The Hughes Flying Boat – Museum Centerpiece and Aviation Icon

Big Plans for a Wartime Military Transport

The Hughes H-4 “Hercules” Flying Boat, popularly known as The Spruce Goose, is an archetypal icon of American aviation technology. The latter name, one Howard Hughes hated and rightly so, was initially coined by the Press to illustrate the widely held belief (propagated by them and members of Congress), that the plane was a “flying lumberyard” and that it was too big to ever fly. (*NOTE: Consequently, I will refer to the flying boat by its proper name.) Their misinformation and unfounded trashing of the project was so effective that my own father, an engineer himself who was a young man during that era, always told me the same thing. Well, not only did the plane fly—it was designed by aeronautical engineers and Mr. Hughes to do exactly that—but it introduced cutting edge aviation technology that can be found in modern commercial and military aircraft.

Hughes Flying Boat
The Hughes Flying Boat at Evergreen Aviation Museum, McMinnville, Oregon August 2016
“…it wasn’t underpowered at all; it performed exactly like it was designed to.” – David Grant, co-pilot and engineer

The Hughes Flying Boat has been at the center of my aviation interests since boyhood. I remember talking to my Dad about it many times growing up, probably after having seen it on a TV documentary or reading about it in a book. I would ask him why it only flew once and only just above the water’s surface. Dad, being a Lehigh engineer (as I’ve mentioned in previous posts) would say something like it was too big to get out of its own way. Of course, you wouldn’t have jet engines on a wooden aircraft, but the assertion by most people that the plane was underpowered is actually not true. You’d have to ask the engineers who designed it and someone did just that. Co-pilot David Grant, an engineer who designed the hydraulic systems for the plane, said that the one and only flight was “ecstasy all the way, like walking on air.” Interviewed at a gathering marking the 40th anniversary of the flight, he said that The Flying Boat “wasn’t underpowered at all;  it performed exactly like it was designed to.”[1] Now, there’s a guy who would know. Mr. Grant died in 2001.

Port-side wing and engines
Hughes Flying Boat Port-side wing and engines

The Hughes Flying Boat has 8 Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major engines for its power plants. At 3,000 horsepower each, that’s a total of 24,000 hp. The plane did fly, at an altitude of about 25 ft., the height noted in the official flight log (most accounts indicate 70ft., including Boeing’s Historic Snapshot page on the plane, although they indicate an initial height of 33ft., which seems more realistic). Initially I had thought, after watching many documentaries and also Martin Scorcese’s excellent film, The Aviator, that the Flying Boat barely had the power to achieve the required 90 mph take-off speed. This misconception owes more to myth propagated over the decades than fact. The R-4360 represented the cutting edge in aircraft engine technology in its day, which is certainly why Howard and his chief engineer, Glenn Odekirk, would have spec’d it for the flying boat and also the legendary XF-11 reconnaissance plane.

Heavy Lift Capability

flight engineer's station
Howard Hughes at the flying boat’s flight engineer’s station.

The H-4 Hercules was designed with a floor to carry 125 pounds per square foot.[2] Its maximum take-off capacity is 400,000 pounds. This capacity could be divided up in a number of configurations for tanks, ordnance, men and other heavy military vehicles. The diagrams at the exhibit detailing these arrangements are indeed fascinating. It could even carry 2 heavy full-sized Sherman Tanks, plus men and other vehicles. That load capacity, in addition to the 24,000 horsepower from the 8 engines seems like more than enough to do the job. I can’t do the calculations but Hughes’ engineers did, and they designed the Flying Boat around them. So, when people said “it’s too big to fly,” they were basing that opinion on an emotional response. In actuality, Mr. Hughes and his engineering team designed and built a plane that could lift all that heavy cargo and deliver it across the Atlantic.

Hughes Flying Boat Gallery

Delays and Lack of Management

However, the Spruce Goose wasn’t completed in time to be used in the war and would never go into production. The delay was due to Howard’s perfectionist oversight of every detail in its design and construction. This obsessive involvement caused delays and work progressed slowly—employees at Hughes Aircraft had to wait for Howard to decide to show up at the plant in Culver City, California, and no one knew when that would be. Oftentimes, his engineers had to wait until late at night for Hughes to review sketches and modifications.

Hughes Aircraft also lacked the corporate structure and organization needed for building production airplanes. After my recent visit to the Boeing assembly plant in Everett, Washington, I see how this is absolutely necessary. More on that in another post! At Hughes Aircraft, Howard continued to work as he had in the 1930’s—in total control and dividing his time among his many projects, showing up when he had the inclination or the time. This practice was bad for production schedules but ultimately resulted in building the best airplane possible.

