The Debunker: Did Howard Hughes Build a Giant Plane Out of Spruce Wood?

by Ken Jennings

November is here, and you know what that means—National Aviation History Month! Yes, like all good citizens, you undoubtedly wait all year for this fun-filled celebration of great achievements in the history of flight. But as you get together with loved ones during this festive flight-themed season, we want to make sure you don't perpetuate any myths and misconceptions. Ken Jennings, high-flying Jeopardy! whiz, is here all month to correct a lot of common aviation knowledge that's just plane wrong.

The Debunker: Did Howard Hughes Build a Giant Plane Out of Spruce Wood?

McMinnville, Oregon, an hour southwest of Portland, is today the unlikely home of the H-4 Hercules, a mammoth flying cargo ship built by the Hughes Aircraft Company in 1942. After getting the government contract to build the prototype, Howard Hughes spent $23 million on the H-4—almost $300 million in today's dollars. The war ended before the project could be completed, and Hughes was dragged in front of the Senate in 1947 to defend the boondoggle. "The Hercules was a monumental undertaking," he testified. "It is the largest aircraft ever built. It is over five stories tall with a wingspan longer than a football field. That's more than a city block. I put the sweat of my life into this thing."

The Debunker

Upon returning to California three months later, Hughes personally piloted the only flight test of the H-4, carrying a crew of thirty-six engineers and journalists airborne for about a mile. Then the Hercules was retired to a climate-controlled hangar, where it stayed until its increasingly eccentric and reclusive owner died in 1976.

What caught the public's attention about the H-4 was that the plane was constructed almost entirely of wood, to conserve scarce aluminum during wartime. The press called the wooden plane the "Flying Lumberyard" or, more memorably, the "Spruce Goose." But that was a misnomer: the Hercules was built almost entirely of laminated birch plywood, because it turned out that spruce—otherwise a good structural wood—wouldn't grip to the bolts as well. But "birch" didn't rhyme with the name of a large bird ("the Birch Perch"? the "Birch Church"?) so "Spruce Goose" was what caught on. Hughes always hated the nickname, but hey, he also hated nail clippers and flush toilets.

Quick Quiz: The most famous plane actually made out of spruce wood was the Wright Flyer, which first took to the air in 1903 in which U.S. state?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.