Howard Hughes had an international reputation as an oil and businessman, movie producer, aeronautical engineer and world-class aviator. Henry Kaiser partnered with Hughes because of Hughes' aircraft design and construction expertise. Hughes and his team of skilled engineers designed a single hull flying boat capable of carrying 750 troops. The plans called for eight 3,000 horsepower engines, a mammoth fuel storage and supply system, and wings 20 feet longer than a football field. They called the prototype aircraft the HK-1, standing for the Hughes Kaiser design number one.
Encountering and dealing with tremendous design and engineering problems, the Hughes team developed new concepts for large-scale hulls, flying control surfaces, and complex power boost systems. Hughes engineers created the first "artificial feel system" in the control yoke, which gave the pilot the feeling he was flying a smaller aircraft, but with a force multiplied two hundred times. For example, for each pound of pressure exerted on the control yoke by the pilot, the elevator received 1,500 pounds of pressure to move it.
Adhering to the government mandate not to use materials critical to the war effort (such as steel and aluminum), the Hughes team constructed the Flying Boat out of wood. Hughes perfected a process called "Duramold" to create almost every part of the plane. Originally developed by Fairchild Aircraft Company, Howard Hughes purchased the rights to use Duramold in large aircraft. The Duramold process is a plywood-like series of thin wood laminations, with grains laid perpendicular to each other. Workers permeating the laminations with plastic glue, then they shaped and heated the pieces until cured. The result is a material that many engineers agree is both lighter and stronger than aluminum.
All of the research and development that went into the new seaplane delayed the construction process. In mid 1944, Henry Kaiser withdrew from the project, and Hughes took personal responsibility for all facets of the flying boat's design and production. He renamed the gigantic seaplane H-4, representing his aircraft company’s fourth design.
After the war’s end in 1945, criticism of the project mounted. The Flying Boat prototype had exceeded the government’s funding allowance and the U.S. Senate formed an investigation committee to probe alleged misappropriation of funds. Hughes invested $7,000,000 of his own into the project to keep it going. While Hughes testified before the investigative committee in Washington, D.C., the Hughes team assembled the Flying Boat in the Long Beach dry dock. After his interrogation, Hughes was determined to demonstrate the capability of his Flying Boat. He returned to California and immediately ordered the seaplane readied for taxi tests.
On November 2, 1947, a crowd of expectant observers and newsmen gathered. With Hughes at the controls, the giant Flying Boat glided smoothly across a three-mile stretch of harbor. From 35 miles per hour, it cruised to 90 during the second taxi test when eager newsmen began filing their stories. During the third taxi test Hughes surprised everyone as he ordered the wing flaps lowered to 15 degrees and the seaplane lifted off the water. He flew her for a little over a mile at an altitude of 70 feet for approximately one minute. The short hop proved to skeptics that the gigantic craft could fly!
After the flight, Hughes placed the Flying Boat in its custom built hangar and ordered her maintained in flight-ready condition. She remained in “hibernation” for 33 years at a cost of approximately one million dollars per year. In 1976, after Hughes' death, his holding company - Summa Corporation - made plans to disassemble the historic seaplane into nine pieces for various museums unless a non-profit organization stepped forward to adopt her.
At the last minute Summa made arrangements to donate the aircraft to the non-profit Aero Club of Southern California, which then leased it to the Wrather Corporation, headed by entrepreneur Jack Wrather and his wife, Bonita Granville Wrather. Wrather Corporation moved the Flying Boat to a temporary location while they built a custom dome to place her on exhibit. On October 29, 1980, the Flying Boat emerged from seclusion and into the world’s spotlight. The world's largest floating crane, Herman the German, lifted her onto the dock of the temporary storage area. After sixteen months, the new dome was ready. Floating by barge the Flying Boat moved across Long Beach Harbor then gently eased into her new home, adjacent to the RMS Queen Mary. The Flying Boat exhibit opened to the public in 1983. In the late 1980s, after the deaths of Jack and Bonita Wrather, the Disney Corporation purchased the former holdings of the Wrather Corporation. In March 1990, Disney informed the Aero Club of Southern California of its intention to discontinue the dome exhibit, leaving the Flying Boat looking for yet another home.
The Aero Club requested proposals for custody and preservation of the aircraft based on two specific criteria. The winning organization would have access to land on which to house the Flying Boat and the funding necessary to move and care for her.
Evergreen International Aviation’s plan, as envisioned by Captain Michael King Smith, proposed to not only preserve and protect her, but also to display her as the central exhibit in a living museum. On July 9, 1990, the Aero Club voted unanimously to award custody of the Hughes Flying Boat to Evergreen Aviation, located in McMinnville, Oregon.
Thanks to The Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum
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