“”I’ve put the sweat of my life into this thing…” – Howard Hughes

The H-4 Hercules was designed as a counter-strategy to offset the heavy loss in war supplies inflicted by German U-boats in the North Atlantic. But even by the time the government signed the development contract in 1942 with Hughes and Henry Kaiser (Hughes’ partner in the project at the beginning), the tide was already turning against the U-boats. So, the need for a huge transport plane declined well before the end of the war. But it was still a project that had significant application to the future of military transport…and to aviation in general. Unfortunately, Congress killed the project after its first and only flight since it was no longer needed. Hughes had already sunk millions of his own money into its development and he kept it perfectly maintained and flight-ready for decades at considerable personal expense.

Howard considered the Hercules to be his greatest achievement in and contribution to aviation.

Technological Innovation Decades Ahead of Its Time

model of Hughes Flying Boat's construction
A model exhibit of the Hughes Flying Boat’s construction.

Although the government project was cancelled Hughes kept a small army of people employed specifically to maintain and continue modifications on the flying boat. It was his prized accomplishment. Had the project moved forward, it could have possibly been redesigned to incorporate jet engines. Large military transport planes are commonplace now and the flying boat, decades ahead of its time in the 1940’s, could have realized its full potential given more money and development time. But as is suggested in the final sequence of The Aviator, Howard was already looking forward to other projects using new jet engine technology, which makes sense. Also, the whole senate hearing scandal was a big drain on Hughes, having violated is prized privacy and he was likely wanting to put it all behind him. Nonetheless, Howard considered the Hercules his greatest achievement in aviation. He would proudly show it off whenever he wanted to impress someone. The systems that Hughes and his engineers developed had a far-reaching application in the development of military and commercial airplanes. The most obvious one is the design and build of the first super-sized military transport plane. Other important innovations include hydraulic-assisted flight controls that delivered 200 times the pressure the pilot exerted at the controls to the flight control surfaces. Hughes and his team called this the “artificial feel system,” which gave the pilot the feeling of flying a much smaller aircraft. This was the first-ever system of its type (and equipped with multiple redundancy), and is used in every commercial and military aircraft flying today. The flying boat also has a central CO2 fire control system. Fire control was of utmost importance in a plane made of wood, but modern aircraft also use these types of systems.

The Hughes Flying Boat from under the empennage

An Enduring Legacy

If you’re an airplane geek like me, I highly recommend reading this awesome document, prepared by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, that commemorates the designation of the Hughes Flying Boat as a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark, and details its innovative technical specifications and systems. You can also visit this page on the ASME website for additional information on the plane.

One of Howard Hughes’s foremost desires was to make a significant contribution to the field of aviation, and with the Hughes Flying Boat he more than succeeded. I like this touching tribute by Robert W. Rummel, who worked with Hughes as a young engineer and later as a TWA executive:

“He was an outstanding pilot, and in the cockpit, he seemed to exult in the freedom of flight. Of course, he was an astute businessman, and making money was one of the things that motivated him. But he had a sincere and abiding interest in aviation, and I think it was his one and only true love.” [3]

– Robert W. Rummel
Hughes Engineer, TWA Executive

I highly recommend going to see this national treasure and aviation icon. Museums like Evergreen depend on visitors for their continued existence, and it draws about 150,000 people a year. So be one of them…you’ll be very glad you went.

Works Consulted
1. “Hughes H-4 Hercules.” Wikipedia, Accessed 7 Sept. 2016.
2. “H-4 Hercules Flying Boat.” Boeing, Accessed 7 Sept. 2016.
3. “Howard Hughes’ Flying Boat, Spruce Goose.” American Society of Mechanical Engineers, July 20, 2002, Accessed 12 Sept. 2016.
4. “Spruce Goose Flies.” History, Accessed 7 Sept., 2016.

Works Cited
1. Oliver, Myrna. “David Grant, 84; Spruce Goose Co-Pilot.” Obituary, Los Angeles Times, 26 Sept., 2001, Accessed 17 Sept., 2016.
2. “Spruce Goose.” What-When-How Accessed 16 Sept. 2016.
3. Lerner, Preston. “Howard Hughes’ Top Ten.” Air & Space, November 2004, Accessed 12 Sept. 2016.


