June 19, 2006 9:39 AM PDT
At the helm of the 'Spruce Goose'
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Road Trip 2006July 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.
"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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