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A Cooked Goose? : Famous Plane's Fate Hangs in Balance of Disney Decision on Project


Howard Hughes' fantastic flying machine, the Spruce Goose, seemingly has spent its entire star-crossed career trying to recapture its one golden moment in the sun. The question now is whether the massive seaplane, its wings clipped long ago, can survive at all.

Preliminary plans unveiled last week by the Walt Disney Co. for a $2-billion resort and theme park in Long Beach exclude the historic flying boat now housed on the 300-acre proposed site. But the outcome remains uncertain because Disney is undecided about the site and is still considering an alternative site in Anaheim, near Disneyland.

Nevertheless, speculation about what will become of the historic flying boat, which has been surrounded by almost as much mystery as the reclusive Hughes himself, ranges from the mundane to the fantastic.

There is talk of dismembering the giant wooden bird for a trip across the desert and reassembling it amid the glitz of Hughes' onetime hometown of Las Vegas. Other entrepreneurs envision it as a spectacular centerpiece of a large real estate development.

Some fans who want to see it kept in one piece--and who say that moving it out of Southern California would be like moving Hollywood to the Midwest--favor transporting the entire plane aboard a giant ocean barge, perhaps powered by its own propeller engines, to another port city in the region.

Finally, there are those who, letting their imaginations take flight, speculate about what may appear as the simplest solution of all--letting the old bird fly out of Long Beach on its own power.

It would be only its second flight since Hughes piloted the huge airplane on its one-minute maiden voyage in 1947, before secreting it away to a hangar. With the end of World War II, the giant cargo plane, designed to transport tanks and troops, already was destined to be a relic of the pre-jet-propulsion age. When Hughes apparently finally admitted that time had passed by the grand old flying boat, he had it put away. But he ordered the plane maintained in flying order until a few years before his death in 1976.

Having lost its most loyal patron, the Spruce Goose fell on hard times. Evicted from its home by the Port of Long Beach, which needed the land to construct an oil tanker terminal, the homeless Goose was to be cut into pieces and scattered across the country for display at various aviation museums. The seaplane was saved when the management firm that took over the legendary Queen Mary for exhibition in Long Beach offered to incorporate the Spruce Goose into the nostalgic display.

More than 5 million people have visited the Spruce Goose and, no doubt, felt dwarfed at the sight of the spectacular aircraft's Gargantuan dimensions. The craft's wingspan is longer than a football field; its tailspan, the height of an eight-story building.

Inside its aluminum dome, the flying boat appears in flight-ready condition and rests in the middle of a reflecting pool with its huge wings tied down to the floor with heavy metal cables, giving the impression that it might otherwise take flight.

The Goose's most avid fans want the plane kept there.

"It's a magnificent thing and it's horrible that the possibility exists that we will lose it," said Donald E. Madonna, director of the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica.

"I think it should stay in Southern California. That's where Howard Hughes built it and that's where it belongs," he said.

Merle Coffee, the radio operator on that day 43 years ago when Hughes unexpectedly lifted the Goose off the water after a series of scheduled taxi test runs, had looked forward to seeing the Goose take to the skies again.

But Coffee, like scores of others who worked for years carefully crafting the giant, could not know the Goose's brief minute aloft would be its last.

It was heartbreaking, said Coffee, now 70, to see the flying boat put away in a hangar for 30 years. "It was a waste of manpower," he said.

Among those who had led the effort to save the Goose in the late 1970s was Bill Berry, the former director of the entire Spruce Goose project. Proposals back then included moving it to the Salton Sea, the San Francisco Bay Area and Las Vegas. Even actor John Travolta, an aviation buff, had expressed interest in buying it, Berry said.

Berry and others opposed a plan to break the plane into pieces to move it, which would have ruined its structural integrity. Although they determined that flying the Goose would be impractical, Berry said it would not be impossible.

Berry and Coffee said they would hate to see the Spruce Goose torn apart to be moved and reassembled elsewhere. They said that because of its unique construction, the ship could never be put back together in the same way.

Others, like Nissen Davis, president of the Aero Exhibits Corp., which owns the Spruce Goose on behalf of the Aero Club, believe that such "purist" attitudes are a luxury the campaign to save the Goose can ill afford.

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