Boeing Aviation Pavilion – Bigger Than Life Aviation History

These Are Some Big Planes

The Aviation Pavillion at the Boeing Museum of Flight is home to some of the largest and most legendary commercial and military aircraft. The pavilion sits on the West Campus of the museum, across E. Marginal Way from the main building. My previous post on the museum focuses on the Airpark, WWII and other exhibits on the East Campus. The Aviation Pavillion is home to the museum’s B-17F, B-29, original 747 prototype, and 787 Dreamliner prototype, and other civilian and military aircraft. There is also a Concorde and an array of Grumman fighter jets…insanely incredible pieces of aviation history. You can even board and explore the 787 and 747. The 747 is interesting because the huge interior is devoid of the usual passenger seating. Instead, it’s outfitted with a few engineer monitoring stations, and a sample of the aluminum barrels that were filled with water to simulate real passengers during its test flights.

Boeing 747 Protoype
The original Boeing 747 Protoype at Being Field
To think that all these tons of hardware become airborne is hard to fathom.

The immensity and complexity of the 747 and the 787 is mind-boggling. The exposed insides of the airplane interior are packed with thousands of wires, conduits and hydraulic lines. Interestingly, the interior of the Hughes Flying Boat, known in the vernacular as The Spruce Goose, is equally as complex-looking, and that massive aircraft was built 35 years earlier. Indeed, it served as the prototype for many aircraft systems in use today, most notably the hydraulics used in every modern jet aircraft to control the flight surfaces. These systems were first developed by Howard Hughes and his engineers, and we can thank them for pioneering the aviation technology that has become integral in today’s planes.

main cabin of the 747 Prototype
The main cabin of the 747 Prototype

787 Dreamliner

787 Dreamliner Prototype
Boeing 787 Dreamliner Prototype

Seeing the 787 prototype test plane parked in line with with the legendary 747, B-29 and B-17F seems a bit at odds with the historic aspect of the exhibit. These other planes are 46 years and older and you wonder, why is this new one sitting here? But the Dreamliner has made some history of its own and is the latest addition to this pantheon of aviation technology. The 787 has broken new technological ground in commercial aircraft development with its new hi-tech composite construction, state of the art jet engines with unparalleled fuel efficiency, and cabin design that reduces passenger fatigue and actually makes them feel better. So while it may be the newest, most advanced jet liner around it has already achieved legendary status in the commercial aviation industry, and in helping airlines to be more profitable. Do I sound like a Boeing commercial? I guess I can’t help but be excited about a company that makes the coolest products on the planet…and the 787 Dreamliner is certainly one of them. When you enter the cabin it’s even got that ‘new car’ smell, though it was first flown in 2009 and certified by the FAA that same year (and also saw its first deliveries). Definitely check it out at the Aviation Pavilion and you may want to take a look at the stunning Boeing website for it as well.

These huge planes are simply breathtaking to see. To think that all these tons of hardware become airborne is hard to fathom. But while I’m mentioning my favorites here, there are also two of Boeing’s legendary military “giants” on display.

B-17F Flying Fortress

You just can’t say enough about this workhorse bomber aircraft. The museum’s plane is the only airworthy B-17F in the world.[1] This particular B-17—now named the “Boeing Bee”— was built in Seattle at Boeing Plant No.2 in February of 1943. It saw no combat, but was used as a trainer and has lived a varied life in many places around the world in its 70-plus years. It also appeared in several WWII movies including Tora, Tora, Tora, and Memphis Belle. It spent time on both sides of The Atlantic during the war and after (it was back to England for the shooting of Belle) and was converted to a tanker in the 1960’s and used to fight fires and spray DDT. When the Museum finally acquired it in the early 1990’s it was in flyable but rough shape. Volunteers spent years restoring it to its full military configuration and FAA certification. Over 12,700 B-17’s were produced by Boeing, Lockheed and other manufacturers from 1936 to the end of WWII. About 10 aircraft are currently airworthy, and the Boeing Bee is one of them.

Boeing B-17F
Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress

B-29 Superfortress

This airplane was a significant level above earlier heavy bombers like the B-17 and B-24. With its longer range (5,592 mi), heavier payload, faster speed (350 mph), high altitude (31,850 ft.) and pressurized cabin, the B-29 revolutionized WWII-era bombers.[2] Its higher altitude capability meant it was essentially out of range of Japanese fighter aircraft, and its 357mph top speed meant that even if they could get to that altitude, they couldn’t catch it.[3] It was designed as a long range heavy bomber and put bombing missions over Japan within easier and more comfortable reach.

