After Hours

Geek Trivia: Wide loads kept low

What is the largest aircraft to have flown more than once?

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Editor's note: Once again, your friendly neighborhood Trivia Geek is on surprise sabbatical, so we've dusted off this Classic Geek from our archives, which originally ran Jan. 7, 2004, in honor of the Howard Hughes epic, The Aviator, receiving 11 Oscar nominations this week. Look for a fresh batch of trivia on Feb. 9, 2005.


The HK-1 Hercules heavy cargo transport plane is one of the most famous and eccentric aircraft ever conceived, and it holds the record for the largest wingspan of any aircraft ever flown, meaning that by most layman measures, the Hercules is the biggest airplane ever built. Never heard of it? Then perhaps you know the Hercules by its nickname: the Spruce Goose.

In production from 1942 to 1947, the HK-1 was the conception of cult icon Howard Hughes and famed shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser. The U.S. government commissioned the HK-1 to be a "flying boat" that berthed at sea ports but was capable of evading the German submarine wolf packs that were preying on Allied convoys during World War II.

The catch: The government wanted the aircraft constructed using materials that weren't critically scarce during the war's production push. Thus, wood—not metal—was the HK-1's primary building material, marking an engineering challenge that most critics thought insurmountable.

Indeed, the development project that created the HK-1 ran so long, and so far over budget, that government oversight officials derisively renamed the perceived boondoggle "The Flying Lumberyard" or "The Spruce Goose" (a technically inaccurate nickname, since the plane was built largely out of birch). Ironically, by the time the government launched an inquiry about the project in 1947, it had spent $18 million on the HK-1, while the obsessed Hughes had spent several million dollars of his own money beyond the project budget.

But on Nov. 2, 1947, Hughes silenced all naysayers (at least temporarily) when he conducted a surprise—and possibly unintentional—test flight of the HK-1 in Los Angeles Harbor. To date, it was the Spruce Goose's only flight, despite the fact that Hughes kept the prototype in working condition until his death in 1976.

Now a museum piece, the Spruce Goose maintains its record of the largest working aircraft ever built, but another plane—one that has flown multiple times—has arguably usurped the HK-1's crown as biggest craft in the sky.

WHAT IS THE LARGEST AIRCRAFT TO HAVE FLOWN MORE THAN ONCE?

What's the largest aircraft every built that has flown more than once, a technical runner-up only to the legendary HK-1 Spruce Goose, which made a single flight in its more than 50-year history?

The reigning king of the skies is none other than the Russian/Ukrainian Antonov AN-225 heavy cargo plane. While the AN-225's 290-foot wingspan is 30 feet shorter than the Spruce Goose's untouchable 320-foot width, the Antonov monster does hold the distinction of being the largest aircraft ever put into working service.

It is also the largest aircraft that has successfully taken off and landed from a conventional runway. (The Spruce Goose was a seaplane, after all.)

Like the Spruce Goose, only one AN-225 exists, and it too had a specific purpose. Known as the Mriya (meaning "dream") aircraft (its NATO code-name is Cossack), the AN-225 was specially built to externally transport the Russian space shuttle, Buran. The one and only Mriya first took flight on Dec. 21, 1988, but the Soviets cancelled the Buran space program before the AN-225 saw significant service.

The AN-225 is actually a heavily modified variant of the AN-124, the Soviet counterpart to the United States' famously massive C-5 Galaxy transport craft. However, the AN-225's wingspan is more than 67 feet wider than the C-5, and it's 28 feet longer than the C-5 (and 57 feet longer than the Spruce Goose).

Since the spacecraft it ferried is no longer in use, it's unlikely that the world will ever see another AN-225 built. The demand for such a uniquely massive plane is rare.

Though there have been rumors of modifying the Mriya for use in European Union spacecraft experiments, the most likely outcome is that the AN-225 will become another legendary museum piece that never met its enormous potential, following in the footsteps of its big brother, the Spruce Goose.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from TechRepublic member DC_GUY, who indulges in one of the Trivia Geek's favorite methods of disputation: etymological quibbling. DC_GUY has a problem with my choice of words in the Jan. 5 edition of Geek Trivia, "Game over and under."

"[You wrote] 'Warner had managed to decimate... the first great home video game console empire...' The root of the word decimate is obviously the Latin word for ten. To decimate a fortune is to take away one-tenth of it. Misuse of the word to simply mean destroy is so widespread that it's now in the dictionary, but that doesn't mean that it's enriching our language...

"Our language has plenty of words meaning to destroy. Let's save decimate for its original purpose."

Okay, fine, DC-GUY. From now on, I'll only use decimate where statistically appropriate.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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