Warning: ob_start(): non-static method anchor_utils::ob_filter() should not be called statically in /home/kradmin/public_html/wp-content/plugins/auto-thickbox/anchor-utils/anchor-utils.php on line 33

Warning: ob_start(): non-static method sem_seo::ob_google_filter() should not be called statically in /home/kradmin/public_html/wp-content/plugins/sem-seo/sem-seo.php on line 540

The "Goose"

79 feet in height. 319 feet from wingtip to wingtip. 11,430 square feet of wing area. 400,000 pounds' maximum takeoff weight. Eight 3,000 horsepower engines swinging 17-foot propellers. The specifications of Howard Hughes's gargantuan H-4 flying boat, dubbed the "Spruce Goose" by the 1940's press, strain the imagination. We had to see it for ourselves. My parents, my wife Janet, and I flew into McMinnville, Oregon in my club's A36 Bonanza late one evening in early September to visit the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum. The museum is located right across the road from the airport, which was just a few minutes from our hotel. Early the next morning we got a taxi back to the airport and caught a shuttle over to the museum.

Once inside, we gazed up at the massive airplane, comfortably ensconced in the vast building constructed especially to house it. Now that I was finally seeing it in person, its scale still didn't quite register in my brain. Even the gorgeous, polished-aluminum DC-3 parked under the H-4's left wing, dwarfed by its enormous neighbor, was not quite enough to convey the scale of what I was looking at.

Certainly the airplane's sheer size is its most immediately striking feature. Like a great colossus of the ancient world, it inspires a kind of awe. But ultimately, it's the magnitude of the accomplishment it represents, not its physical size, that most impresses me. The Hughes engineers tackled and solved countless daunting technical challenges. The airplane had the world's first artificial-feel control system, which amplified control inputs over 200 times, making it physically possible for a human being to fly it. The laminated birch (not spruce) from which the airframe is constructed is stronger and lighter than aluminum. The airplane carried 12,500 gallons of fuel in many tanks, requiring an incredibly complex fuel system.

And on November 2, 1947, with Howard Hughes at the controls, it flew—only about a mile and at an altitude of 70 feet—but it flew. And it never flew again. With the second world war long over, the airplane had no mission. That one flight cost the American taxpayers $18 million in 1940's dollars. It cost Hughes himself an additional $7 million.

But it flew.

As we toured the museum, we admired the dozens of meticulously restored aircraft arrayed under and around the H-4. Finally, the tour took us up a flight of stairs and inside the cavernous airplane itself. The docent told the history of the ship and how it had finally come to McMinnville, an epic tale in its own right. At last, Janet, my mom, and I took the extra-cost tour of the airplane's enormous cockpit, which has more square footage than our apartment. Sitting in the pilot's seat, I surveyed the instrument panel, trying to figure out what everything was. It was impossible, but it felt comfortable, just as an airplane cockpit should.

Over a pizza dinner at our hotel that evening we talked about all the beautiful airplanes we'd seen that day, but my mom kept coming back to the H-4.

"Man, that airplane is something else!" she said. "It's one of those things that just had to be built. It had to be built."

Building the Empire State. Climbing Mount Everest. Going to the Moon. These were things that made no practical sense, and yet in the same way, they had to be done. The same can be said of any of the crazy, senseless things we human beings long to do. Things like learning to fly. GA airplanes have never been the most practical form of personal transportation. Flying is difficult and it's really expensive. Unless you plan to fly for a living, learning to fly doesn't really make any sense at all. But for those who know they want to fly, who know they need to, it's something that has to be done. It's just part of what it means to be human.

After my parents retired for the evening, I sat quietly and thought about our visit to the cockpit, and the eight slender throttle levers with their knurled knobs that had fit so comfortably in my hand. They had once commanded 24,000 horsepower. Those wings, 13 feet tall at the root, had once lifted over 300,000 pounds into the air. I thought of the view from the pilot's seat, looking down several stories onto the museum floor below.

That airplane may have been a rich man's folly, a pork-barrel boondoggle, an albatross. But my mom was right.

It had to be built.

Post a comment

Filed under Mission by  #

Leave a Comment

Comments are queued and moderated daily.

Fields marked by an asterisk (*) are required.

Register Login