, where the plane was hangared, that the island actually sank. This, tied in with an unusually high tide caused the aircraft to float up until the tip of the tail smashed into the roof of the hangar. The top of the vertical tail was repaired and the hangar cleaned after the flood, but the airplane today still bears scars from that incident, which were discovered during the cleaning and restoration process back in the 1990s. After the flood, the hangar building was also enlarged to keep the airplane from ever again bumping the ceiling.
That’s it for the this week and I want to again thank Stewart Bailey for his contributions to my effort to tell a story about the Goose that is hopefully more telling, and factual, than what you may fine elsewhere.
Have a good weekend, keep friends and family close, and remember all Aviators are “Gatekeepers of the Third Dimension.”
November 26, 2021