Model Aviation: The Aviator Spruce Goose

Joe Bock’s version of the H-4 Hercules - the worlds largest flying scale model of the legendary aircraft, more affectionately known as the Spruce Goose and several of his other designs have made their way into Hollywood history in the much acclaimed flying sequences for The Aviator. The Spruce Goose flying sequence was featured prominently in the nationally televised trailers for the movie in addition to being featured at the Golden Globe and Academy Award Oscar ceremonies during introductions for Best Picture of the Year award. This is a high honor considering the limited amount of time given to showcase your best film clips.

Within days of completing the flights of the XF-11 and H1-B Racer, in what was one of the most amazing demonstrations of unmanned air vehicle technology for a Hollywood movie, Joe and his team were preparing for what was to become the most rewarding and renowned radio control airplane in history, the worlds largest flyable model of the Hughes H-4 Hercules.

During the month of November 2003, Aero Telemetry had been very busy working for The Aviator. So far the team had successfully designed and flown a single engine ½ scale H-1B Racer, an extremely complex twin-engine 30 foot wingspan XF-11, and provided several other smaller WWI biplanes such as British SE-5’s and Fokker D-7’s for the Hells Angels scene in the movie.

The original Spruce Goose was built by Howard Hughes in the 1940’s and it was intended to be a troop transport for the US Military.  It weighed more than 300,000 lbs and had a wingspan of approximately 320ft, making it the largest airplane in the world. Eight Pratt & Whitney R-4360 engines capable of producing 3,500 horsepower each powered the H4 Hercules.

By contrast, this version would be roughly 1/16th scale of the original with a wingspan of almost 25ft. It weighed 375lbs and was powered by eight electric motors.  It’s primary mission would be to take-off from the Pacific Ocean and fly around the outer Long Beach Harbor area where Howard Hughes and his beloved plane preceded them by 57 years. It had to be able to safely fly at distances of up to 2 miles while performing basically what Howard Hughes did; fly within ground effect over the water with wings level.  It sounds simple enough but with such a compressed schedule – the plane was built in about 4 weeks - and with several other planes coming down the line, the Aero Telemetry aerial effects team would have their hands full.

Spruce Goose Design & Construction

Work on the Spruce Goose proceeded alongside of the other airplanes but due to scheduling, final details required for flight were pushed off until the week before the filming date. Now only two days after the stressful XF-11 flights the exhausted Aero Telemetry crew had to shift gears one more time and prepare a flight plan for an airplane totally different from the other two they had just finished. This would be the worlds’ largest scale flyable Spruce Goose. 

Joe said:
“By designing a multi-engine seaplane, we covered three separate categories of general aviation airplanes since all three of the primary models were radically different from each other. It was a real engineering challenge to shift gears mid-stride and keep them all working perfectly.

This Spruce Goose would use electric motors due to constraints with cowling size and scale appearance for the cameras. Joe wasn’t entirely convinced about the use of electrics for such a big airplane so he contacted Don Holfeldt and Walt Cloer both of who are electric motor experts.

Walt and Don suggested the use of 8 electric motors driving two bladed Zinger propellers through custom built 8:1 gear reductions. They assembled battery packs with approximately 20 3.3 Amp Hour NiMH cells for each motor.  According to Joe, “Don, Walt, and George Peters assisted with the testing of the motors prior to the flight and were responsible for charging the batteries during the flights in the Long Beach Harbor. They played a big part in the success of the motors for our H-4. Also, Joe Zingali cut custom reverse pitch blades for our counter-rotating motors on the starboard wing.”

Joe and Darrel Hoffman, the H-4 Crew Chief, chose an airfoil shape for the Spruce Goose wing that would allow for a tremendous amount of lift at high angles of attack. It would also have excellent stability about the roll axis. This greatly contributed to the success of the flights.

The H-4 also featured starboard engines turning clockwise and port-wing engines running counter-clockwise for directional stability during flight and while taxiing. A commercial radio with an Aero Telemetry uplink controller system was utilized as the primary control system. This increased both the operational range of the plane and increased the margin of safety with respect to flying in the crowded airspace around Los Angeles.

First Test Flight

The weather for the first test flight, November 23rd, 2003, was picture perfect. The Aero Telemetry flight crew was under extreme pressure to test fly the airplane and still have it detailed sufficiently for the following days filming. Additional stress came from the fact that the Port Authority of Los Angeles had cleared the Long Beach Harbor in that area in preparation for the flight. There would be hundreds of people standing by waiting and watching the first flight of the Spruce Goose. Many of who were there in an official capacity such as the Coast Guard, Harbor Patrol, Safety Personnel, Rescue Divers, and other movie personnel.  Joe said:

“Anyone who has flown a plane for the first time can appreciate the tremendous anxiety that exists just prior to a first flight. Multiply that by 100 and that’s what we had. We only had about 4 weeks to make sure our aerodynamic design, structural components, electrical systems, and avionics were absolutely perfect on the H-4.  With a plane this large built from scratch in only a few weeks that is a daunting task. As usual, there was a zero margin of error for us. Everything had to work perfectly right off the board. Any mistake out in the ocean and it would have been a disaster. The Aviator producers had tied-up millions of dollars in scheduling the equipment and personnel for the filming. Anything that would have caused a problem for us or the Spruce Goose or in any way impacted the ability for the plane to fly and perform the following day would have caused serious financial upset…it only added to our resolve to succeed.”

