Howard Hughes was a queer duck. Born on Christmas Eve 1905, Hughes took an early interest in math, engineering, and aviation. As a child, he built a “wireless” radio and became a licensed ham radio operator at 12. At one point he even built his own “motorized” bicycle.
In the 1920s, he dropped out of university and struck off for California, like many before him (and many, many after) seeking his fame and fortune. He became involved in Hollywood, directing and producing movies. His second film Two Arabian Knights (1928) earned the inaugural Academy Award for Best Director. He produced and directed a steady stream of movies during the 1920s and 30s. During the 1950s, he took over a failing movie studio (RKO) and suspended operations for over six months while he vetted his employees to make sure none of them were communists in disguise. He also suffered from crippling obsessive compulsive disorder (or OCD). Friends say he was obsessed with the size of peas (his favorite food) and would use a special fork to sort them by size.
In 1947, the United States Government rejected one of his airplane designs (more on that later) and Hughes, in distress, retired to a private theater in his home and didn’t emerge for over four months. He reportedly ate only chocolate bars and chicken, and urinated into empty milk containers. During this time, he sat in a chair, often naked, and did nothing but continuously watch movies. When he finally did come out, his personal hygiene was deplorable, to say the least. He would only pick things up with tissues to protect himself from germs, and once had a favorite movie played on a continuous loop in his home. In 1966, he moved into Las Vegas’s Desert Inn and wouldn’t leave, going so far as to buy the place.
These and other stories have cemented Hughes in the mind of many Americans as a billionaire eccentric. He had his hand in many projects and became a very rich man. You could say that his life was one success after another.
Then comes the Spruce Goose.
Shortly after America’s entrance into World War II in 1941, The Hughes Flying Company was contracted by the United States Government to build a large “flying boat” able to transport troops and supplies over great distances. Owing to a wartime shortage of steel, Hughes decided to build his aircraft out of wood laminated with plastic and covered with fabric. The plane was crafted mainly of birch, but the use of spruce (along with its white-gray color) would later earn the aircraft the nickname Spruce Goose, a nickname Hughes hated. It had a wingspan of 320 feet and was powered by eight giant propeller engines. It cost 23 million dollars and took so long to complete that it wasn’t done until 1946 – after the war. Congress doubted the plane would fly, and asked Hughes to demonstrate. So, on November 2, 1946, Hughes took the Spruce Goose (or Flying Lumberyard, as it was also, derisively, called) out into Long Beach Harbor. Thousands of people gathered, and watched in amazement as Hughes got the plane 70 feet into the air and flew it for a mile before bringing her down.
Onlookers had come to watch the aircraft taxi on the water and were surprised when Hughes lifted his wooden behemoth 70 feet above the water and flew for a mile before landing.
Congress rejected the design and it never went into production (leading Hughes to spend four months in a theater), but Hughes thought very highly of it, and kept it safe in a climate controlled warehouse, ready to fly at all times.