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The Spruce Goose

When we think of an eccentric billionaire we tend to think of Elon Musk, but for decades before, the poster child for the archetype was Howard Hughes.

Musk and Hughes both shared an interest in aviation and exploration, and both went big. Hughes went really big.

I deviated off Highway 5 to see one of Hughes’ biggest follies. I was traveling to the town of McMinnville, Oregon (pop. 34,000), while it is only about an hour from Portland, the town seemed to be in the middle of nowhere and an unlikely location for housing the largest seaplane in the world.

This seaplane, coined the “Spruce Goose” (a nickname that Hughes always hated), is now housed in the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum. It was nicknamed the Spruce Goose because it is the largest wooden airplane ever built. It also was given the moniker, The Flying Lumberyard, a name I think Hughes also hated.

The massive seaplane was designed during World War II as a cargo plane to ship goods across the Atlantic Ocean while avoiding the attention of German U-boats. The Spruce Goose only flew once, on November 2, 1947 in Long Beach, California. The plane was only airborne at a maximum height of 70 feet for 26 seconds. By the time of this test fight, the war was over and the plane was no longer needed.

The plane went into storage and was keep in pristine condition by a crew of 300 that were on Hughes’ payroll. They were sworn to secrecy and the aircraft was kept in flying condition but the Spruce Goose never flew again. In 1962, the crew was reduced to a fraction of it’s size and then was disbanded on Hughes death in 1976.

For many years the Spruce Goose (officially known as the Hughes H-4 Hercules) was displayed in a dome called the Spruce Goose Dome in Long Beach, California from 1980 to 1992. The new owners of the dome (a small company named Disney) felt that the oversized airplane was not making them enough money so a search was made for a new home for the massive airplane.

The new home was found in Oregon and the Spruce Goose was disassembled and shipped by barge, train, and truck and after a 138 day and 1,055 mile journey, the longest distance the H-4 ever travelled, the Goose arrived in McMinnville, Oregon.

The Spruce Goose is so massive that the museum was built around the plane and it upstages all the other aircraft on display beneath it’s massive wings. Sketching the H-4 proved to be a real challenge because you cannot get far enough away from the plane to capture it in it’s entirety. So I had to sketch it in pieces: the front (featured sketch) and the tail.

I could barely get three of the eight engines into one photo of the Spruce Goose. This airplane is massive!