June 19, 2006 9:39 AM PDT

At the helm of the 'Spruce Goose'

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Road Trip 2006

July 11, 2006

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But to say the troop seating compartment is gargantuan is to do it an injustice. This is something that I would have to say could fit thousands of people sitting comfortable, although Narveson said it was designed for only 750.

Back in the cockpit, Narveson shows me the bank of controls for the pilot and the co-pilot. It's something like this: hundreds of dials, switches and knobs for the pilot. Not nearly so many for the co-pilot. And while we're led to believe that co-pilots are generally able to take over the flying duties if something happens to the pilot, that's not so much the case here.

"The co-pilot was the person who designed the (plane's) hydraulics," said Narveson, "and he was not flight-certified."

The fact that the Spruce Goose never became what it was supposed to be is hardly forgotten, despite its being a much beloved artifact of World War II and the eccentric Hughes. Even Narveson has strong opinions about it.

Road Trip 2006

"This was the biggest boondoggle of World War II," he said. "It was supposed to cost $18 million for three planes, and it took $25 million to build one, and then it wasn't done on time."

To put that in perspective, Narveson told me that the plane's eight super-size engines, which originally cost $75,000 apiece, cost $2.4 million apiece in 1998 dollars.

Thus, Narveson said, it was around a $150 million failure when measured in 1998 dollars.

The biggest disappointment of all to aviation romantics like Narveson, though, may be that it never got a chance to live up to its potential.

"It was supposed to fly across the ocean," he said. "It was a seaplane because there were no runways big enough to handle it. But as a seaplane, it could go anywhere."

Perhaps another mystery, to nonaviation buffs and the millions who saw Martin Scorsese's Hughes biopic "The Aviator," was why the plane was built out of wood. Narveson said that may well have been because of Hughes' singular vision.

"The government did not want him to do anything that was detrimental to the war effort," he explained, referring to the use of metal to make the plane. "He couldn't use aircraft mechanics. He had to hire people off the street to work with wood. This was something that had not been done, and I don't think they wanted to waste the manpower on an untried subject."

In any case, I'm very aware of the history of this amazing airplane as I wander through it. Especially when I walk alone across a narrow plank down the middle of the rear section toward the tail. Because of his bad eyes, Narveson doesn't go back there.

Thus, I'm all by myself in the tail section. I have no bad intentions for the plane, but it occurs to me that Narveson doesn't know me from Adam and he's entrusted me with this most famous of aircraft. I try very hard not to break it.

As for Narveson, he admits to me that he feels privileged during his once-a-month on average tours inside the guts of the Spruce Goose.

"You do" feel special, he said. "You don't even look at the (tourists) in the eyes when you're going out...It definitely makes you feel special that you can go up in it."

I'm absolutely inclined to agree, particularly when I'm sitting in that pilot's seat, my hands wrapped around the yoke. Suddenly, I've got a leather bomber's jacket on and...

Narveson says he has trouble deciding which of the dozens of planes is his favorite.

"I probably lean toward the Tri-Motor 1928 passenger plane," he said. "But, I mean, how do you pick a favorite when you have 70 to pick from?"

UP NEXT: In Portland, Ore., a musician tries to drum up interest in a nationwide series of screenings for the film "Serenity."

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11 comments

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How Strange
When the Goose was in Long Beach, one could go inside and tour. I did when I was playing a gig on the Queen Mary where the museum was then.

