Howard Hughes and the Spruce Goose, the story of the HK-1 Hercules


The author’s thorough research and the first class production of the book with its many photographs has produced a comprehensive review of all of the factors behind the HK-1 saga. This is a book that aviation enthusiasts will relish and a book that provides an absorbing story which should appeal to a wider audience

NAME: Howard Hughes and the Spruce Goose, the story of the HK-1 Hercules
DATE: 070215
FILE: R2130
AUTHOR: Graham M Simons
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword
BINDING: hard back
PAGES: 256
PRICE: £19.99
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: Aviation pioneers, air war films, recluse, troop transport, long-range flying boats, giant aircraft, eight engine aircraft, eccentrics
ISBN: 1-47382-297-1
IMAGE: B2130.jpg
DESCRIPTION: The author has produced a provocative review of the aircraft for which Howard Hughes will always be remembered. For better or worst, the Spruce Goose was twinned with Hughes and generally regarded as a monumental aviation failure. The author has carefully and comprehensively researched both Hughes and his giant flying boat. There are many photographs of every stage of the design and development of the HK-1, its manufacture and test flight. The background to the requirement and the political processes involved are all reviewed and this is likely to be the definitive book on the subject. The author advances compelling arguments for each of the key elements in the story. This is a book that can be enjoyed as a study of a controversial pair of subjects, Hughes and his flying boat.

Hughes was one of the larger than life aviation pioneers who helped advance the science of aviation at a dramatic pace. He had no fear of innovation and was prepared to fail because he was working at the edge of what was then possible, but his obsessiveness meant that failure was recognized but never accepted. From each failure Hughes looked for the causes of the failure and then for the solutions. Where most would accept a failure and move on to something else, Hughes continued to work on the subject until he was satisfied with the result. He was a playboy, a film producer, an airman and an aircraft designer. He was obsessive and, at times, on the edge of sanity. He had a love of the epic and a determination to pursue a design to success or failure. He had a considerable fund of courage, whether in flying a new aircraft, or taking on the industrial establishment. Through his life he was responsible for many important advances and the Spruce Goose is not, alone, what he should be remembered for. Even then, the Spruce Goose was not entirely a failure. The technology and design elements that Hughes employed to build the prototype contain many important advances in aviation.

The opening of WWII was a challenging time for the US and its industrial resources. Not long out of recession, there was no appetite to participate in what most Americans saw as somebody else’s war. For US industry, WWII was seen as an opportunity to sell Britain the materials of war and make a very large profit from that. The US President did want to help Churchill and was prepared to bend the rules to achieve that, but he had a long hard slog to convince the US that American sailors, troops and airmen should be committed to a new war. Had the Japanese not conveniently attacked the US, it would have taken a long time for Roosevelt to move opinion in favour of joining Britain in defence of democracy. He might never have succeeded, but events moved in unpredictable stages until the US was an active military partner rather than just a military factory. The problem that was then created was in delivering the war materials and US forces to Britain, prior to an invasion to liberate Europe. Everything had to be transported across the Atlantic and the German U-boats threatened this essential supply line. Innovative thought was required to change this threat table.

We now know that the German submarines could be beaten and contained, that this was essentially a naval matter, but at the time the risks seemed to defy solution. The important early step was in building new merchant ships faster than the Germans could sink them and to begin striking at the U-boats, making their casualties unsustainable and preventing them from finding and following convoys, to attack suddenly and maul the merchant ships. The British use of emergency launching platforms for fighters was an essential element. The CAM ships were a very desperate effort, mounting a catapult on an ordinary merchant ship and loading a tired RAF Hurricane fighter onto the catapult. The Fleet Air Arm pilot could take off and attack enemy maritime patrol and attack aircraft and be used to encourage U-boats to dive, where they would become less effective, but it was close to being a suicide mission with little chance of the pilot landing on the sea and being picked up by a passing vessel, with absolutely no chance of reaching an airstrip ashore. The MAC ships were a great advance, because these merchant ships had a flight deck added above their cargo holds, so that their ability to carry their normal cargoes was not impeded. The aircraft were exposed on deck, but at least pilots had some prospect of returning to the MAC ship and landing safely. For the defensive objectives, it also meant that aircraft could be launched and recovered as required and on many occasions during the voyage across the Atlantic. The British then created the first Escort Carrier by converting a captured German fast merchant ship. HMS Audacity had a very short working life but provided the experience to design and build new small carriers for convoy escort and for hunter/killer groups. These methods were to defeat the German submarines and enable the huge quantities of materials and troops to be transported across the Atlantic. Vital to the process were the US shipyards that could turn out prefabricated merchant ships and escort carriers.

However, this is something we know from hindsight. At the time it all looked so much more precarious and US industry searched for innovative ways to ensure trans-Atlantic transportation. The innovative solution appeared to be the construction of a fleet of giant aeroplanes. These would maintain an air bridge to the British Isles, beyond the reach of the German submarines. Hughes was identified as the most likely person to bring this concept to fruition, based on his reputation for original thought and success in building specialist aircraft. What may not have been fully recognised was the scale of innovation required to build a huge aircraft, well beyond the size of the current largest aircraft, and use the minimum of strategic materials. That inevitably meant that wood would be used where ever possible and demand new techniques and bonding materials. De Haviland in Britain had already constructed the Mosquito, using wood in place of aluminium. The Mosquito has been claimed as the first true multi-role warplane and it built a unique and inspiring reputation, being able not only to perform many roles impeccably, but doing this at a speed which other aircraft struggled to achieve with a narrow role capability. In achieving this remarkable success, and the carrying of bomb loads that much larger four engine heavy bombers were unable to replicate, the Mosquito was a relatively small twin engine warplane. There was nothing to support the Spruce Goose development in existing experience.

The design of the HK-1 was conventional and it was possible to calculate probable performance as a flying boat. However, the initial calculations suggested that it would be a heavy aircraft and likely to be underpowered. That would be a considerable challenge because a flying boat had to break free from the water to take flight. A land plane required a long runway, but if this was surfaced with concrete, or tarmac, the wheels would not be sucked down in the way that water tried to retain the hull of a flying boat. The advantage of the flying boat over the land-plane was that it was easier to operate heavier aircraft because the need for longer runways, larger airfields and clear approaches was not required

Many have talked and written about HK-1 as being a total failure, but that is not true. The aircraft flew and nothing in the test flight suggested any technical problem, or any failure to meet the original objectives that led to its specification and construction. In that respect, HK-1 was a complete success. It never went into production, not through any fault in its design and development, but simply because any need for it had gone and it is not unreasonable to question whether there ever was a realistic requirement. The construction of any innovative new aircraft that works is never entirely wasted because it adds to the pool of knowledge to is available to future designers. The existence of very large jet transport aircraft demonstrates that the basic concept behind HK-1 was not flawed, only the technology available and the specific needs of the time.

There was a vicious political battle raging behind the scenes and Boeing was actively briefing politicians in the most negative manner, because they did not want to see Hughes succeed and win a large contract for production versions of HK-1. Boeing was not alone and several other aircraft companies delighted in attempting to rubbish HK-1 and Hughes.

The author’s thorough research and the first class production of the book with its many photographs has produced a comprehensive review of all of the factors behind the HK-1 saga. This is a book that aviation enthusiasts will relish and a book that provides an absorbing story which should appeal to a wider audience

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