Duck, Duck, Goose

We pulled our Ford pick-up, the first vehicle we’d purchased as a couple, off to the side of the road and walked over to the chain-link fence. Through it, we peered as best we could into a large, temporary metal structure. Inside, the pieces of the Spruce Goose were vacuum-packed in white plastic, stashed like someone’s childhood toys in the garage.

Howard Hughes inside the H-4 Hercules

In the fall of 1999, Doug had helped Anna move to Naperville, Illinois, for a full-time job at a small college, then he set out alone for Corvallis, Oregon, to start a PhD program in computer science. Once there, like most graduate students, he spent a great deal of his free time surfing the Internet. For him, this offered a way to acclimate and to find interesting things to do there. He came across a story about Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose—the H-4 Hercules—having been moved from its home in Long Beach, California, next to the Queen Mary, to take up residence in McMinnville, Oregon.

In October 1992, the Flying Boat had made a five-day voyage 928 nautical miles up the West Coast to Portland. Then, in Goldilocks fashion, the project had to wait until water levels in the Willamette River were neither too high for the plane to pass under bridges, nor too low for it not to hit bottom. It finally arrived in McMinnville on February 27, 1993. Considering the aircraft’s only flight covered a distance little more than a mile, this journey was monumental. What we saw that chilly, misting day on the side of the road was the aircraft’s temporary storage facility at Evergreen International Aviation, where the plane’s large parts were restored, removing all the paint and replacing aging fabric.

Across the road from the metal shed was an empty field, the planned site for the aviation museum that would house the Spruce Goose. McMinnville had voted to approve the building project two years earlier, but seeing the plane in its disassembled state and very little discernable construction made us wonder whether the museum was mere fancy. Evergreen’s headquarters housed a small museum, but that display also suggested that their ambitions were likely greater than their grasp. If you weren’t looking for the simple Evergreen sign, you’d just drive past this place.

Model at NASM

In 1942 as well, people had grand plans for the HK-1 (as it was known when Henry J. Kaiser was involved in the project): it was to be the largest airplane yet, able to transport 750 troops or a couple of Sherman tanks across the Atlantic Ocean. The idea was for the War Department to give $18 million to Hughes and Kaiser, who would produce this cargo plane within two years to bolster the U.S. effort in World War II. As months, then years, went by (and Kaiser abandoned this flying ship), the project became known for the vast sums of money moving from the War Department to the Hughes Corporation. Hughes even added $7 million of his own money. In August 1947, Hughes was called before Congress to explain this colossal debacle. During his testimony, he stated, “I have my reputation all rolled up in it and I have stated several times that if it’s a failure I’ll probably leave this country and never come back.”

When the Spruce Goose finally took its maiden flight on Día de los Muertos, November 2, 1947, Howard Hughes manned the controls. (See video below.) The Wright brothers had flown for just 12 seconds, going 120 feet; 44 years later, Hughes flew five times longer and 42 times farther. He earned his right to stay in the country and go crazy in Las Vegas. (We’ve gone a little crazy in Las Vegas ourselves, and we’ll relate some of that in later feature posts.)

What fascinates us about the Spruce Goose is that it’s a story about creating success out of failure. Any large undertaking risks failure, sometimes feels as if it has become failure at given points. Flying just once, for only a mile, marks the H-4 as a failure. Yet, it’s a success too. It remains the tallest airplane, with the largest wingspan. It’s the largest seaplane and largest wooden plane. Its structure—beech not spruce (who can blame a reporter for a rhyming headline?)—with fabric-covered control surfaces, is gorgeous.

The innovations necessary for the Spruce Goose to fly mark the aircraft as a success, too. A special process—Duramold—was invented to build cross-grained laminate shapes for the fuselage; it is lighter than aluminum. The engineers devised an “artificial feel system” so the pilot, with the yoke in his hands, would feel as if he were flying a much smaller plane. Whatever force the pilot exerts is multiplied 200 times, so it is easier to fly than it should be. Such innovations have been used in future generations of aircraft, so the legacy of the Flying Boat lives on, not just in a relic and a single, short flight, but in present-day aviation. The building, design, and engineering processes added to our body of knowledge. That’s how we learn, after all—and how we write, too—by taking risks, making mistakes, and sticking with it.

To our great surprise, The Captain Michael King Smith Evergreen Aviation Educational Institute opened its doors on that Oregon roadside on July 6, 2001, with the fully restored Spruce Goose as its dominating centerpiece. Having seen the plane as its constituent pieces, the Spruce Goose proves that greatness exceeds the sum of the parts. Even though the museum houses dozens of other planes, the building stands as a cathedral—with sun streaming through the panes of its large window—devised to revere a singular aircraft.

The H-4’s most beautiful feature is that it’s formed out of wood, a simple, natural material. Wood was used because the original contract mandated Hughes not use material, like steel and aluminum, that was essential to the war effort. Beauty can emerge unexpectedly out of artificial constraints. Our moments together by the side of the road, as we peered at the disassembled plane, and then later in its omnipresence, emerged out of the constraints we faced, separated by more than 2000 miles for five years while we built the foundation for our future.

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