The B-29 is a complex machine and it was complex to manufacture, requiring four separate main assembly plants across the country. It was also the most expensive weapons project undertaken by The United states during WWII, costing even more than The Manhattan Project.[4]

Boeing B-29
Boeing B-29 Superfortress

The B-29 was designed with 4 remote-controlled gun turrets allowing one man to operate two turrets through analog computer-assisted sights. The B-29’s early flights weren’t without problems, though. The original power plants, 4 Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone radial engines had serious reliability issues, and caused a fatal crash of the second prototype killing 31 people (including the 10-man crew). These engines were later replaced with the Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major, the same engines used on Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose and XF-11. But this engine didn’t become available until after WWII. Still, the B-29 was so technologically advanced that it continued in service until well after the war. Of course, the bomber’s biggest claim to fame is that two of its type, Enola Gay and Bockscar, carried the A-bomb to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Those two planes are on display at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum and the National Museum of the United States Air Force, respectively.

These 4 legendary aircraft are the frontline attraction in the Aviation Pavillion. And they are my focus…and favorites. But there are many other airplanes to see as mentioned above, so be sure to include the West Campus in your visit.

Works Cited
1. “Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.” The Museum of Flight, Accessed 7 Sept. 2016.
2. “Boeing B-29 SuperFortress.” The Museum of Flight, Accessed 7 Sept. 2016.
3. “Boeing B-29 SuperFortress.” Wikipedia,  Accessed 7 Sept. 2016.
4. “Boeing B-29 SuperFortress.” Wikipedia,  Accessed 7 Sept. 2016.

Boeing Museum of Flight – Home of Exciting Aviation History

The Best Aviation Museum Experience Anywhere

If you’ve never been to the Boeing Museum of Flight, words can’t adequately describe how awesome an experience it is. If you love aviation like I do, it’s like a day at Disney. You simply have to go there and you’ll be a fan for life. The following are just some of my personal preferences, but there are a lot of exhibits to see. Be sure to get your Visitor Guide + Map booklet when you enter (a docent will likely be handing them out) to take advantage of all that you can. There’s a lot to see and do (and a lot of walking as well) and there’s even a pretty decent food court with a good selection for almost any taste…and there’s beer!

Boeing 247D
The Boeing 247D, the first commercial airliner
Daring men, armed with little more than mechanical aptitude…took to the skies.
early Boeing worker
Model of an early Boeing worker in ‘The Red Barn’, the first Boeing factory.

Aviation by now has a long and rich history. One of the aspects that makes it so engaging is its romantic beginnings. Daring men, armed with little more than mechanical aptitude and an intrepid spirit of discovery, bolted together flimsy contraptions in their garages and sheds, and tentatively took to the skies. Men like Orville and Wilbur Wright, Glen Curtiss, William Boeing, and later with more advanced designs and methods, Howard Hughes…changed the way we live and travel. Depending on your age, your parents and grandparents were the first people in the history of the world to know long distance travel via airplane as a part of everyday life. In fact, the first modern airliner, the Boeing 247D, is the first aircraft you see walking up to the museum entrance. It entered service in 1933. The museum’s 247 has been completely restored over a period of many years, with the help of volunteers. I can remember the days (as a kid) when it was a big deal to take a jet airliner someplace exciting—like London or Bermuda…everyone got dressed up. The flight attendants, then called ‘steward’ or ‘stewardess’ were polite and courteous, ready to see to your every need with regal appointment. And no airplane trip would be complete without a visit to the cockpit. (Try doing that in today’s post-9/11 world) The captain would always ask, “So, do you want to be a pilot?” Man, if I had that question to answer again my response would be an emphatic, “Yes I do!”. Didn’t every kid want to be a pilot? It wouldn’t be until my 50’s when a burning desire to learn to fly would take hold…but better late than never.

Lockheed 1049G Super Constellation
Lockheed 1049G Super Constellation

Boeing Museum of Flight has one of the best air museum experiences anywhere, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. There are certainly other museums that offer a great experience as well, some of which are included here on my blog. But this is the largest independent air and space museum in the world[1] and the most complete, with not only historic aircraft but original documents and artifacts as well. The East Campus building has dedicated display halls of aircraft from WWI and WWII, a huge Great Gallery of over 40 historic aircraft, various other galleries of air and space exhibits, and the outdoor Airpark adjacent to the main entrance. The latter includes the Lockheed 1049G Super Constellation or “Connie” pictured above—this was the last of the large propeller-driven airliners—a Boeing 727-022, and the original Boeing VC-137B Air Force One. This aircraft is a specially built Boeing 707-120, and you can learn more about it on this page of the MOF’s web site.