It is impressive. It is not THAT impressive other than being made of wood and having a spacious cockpit. Still, it is pretty easy to see why it never flew again and probably would have killed anyone who tried. There is an old saying that with a powerful enough engine, one can fly a golf cart, but the landing would still be a problem. And pushing that beast through Atlantic weather? Not a chance. Hughes knew it. Money and influence bought him out of the the trial because a serious review by aeronautical experts would have left him broke and without a reputation.
Posted by Len Bullard (454 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Sounds like the Airbus A380
ROFL!
Posted by gerhard_schroeder (311 comments )
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tour was cheap back in the day. Greedy people now I guess
I wondered where the spruce goose went too after it was next to the Queen Mary for so long at the Dome in Long Beach, California. I went on field trips in elementary school to see the Spruce Goose and we went inside parts of the plane. I find it odd that it costs so much now to go inside the plane.
Posted by markman24 (12 comments )
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IMHO it's better now
I've seen it at both places. In Long Beach it was in a dark room and hard to see. Now it is well lit and part of a museum with a large number of airplanes. I don't recall it being more expensive now (taking inflation into account) than it was then, but it is a better deal now. I believe they limit access to the interior to preserve the plane, not to increase their income.
Posted by talmy (74 comments )
Link Flag
Highest workload for a pilot, ever. Way too much.
Holy Moley. These days, co-pilots help the pilot fly the plane
instead of them just watching all those gauges. One errant
reading on just one gauge can bring down these big birds. Even
today, the main skill a pilot brings to the cockpit is the ability to
follow a lot of variables, but to expect the one main pilot to
watch all those on the Goose, without help, means they would
be unlikely to see and avoid other air traffic, among many other
failings. Mr. Hughes built a magnificent yet deeply flawed
airplane, or it'd have flown a bunch more. Seriously, nobody
could have watched all those dials alone and also watched where
the plane was going.
All that aside, if they ever want anyone else to try to fly it, I'd
love to volunteer.
Posted by JackfromBerkeley (136 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Pilot workload impossibly high. Too many gauges to watch.
Just one anomolous reading on one gauge can mean your airplane
is about to crash. Pilots have to keep lots of variables under
observation, but they usually have a co-pilot's help. That is hard
enough even on 4-engine transport aircraft, which I have flown,
but if a pilot had to watch all those gauges, he wouldn't have much
spare attention to actually fly the airplane.
Posted by JackfromBerkeley (136 comments )
Reply Link Flag
sorrry about double post. First one seemed lost.
It looked as though my first post went into a black hole.
Stephen Hawking predicted stuff could emerge from a black
hole, and it seems he was right. That's why I repeated myself.
Still, actually flying the Hughes Flying Boat would be a challenge.
There are too many variables for the p[ilot to have to monitor.
That's why we have co-pilots and flight engineers. They watch
the dials and the pilot pays attention to where the plane is
pointed. Flying the plane was risky specifically because the pilot
had to take on faith that his plane was good to go, because he
couldn't adequately monitor all those gauges. That is why he
never flew it again, really.
Posted by JackfromBerkeley (136 comments )
Link Flag
sorrry about double post. First one seemed lost.
It looked as though my first post went into a black hole.
Stephen Hawking predicted stuff could emerge from a black
hole, and it seems he was right. That's why I repeated myself.
Still, actually flying the Hughes Flying Boat would be a challenge.
There are too many variables for the p[ilot to have to monitor.
That's why we have co-pilots and flight engineers. They watch
the dials and the pilot pays attention to where the plane is
pointed. Flying the plane was risky specifically because the pilot
had to take on faith that his plane was good to go, because he
couldn't adequately monitor all those gauges. That is why he
never flew it again, really.
Posted by JackfromBerkeley (136 comments )
Link Flag
sorrry about double post. First one seemed lost.
It looked as though my first post went into a black hole.
Stephen Hawking predicted stuff could emerge from a black
hole, and it seems he was right. That's why I repeated myself.
Still, actually flying the Hughes Flying Boat would be a challenge.
There are too many variables for the p[ilot to have to monitor.
That's why we have co-pilots and flight engineers. They watch
the dials and the pilot pays attention to where the plane is
pointed. Flying the plane was risky specifically because the pilot
had to take on faith that his plane was good to go, because he
couldn't adequately monitor all those gauges. That is why he
never flew it again, really.
Posted by JackfromBerkeley (136 comments )
Link Flag
The H-4 appeared to be a flying testbed from photos of the period that I have seen. There were many racks of equipment and technicians on board the test flight to monitor the systems. Just keeping track of the 10 engines was a big job. Keep in mind that this plane addressed technological hurdles such as hydraulic-assissted flight control systems. No doubt that this thing was a bit ponderous to fly, with no opportunity to tune the controls on its short hop. If the war had continued and its reason for being remained viable, its shear size and complexity no doubt would require an additional 2 or 3 years development to provide safe and reliable operation and would still require a large crew of technicians to keep track of the systems. Actually, its original purpose as a submarine-proof troop transport was nullified by 1944 when that threat was practically eliminated.
Posted by dogcatcher79 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
The **** pit wasn't small and I believe there were several people in there when it flew. it wasn't the Hughes and the co-pilot/hydraulics expert.
Posted by OlsonBW (131 comments )
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