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Man Who Built Spruce Goose for Howard Hughes Dies

January 14, 1987|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Glenn Odekirk, whose life and times were indelibly entwined with Howard Hughes and who designed and built the Spruce Goose, the flying boat that became more of a success on the ground than it ever was in the air, has died.

Odekirk was 81 when he died of cancer late Monday at a hospice in Las Vegas.

Over the years Odekirk, who met Hughes on a movie set nearly 60 years ago, was the eccentric billionaire's "shop superintendent," "chief mechanic" and "assistant to the president" at Hughes Aircraft Co.

What he always was in fact was one of the few people Hughes ever trusted to design the planes that the young adventurer flew to the then furthermost fringes of possibility. He was involved on two historic occasions, when the industrialist and flier made an unsuccessful world record airspeed run in 1935 and a nonstop West Coast to East Coast flight in 1938.

But Odekirk's most lasting legacy will probably be the mammoth wooden Spruce Goose seaplane with the 100-yard wingspan that has become its own museum in Long Beach Harbor, next to another memento of a Gargantuan past, the Queen Mary.

Boat With Wings

In a 1979 interview with The Times, Odekirk said he conceived of the flying boat when he heard shipbuilder Henry Kaiser complain on the radio about the huge number of vessels being lost to German submarines in World War II.

" 'Well, I guess I'll have to put wings on my boat,' " Odekirk recalled Kaiser saying.

Odekirk approached Kaiser on behalf of Hughes and together the three men conceived the HK-1 (for Hughes and Kaiser), known popularly as the Spruce Goose, even though a preponderance of the wood used was birch. Odekirk was the designer in charge of the flying boat that was to carry 750 fully equipped troops across the Atlantic to fight in Europe.

But the plane, 218 feet long and 79 feet high, made only one brief flight. That was on Nov. 2, 1947, 70 feet above the water with Hughes at the controls. It was then placed in storage until converted to a popular public attraction a few years ago.

Shortly after that, Odekirk left Hughes to start his own company and the two men saw each other infrequently if at all until Hughes' death in 1976.

Odekirk contended over the years that the old flying boat, with some mechanical adjustments and checks, could be flown again.

"To me it would be (as simple as) ABC," Odekirk said.

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