Spruce Goose flying high

Posted: Sunday, May 25, 2003

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!'' enthuses Paridee while showing off the wooden wonder at the Evergreen Aviation Museum.

''Those propellers measure 17 feet, two inches from tip to tip,'' says 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 California 11 years ago.

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 is still able to draw crowds.

Nearly 400,000 people have come to see the airplane in the past 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 U.S. Air Force.

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, a 71-year-old who flew Corsair fighter planes during the Korean War and these days pilots a Cessna 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 the outside of 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-pound behemoth 70 feet above the surface of California's 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 the Hughes Aircraft company 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 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 the water.

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

It has been saved for posterity because of the aeronautic fervor of the late Capt. Michael Smith, who was an F-15 pilot in the Oregon Air National Guard. He was also the son of Delford Smith, founder of Evergreen International Aviation, a McMinnville-based corporation whose businesses include flying cargo, maintenance of passenger airliners, and selling airplanes and parts.

Michael Smith encouraged his father to bid on the airplane with the intent of having it be the focus of an aviation museum. Evergreen won the bid. The aircraft was disassembled and transported to McMInnville by truck and barge at a cost of nearly $4 million.

Capt. Smith died in a car crash in 1995, but his father made sure his son's dream came true.

Sitting just off a rural road in the middle of Oregon's Willamette Valley wine-growing region, the Evergreen Aviation Museum has become a major tourist attraction since its opening.

People travel from across the country to see the Spruce Goose and the other vintage planes which have been loaned, donated or sold to Evergreen Aviation.

Among the visitors are elderly men who either flew or worked on identical airplanes while serving in the military in their youth.

''When the guys come here, you can almost see the tears in their eyes,'' said a museum guide, Don Arner.

Sam White and Jerry Mathern, two Oregon retirees, drove up from the southern Oregon town of Jacksonville.

Looking at the Spruce Goose in awe, the 66-year-old White said, ''It's absolutely amazing. It's huge.''

''It looks like it would take 30 engines to get it off the ground,'' not the eight that it has, said Mathern.

Also among the admirers was Rosemary Seggert.

The niece of a World War II flying ace, she came to the museum from her home in the Portland area to celebrate her 66th birthday with her husband and son.

As she walked through the museum, Seggert quizzed herself on her ability to identify World War II airplanes placed around the Spruce Goose. There was a P-51 Mustang like the one her uncle flew, a P-38 Lightning, a TBM Avenger, a P-40 Warhawk, a Navy Corsair, a British Spitfire and even a Messerschmitt 109.

''I'm enjoying getting up close and personal with all the war birds,'' she said.



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