- The Washington Times - Friday, May 16, 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 to a clutch of rapt visitors.

“It has a 320-foot wing span. That’s a football field plus the end zones,” says Mr. Paridee while showing off the wooden wonder at the Evergreen Aviation Museum.

“Those propellers measure 17 feet, two inches from tip to tip,” says Mr. Paridee, eliciting bursts of “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 the museum. The airplane was rescued from an uncertain fate when it was moved to Oregon from California 11 years ago.

The museum opened in June 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 such as 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 Air Force.

The museum’s volunteer tour guides, many of them retirees, seem just as excited as 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 all my life. It’s like a narcotic,” says Mr. 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, Nov. 2, 1947, in a brief flight with Mr. 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 World War II.

Mr. Kaiser proposed a fleet of flying boats that would deliver cargo and troops over the heads of U-boats that were sinking American ships. He turned to Mr. Hughes, founder of the Hughes Aircraft Co. 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.

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

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

Between 1942 and 1947, Mr. Hughes spent $7 million of his own money on the airplane and $18 million in federal funds. A Senate committee investigated charges that Mr. Hughes had misappropriated money for the project. One senator called the Spruce Goose a “flying lumberyard.”

Eager to vindicate himself, Mr. Hughes had the Spruce Goose towed by tugboat to Long Beach harbor for a test run. He had 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. Mr. Hughes said after the flight: “I like to make surprises.”

The big bird never flew again, however. Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. Wrather’s company, including the Spruce Goose. When Disney lost interest in the airplane, its future was once again in question.

It was 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 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.

Capt. 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 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 that 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,” museum guide Don Arner says.

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

Looking at the Spruce Goose in awe, Mr. White, 66, says, “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, Mr. Mathern says.

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