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Spruce Goose Is the Star at War Bird Museum

Howard Hughes' wooden airplane, once housed in Long Beach, is a popular attraction at an Oregon aviation depository.

June 22, 2003|Terrence Petty | Associated Press Writer

McMINNVILLE, Ore. — Dwarfed beneath the wing of Howard Hughes' fabled flying boat the Spruce Goose, museum guide Dick Paridee exuberantly lists its leviathan specs as a clutch of rapt visitors listen in.

"It has a 320-foot wing span! That's a football field plus the end zones!" Paridee said while showing off the wooden wonder at the Evergreen Aviation Museum.

"Those propellers measure 17 feet, 2 inches from tip to tip," said Paridee, eliciting bursts of "jeez" and "wow" from his listeners as they gape at the big bird.

The Spruce Goose -- the world's largest airplane in terms of wing span -- is the star attraction at Evergreen Aviation Museum. The airplane was rescued from an uncertain fate when it was moved to Oregon from Long Beach 11 years ago.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 25, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Spruce Goose -- An article in Sunday's Preview edition incorrectly reported that Howard Hughes' gargantuan wooden airplane weighs 300,000 tons. It weighs 300,000 pounds, and it can carry 130,000 pounds of payload.

The museum opened on June 6, 2001, after restoration of the Spruce Goose by a team of experts and construction of a glass-and-steel building large enough to house it.

More than five decades after this strange bird with eight engines made its first public appearance, the Spruce Goose still draws crowds.

Nearly 400,000 people have come to see the airplane in the last two years. They also come to view more than three dozen other vintage aircraft that stand literally in the shadow of Hughes' airplane -- including World War II combat planes like a B-17 Flying Fortress and a P-51 Mustang.

Soon to come is an SR-71A Blackbird, the world's fastest spy plane, on permanent loan from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The museum's volunteer tour guides -- many of them retirees -- seem just as excited as its visitors about being around the Spruce Goose and the other planes. Some were pilots, tail-gunners or crewmen in wars gone by.

"I've been around airplanes around my life. It's like a narcotic," said Paridee, 71, who flew Corsair fighter planes during the Korean War and these days pilots a Cessna that he keeps at home.

The Spruce Goose is a curious airplane -- eccentric, like the man who built it, oil and film industry tycoon Howard Hughes.

Viewed from outside the museum, the Spruce Goose seems like a gigantic, brooding prehistoric bird -- peering from its captivity through a vast tinted window at visitors as they pull into the parking lot.

The wooden airplane flew only once -- on Nov. 2, 1947, in a brief flight with Hughes at the controls that covered a mile and lifted the 300,000-ton behemoth 70 feet above the surface of Long Beach Harbor.

Made mostly of birch and not spruce, the flying boat was the brainchild of Henry Kaiser, a steel magnate who built Liberty ships during War War II.

Kaiser proposed a fleet of flying boats that would deliver cargo and troops over the heads of U-boats that were sinking American ships.

Kaiser turned to Hughes, founder of Hughes Aircraft and a passionate pilot with a couple of air speed records under his belt.

They landed a contract with the U.S. government, with the stipulation that the aircraft had to be built of a material that was not crucial to the war effort. They chose wood for the airplane, called the HK-1 Flying Boat.

There was a fair amount of ridicule from critics who said the airplane would never fly. It was dubbed the Spruce Goose, although Hughes hated the name.

With delays caused by the complexity of the design and Hughes' micromanagement, Kaiser withdrew from the project in 1944.

Between 1942 and 1947, Hughes spent $7 million of his own money on the airplane and $18 million in federal funds.

A U.S. Senate committee launched a probe into allegations that Hughes had misappropriated money for the project. One senator called the Spruce Goose a "flying lumberyard."

Eager to vindicate himself, Hughes had the Spruce Goose towed by tugboat to Long Beach Harbor for a test run. He'd said he was going to just test the engines, not lift it off the water, but the throngs of people who showed up to watch got a surprise.

As the Spruce Goose glided across the harbor, a stunned audience watched as it lifted off.

Hughes said after the flight: "I like to make surprises."

But the big bird never flew again. Hughes stored it in a special hangar, spending a rumored $1 million each year to preserve the aircraft. It would be more than three decades before the Spruce Goose re-emerged into public view.

Hughes died in 1976. To prevent it from being disassembled, the Aero Club of Southern California and entrepreneur Jack Wrather acquired the aircraft in 1980 and put it on display in Long Beach in a hangar next to another legendary leviathan: the Queen Mary luxury liner.

The Walt Disney Co. later bought Wrather's company, including the Spruce Goose. When Disney lost interest in the airplane, its future was again in question.

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