June 19, 2006 9:39 AM PDT

At the helm of the 'Spruce Goose'

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Road Trip 2006

July 11, 2006
McMINNVILLE, Ore.--I'm sitting in the pilot's seat of the "Spruce Goose," Howard Hughes' famous World War II-era wood behemoth of an airplane, and it's much to the chagrin of the tourists one level down.

I'm at the Evergreen Aviation Museum here for the latest stop on Road Trip 2006, my two-week trip through the Pacific Northwest.

Spruce Goose

This is home to the "Spruce Goose," otherwise known as the Hughes HK-1 (H-4) flying boat. This was the famous troop transporter that Hughes promised the U.S. government during the war, but didn't finish until two years after VJ-Day.

And let me tell you. This is one mammoth airplane.

According to the literature, the wingspan alone would extend 10 feet into both end zones of a football field. And from inside the giant building that's the museum, the Spruce Goose, as the plane was known, dominates everything. Absolutely dominates.

I've been given special access to the interior of the plane, something I'm told by tour guide Al Narveson is usually possible only with at least two weeks' notice and a hefty fee.

"I just tell (tourists who ask to get inside the plane) to hand me 250 bucks," Narveson said, "and I'll take you up."

The museum folks have generously agreed to allow me full access without paying.

The only problem? To get inside, it's necessary to walk right by a large number of tourists and beyond a locked glass door that they can then see through as I get my personalized tour.

"This is where people don't get to go," Narveson told me as we enter. "This is usually forbidden territory for anybody."

Click here to Play

Video: Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose
The behemoth plywood-framed cargo plane flew...once.

The museum is actually home to about 70 vintage aircraft, and to military aviation buffs, this has got to be one of the best places in the world.

After all, besides the Spruce Goose, there's an SR-71 Blackbird surveillance jet, a Sopwith Camel, a DC-3, a Curtiss Pusher, a MiG-17, an F-4 Phantom and a P-38 with 24 rising-sun Japanese flags, signifying the kills of a real-life Oregon pilot during World War II.

I'm trying very hard not to let the other tourists' envy bother me as I climb the spiral staircase from the main compartment of the Spruce Goose to its upper-level cockpit. But by the time Narveson has graciously told me I can sit in the pilot's seat, my thoughts are much more on what it would be like to fly this beast than on the paying customers below.

Of course, flying the Spruce Goose would be quite something. In fact, the plane left the ground only once, Narveson informed me. That was a journey of just over a minute that topped out at an altitude of just 70 feet and that covered only a mile.

After that, the plane was retired. Why?

"Because it wasn't needed," said Narveson, referring to the fact that the plane wasn't finished until two years after the war ended.

Being inside the plane is quite an experience. For example, I got to walk all the way through the gargantuan part of the plane where troops would have sat in flight and was able to climb part of the way up into the 80-foot-high tail section.

That's right. The tail is taller than the maximum altitude the plane ever reached in flight.

CONTINUED: Walking a narrow plank…
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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 )
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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 )
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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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