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Originally published November 1, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 1, 2007 at 7:02 PM

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Honoring the historic Spruce Goose flight at Oregon museum

Mike Wright isn't used to starring roles. More often, he lingers in the background, quietly going about his work as a private aircraft maintenance...

Newhouse News Service

Information

Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum: www.sprucegoose.org

McMINNVILLE, Ore. — Mike Wright isn't used to starring roles. More often, he lingers in the background, quietly going about his work as a private aircraft maintenance technician.

But as the 60th anniversary of one of aviation's most famous flights approaches, no one is better suited to take over as headliner than the man who, over the course of three years, oversaw the exacting and unprecedented task of reassembling Howard Hughes' legendary Spruce Goose airplane.

Wright, who spent 10 years as restoration director at Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, before starting his own company, has the featured spot Friday, when the museum honors its centerpiece exhibit with a daylong slate of presentations.

The high point at the museum near Portland should come at precisely 12:38 p.m. — six decades to the minute after Hughes stunned onlookers by lowering the wing flaps and lifting his massive HK-1 Flying Boat off the waters of Long Beach Harbor in California for its one and only flight — with the playing of a radio recording taken from the actual milelong flight.

For Wright and others who revere the craft and the airborne technological revolution it precipitated, words barely suffice.

"I spent more than 1,000 days of my career working on the plane," he said. "And every single day we were in awe, inspired and impressed. Even today, after the years of studying we've done, there is so much about that plane we still don't know."

Hughes established a number of aviation firsts just by proving such a monstrously sized plane — the Spruce Goose was more than three times larger than anything launched into the air previously — could fly. Aviation historians continue to underscore the plane's importance, even if the Spruce Goose itself was obsolete by the time it took to the air. World War II, during which it was envisioned that the Flying Boat would safely ferry up to 750 troops over waters turned red by German U-boats, ended two years before Hughes' historic venture.

"Its actual flight was sort of a non sequitur event," said Walter J. Boyne, an aviation historian and author. "Aviators were glad to see it actually fly, but they knew that there was a long distance between a hop and a serious test program."

But the plane's laminated-wood construction, its groundbreaking use of hydraulics and multiple backup systems and its innovative large-scale hull all presaged the modern era of air transport, Boyne said.

Nor did the Spruce Goose's usefulness stop once it touched back down, said Katherine Huit, the museum's former historian who now directs the Yamhill County Historical Society.

"What many people don't realize is that, even after it flew, it remained a vessel for research and development," she said. "Hughes tinkered with it for several years and never lost interest in it. The Spruce Goose was his baby."

Even grounded, it continued setting records.

In 1980, four years after Hughes' death, George Larrazolo got the call to devise a way to lift the hulking craft from its hangar on Terminal Island at Long Beach, Calif. The island was sinking, and most doubted that the plane could be saved.

Larrazolo, now president of American Riggers in Southern California, designed a giant cradle that, using cables guided by underwater divers, slipped beneath the plane's underside. Then, employing the world's largest floating crane, he hoisted the Spruce Goose — all 300,000 pounds of it — 10 feet into the air and safely onto land as boats jamming the harbor blared their horns in celebration. He's still in the Guinness Book of World Records for the single biggest lift ever.

"When I started that project, I had black hair," said Larrazolo, who will speak at Friday's gathering. "When I finished it, it was white."

Bringing it to Oregon

Capt. Michael King Smith, son of Evergreen Aviation founder Del Smith, led the effort to buy the Spruce Goose — a derogatorily coined term that Hughes despised — in 1992. One 890-mile ocean voyage and a short overland stint later, it landed in McMinnville.

Efforts to restore the plane ground to a halt when Michael Smith died in a car accident. Six years later, his father picked up the project, dedicating it to his son's memory. At that point the plane fell into Mike Wright's hands to refurbish for public display.

Decades of neglect, however, had taken a toll. Many areas where the wood was thinnest had rotted, requiring hundreds of patches.

Then there was the utter lack of any sort of manual. The brilliance of Hughes' design, apparently, was kept in his head and not on paper. Consequently, Wright was left to eyeball an area on the plane, turn to a volunteer and say, "Something shaped like this needs to go there." Often, crew members would spend an entire day rummaging through one of the two barns stuffed with Goose parts, looking for something fitting the bill.

Wright, like others before him, couldn't believe Hughes hadn't left something of himself somewhere in the cavernous craft. Federal agents had apparently believed the same thing when they shut down Larrazolo's hoisting operation for four days to search the plane, thinking Hughes, who died without a will, must have stashed it in there somewhere.

Volunteers in McMinnville discovered hundreds of "vanity signatures" when they stripped the fuselage to bare wood — which was mostly birch, not spruce — but nothing linked to Hughes.

Still, Wright pressed on.

"There was a driving force in me to look at every single square inch, and I did," he said. "I crawled everywhere just knowing I'd find some sort of Hughes memorabilia, a signature, anything he left behind."

In the end, he found nothing to illuminate a pioneering aviator whose death in 1976 was shrouded in tales of solitude, starvation and dementia.

Ultimately, Wright said, none of that detracts from Hughes' accomplishment in designing and building his storied Flying Boat.

"The Spruce Goose is legacy enough," he said. "There will never be another like it."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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