At the helm of the 'Spruce Goose'

CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman gets a chance to climb inside Howard Hughes' famous boondoggle. Photos: Inside the 'Spruce Goose'

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."

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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.

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