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At the helm of the 'Spruce Goose'

CNET News.com 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.

But to say the troop seating compartment is gargantuan is to do it an injustice. This is something that I would have to say could fit thousands of people sitting comfortable, although Narveson said it was designed for only 750.

Back in the cockpit, Narveson shows me the bank of controls for the pilot and the co-pilot. It's something like this: hundreds of dials, switches and knobs for the pilot. Not nearly so many for the co-pilot. And while we're led to believe that co-pilots are generally able to take over the flying duties if something happens to the pilot, that's not so much the case here.

"The co-pilot was the person who designed the (plane's) hydraulics," said Narveson, "and he was not flight-certified."

The fact that the Spruce Goose never became what it was supposed to be is hardly forgotten, despite its being a much beloved artifact of World War II and the eccentric Hughes. Even Narveson has strong opinions about it.

Road Trip 2006

"This was the biggest boondoggle of World War II," he said. "It was supposed to cost $18 million for three planes, and it took $25 million to build one, and then it wasn't done on time."

To put that in perspective, Narveson told me that the plane's eight super-size engines, which originally cost $75,000 apiece, cost $2.4 million apiece in 1998 dollars.

Thus, Narveson said, it was around a $150 million failure when measured in 1998 dollars.

The biggest disappointment of all to aviation romantics like Narveson, though, may be that it never got a chance to live up to its potential.

"It was supposed to fly across the ocean," he said. "It was a seaplane because there were no runways big enough to handle it. But as a seaplane, it could go anywhere."

Perhaps another mystery, to nonaviation buffs and the millions who saw Martin Scorsese's Hughes biopic "The Aviator," was why the plane was built out of wood. Narveson said that may well have been because of Hughes' singular vision.

"The government did not want him to do anything that was detrimental to the war effort," he explained, referring to the use of metal to make the plane. "He couldn't use aircraft mechanics. He had to hire people off the street to work with wood. This was something that had not been done, and I don't think they wanted to waste the manpower on an untried subject."

In any case, I'm very aware of the history of this amazing airplane as I wander through it. Especially when I walk alone across a narrow plank down the middle of the rear section toward the tail. Because of his bad eyes, Narveson doesn't go back there.

Thus, I'm all by myself in the tail section. I have no bad intentions for the plane, but it occurs to me that Narveson doesn't know me from Adam and he's entrusted me with this most famous of aircraft. I try very hard not to break it.

As for Narveson, he admits to me that he feels privileged during his once-a-month on average tours inside the guts of the Spruce Goose.

"You do" feel special, he said. "You don't even look at the (tourists) in the eyes when you're going out...It definitely makes you feel special that you can go up in it."

I'm absolutely inclined to agree, particularly when I'm sitting in that pilot's seat, my hands wrapped around the yoke. Suddenly, I've got a leather bomber's jacket on and...

Narveson says he has trouble deciding which of the dozens of planes is his favorite.

"I probably lean toward the Tri-Motor 1928 passenger plane," he said. "But, I mean, how do you pick a favorite when you have 70 to pick from?"

UP NEXT: In Portland, Ore., a musician tries to drum up interest in a nationwide series of screenings for the film "Serenity."

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