Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose--the plywood flying boat that barely earned its name with a one-mile hop over a choppy Long Beach Harbor in 1947--may be dismantled and shipped to Japan as an extraordinary centerpiece of the 1987 International Design Exposition.
"It is all very preliminary," said Joseph Prevratil, president of Wrather Port Properties Ltd. of Long Beach, the subsidiary of Wrather Corp. that operates the Queen Mary Hotel and its domed neighbor, the Spruce Goose exhibit.
"I emphasize that we only are inquiring about the possibility," said Prevratil. "We're testing the feasibility . . . but there are no commitments on either side."
One side is Wrather Port Properties, which in 1983 contracted to finance, build and manage the display of the giant flying boat under a lease arrangement with its owner, the nonprofit Aeroclub of Southern California.
The other party, said Prevratil, is the city of Nagoya, Japan, host of the design exposition.
Despite the lack of commitment, however, The Times learned Tuesday that arrangements to date have been rapid and extensive.
Further Discussions Slated
Six weeks ago, Wrather officials met in Long Beach with a senior representative of the Nagoya city assembly. Prevratil confirmed Tuesday that he will fly to Japan later this month for further discussions.
A transportation company, Trans Asiatic Inc., of Seattle, has been consulted about freighting the disassembled Spruce Goose to Japan by ocean-going barge.
"We've agreed it is a possibility, that logistically it can be done," said Carl Webber, president of Trans Asiatic. "But it is complex and will be very expensive. It's really still in that stage of gathering figures, looking and then having these people (Wrather and Nagoya) make the decision."
Wrather executives have discussed the possibility of dismantling the plane with several members of the flying boat's original crew--primarily former crew chief Chuck Jucker, 70, of Las Vegas, and Stan Soderberg, 62, who still supervises maintenance of the flying boat for Wrather.
Soderberg, a fabric and metal specialist who was aboard a chase boat for the airplane's only flight--of just one mile at an altitude of 70 feet--believes the massive flying boat could be unbolted and shipped in four pieces.
"The eight engines would easily be removed," he said. "Then the wings would be taken off, the horizontal and vertical (tail) surfaces would be removed and the fuselage would travel intact."
Prevratil said the Nagoya exposition would foot all costs of dismantling, transporting and reassembly of the 200-ton Spruce Goose in Japan. It also would pay to ship the Flying Boat back to Long Beach for yet another reconstruction.
"We're looking at a total figure for the project of $10 million," he said.
Prevratil has made no public announcement of the operation that would suspend California display of the famed airplane for at least one year.
40th Anniversary of Flight
But he did make reference to the possibility at a champagne party Monday commemorating the 40th anniversary of the craft's only flight.
His plan did not sit well with the reception's honored guests--the dozen or so surviving crew members of Howard Hughes' historic hop.
And, once more, the airplane and the phantom billionaire who built it, became the center of controversy.
Said one retired mechanic: "To take this airplane apart would be a violation of a priceless antique and the memory of the genius that created it."
David Grant, 70, of Encino, sat at the right hand of Hughes as co-pilot during the flight. "This airplane comes close to being a hand-fitted operation," he said. "I'd say dismantling would be a very risky business. It doesn't come apart easily . . . and maybe it would be cheaper to fly it to Japan."
John Boseker, 71, of Palos Verdes Estates, was Hughes' structural analysis manager on the airplane. Taking the flying boat apart, he said, would be "an horrendous undertaking.
"There would be no way, in my individual opinion, it could be done without damage. My personal decision--and I'm sure the decision of all those crew members who were on that airplane--would not be in favor."
Tending and promotion of the flying boat, however, does not rest with its former fliers.
That responsibility sits squarely and legally with the Aeroclub and Wrather Properties.
'A Diminishing Attraction'
"We obviously would not agree to anything that would damage the airplane as an historical artifact," said Nessen Davis, president of Aero Exhibits Corp., formed by the Aeroclub to oversee the Spruce Goose lease with Wrather. "On the other hand, we're concerned about the Flying Boat as a diminishing attraction . . . and that it does continue to generate revenues to support the scholarship program of the club."
According to a Wrather spokesman, the Spruce Goose and its companion tourist attraction, the Queen Mary, draw 1.3 million visitors annually.
Davis said that Wrather Properties contributes an annual average of $20,000 in Spruce Goose revenues to the club's scholarship fund. The club would expect more than that if the airplane was sent to Japan.