Curtiss-Wright P-40 Warhawk
Curtiss-Wright P-40 Warhawk

Some of the most legendary WWII warplanes are housed in the J Elroy McCaw Personal Courage Wing. All of my favorites are here: The Curtiss-Wright P-40 Warhawk (the British and Russian air forces designated later model equivalents as “Tomahawk” and “Kittyhawk”), the North American P-51 Mustang, the Goodyear FG-1D Corsair, built under license from Chance Vought, builder of the F-4U Corsair, and the Lockheed P-38 Lighting. Some of the engines that powered these aircraft are also on display, like the Allison 1710 V-12 and the Pratt & Whitney R-2800 “Double Wasp”. There’s also a bitchin’ Messerschmitt Bf 109, a super cool German fighter aircraft. There are many pristine WWII fighters in this exhibit, along with original artwork and genuine pilot artifacts and history. You’ll spend a lot of time just taking in everything this exhibit has to offer.

Messerschmitt Bf 109
Messerschmitt Bf 109

After that, you can head into The Red Barn—the original Boeing Airplane Company Factory—before taking the elevated walkway across East Marginal Way to the West Campus, where the huge Charles Simonyi Space Gallery awaits, and—my other favorite—the new outdoor Aviation Pavilion. There are some very large and legendary aircraft housed there, and you can see them in my other Museum of Flight post.

Works Cited
1. “About the Museum.” The Museum of Flight, Accessed 29 Aug. 2016.

Olympic Flight Museum

Home of Living Aviation History

If you’re looking for a great and intimate aviation museum experience then the Olympic Flight Museum in Olympia, Washington is a great choice. While I recommend the bigger places as well, you should still make the trip to Olympic, as it offers a significant local segment of wartime aviation history. Considerably smaller than Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinville, Oregon, or the famous Boeing Museum of Flight in Seattle (two of the author’s favorite places) Olympic gives you no less of an exciting experience to relive aviation history. Best of all, it is a “flying museum,” meaning all of their planes actually fly (well, most of them). Any one of their premium stock could be on loan for an air show or to another museum, so they’re not always all there, but usually it’s just one in absence, in my experience, and it doesn’t detract from your experience at the museum. Besides, it’s such a cool place they’ll actually charge you less admission if a plane is out on loan! The entrance fee is so minimal, anyway, it’s not an issue. But that gives you an idea of how down to earth and honest they are, and it’s always a pleasure to visit.

Premium Aircraft Stock

The museum has several premium WWII fighter aircraft including a replica A6M Zero (made for the movie “Tora, Tora, Tora”), a North American P-51 Mustang, and a GoodYear FG-1D Corsair, to name a few. In addition, there are all kinds of genuine personal artifacts and memorabilia spanning several decades from World War II to Vietnam and beyond. This latter aspect is something you don’t necessarily get to see in quantity at the bigger museums, although I did read the personal diary of a combat aviator at Boeing yesterday. Pretty cool, to read someone’s daily accounts of their combat experiences from that era. Olympic has a sizable collection of more local artifacts and documents that make it more specialized in that respect.

Olympic Flight Museum is only 10 minutes away down Old Highway 99, so it’s great for adding to my aviation photography for which I’m working on a serious project collection. Currently, I’m focusing on the Golden Era of Aviation, specifically World War II combat aircraft up to what I consider to be the end of that era, the development and introduction of the Boeing 747, one of the largest jet airliners ever built. They have the original prototype used for testing and certification at the outdoor pavilion at the Boeing Museon of Flight, and it is absolutely massive. To see the passenger area without all the seats, occupied instead by an array of testing equipment, is an interesting sight.

A Focus on World War II Aircraft

But my focus is on WWII era aircraft right now, and so the museum’s Corsair, Mustang and Zero are always a reason for me to visit again. The images posted here from my recent visit are exploratory in working towards a more developed and refined level of artistry.

My intent with photographing these aircraft is to make images that go beyond typical “airplane photos” and show you, the viewer, something you haven’t seen before.

Olympic Flight Museum has airshows several times a year so be sure to stop by, see their amazing collection, support them with a purchase in their store, and pick up their publications and calendar. You’re sure to enjoy it!