The Spruce Goose was loaded onto a large barge that docked right next to the 1000 foot long RMS Queen Mary. The barge was surprisingly fast for its size and was able to carry the large Spruce Goose model and all of the Aero Telemetry gear, support equipment, and flight crew. In order to get the big plane over the side and into the water another boat carrying divers pulled alongside close enough to grab the front of the fuselage and support it until the entire plane could be lowered into the ocean.

Veteran Pilot Bill Hempel and flight leader Joe Bock discussed details of the actual take-off area based mostly on wind and water conditions. Before we knew it the Goose was being lowered into the water and in no time the big bird was on its take-off run.

Not knowing fully if the plane was going to take-off or just plough through the water the entire flight crew of about 18 people was nervously silent. John Keefe said:
“As the Goose started forward, she hit a couple of the ocean swells, and by about the third one she shot out of the water. All at once a tremendous cheer went up from all of the Aero Telemetry crew, even the Coast Guard personnel got into it! The H-4 looked as though it had been shot out of a cannon into the air!”

The Spruce Goose went hurtling out of the water and she increased her angle of attack to about 35 degrees. Climbing out under full power! The crew just cheered and screamed. Bill kept the big plane under control and brought her around for a few high-altitude passes to check out the trims. No additional trims were added to the controls on the first flight, they were all right on the money. After a few excellent flyby’s, Bill set-up for a perfect approach into a 10-knot headwind and landed the H-4 with just a hint of a forward bounce. A cheer went up from all who had just witnessed the most amazing flight of the largest electric powered flying boat in the world.  It was truly a recreation of history as the Aero Telemetry Spruce Goose was flown very close to the exact location that Howard Hughes flew his plane almost 57 years ago to the day.

Film Flights Spruce Goose, Long Beach Harbor

The Aero Telemetry Spruce Goose was now ready for its historical film debut. The airplane was loaded onto a barge and moved into a location that put it south of the Queen Mary. Once in position it was lowered into the ocean and the eight motors were started in sequence until all eight turned in unison.
Hundreds of people gathered on the nearby ships and shoreline of Long Beach to witness the spectacle. After a final check of all systems Joe called for full power and the big plane came to life. There captured on film for the first time in over 57 years a huge scale model of the Hughes H-4 was taking off in the same Long Beach Harbor as the real one did years ago. The take-off run was perfectly straight and as the H-4 broke from the ocean and began to fly upwards there were gasps of amazement from the spectators and movie crew.

Once in the air, the Hercules looked majestic and was the reincarnation of Howard Hughes airplane from so many years ago. The background and location only contributed to the jaw-dropping similarities to the original H-4. Many of The Aviator personnel who witnessed the flight were taken totally aback by the emotion of the moment. Joe said:

“The first flight of the day went off amazingly well. I think The Aviator personnel were simply astounded at what they were seeing and filming. The plane looked great, it flew great, and the cameras were rolling until we had to land. There were some logistical issues that needed to be addressed between the film camera angles and the airplane position from the camera barge that had to do with the changing light conditions so we adjusted fire and figured on another great flight.”

For the next series of flights Joe, Bill, and John Keefe boarded a vintage United States Navy World War II PT boat that was used as a floating camera platform. The rest of the Aero Telemetry crew remained on the barge and prepared to launch the Hercules when the order was given. When the cameras were ready to roll the director shouted “Action!”  and the Goose was underway on its next historical flight. John Keefe said:

“We didn’t want the H4 to spend too much time in the water until we could make sure our bilge pump was working properly. The rest of the flights were hugely successful, and the plane was able to cruise for more than 15 minutes on a set of batteries.”
“The Spruce Goose was flown alongside the vintage PT Boat we were on and it was making about 20 knots. They had an actor on a film camera on the back of the boat re-enacting the famous original newsreel footage of the Spruce Goose taxiing and taking-off. We were recreating exactly what the news camera crew had done almost 57 years ago when they filmed the original Spruce Goose on its one and only flight.  The angle of the camera in relation to the position and speed of the plane as it flew by the actors made it look just like the real one”

The airplane performed on cue for the remaining flights and did several impressive low passes for the cast and crew of The Aviator. The Spruce Goose was flown far out into the Harbor that day and just as the sun began to set low on the ocean the sky lit up with an impressive array of colors. The big bird made one more low-pass for the film camera and then made its final turnout into the oranging sky.

As the engines from the PT boat slowed to an idle so did the eight motors on legendary Spruce Goose model. With its wings level it came about one last time quietly gliding over the waves and finally settling down into the Pacific Ocean. Joe said:

“Each and every flight of the Hercules created an extraordinary excitement and tension that culminated in some of the most convincing flying sequences ever put on film. The flight of the Spruce Goose was a truly significant event not only for The Aviator movie production but also for aviation history and the legacy of Howard Hughes himself and we were thrilled to be a part of it. You could tell from the look on peoples faces that the flight of the Spruce Goose in Long Beach Harbor had really evoked some emotions in them.” Added Bock;

“To be able to recreate history with such detail and accuracy was really exciting for all of us. I think if Howard Hughes could have seen the H-4 today he would have been very proud of us.”