More than 30 years after its first and only flight, and after a four-year debate on how to display it, Howard Hughes's "Spruce Goose" is ready to be taxied to a permanent berth.
Only recently saved from a plan that would have divided the mammoth aircraft into nine pieces to be shipped to museums across the county, the legendary flying boat -- intact -- is scheduled to open its doors to the public next June.
Although details for its display have yet to be announced, the Spruce Goose, the largest aircraft ever built, will be run as a nonprofit "exhibit hall" when it is moved out of storage and permanently settled next year near the Queen Mary in this city's booming harbor.
"We're not calling it a museum," says June Glickman, a spokesperson for the Wrather Corporation, which will manage both the aircraft and the former luxury liner under a lease signed with port officials on Aug. 22.
"But it will be a complete display of the boat," she continues.
"People will experience being at the Spruce Goose in much the same way they can experience certain Disneyland attractions or taking the Universal Studios tour. Among other things, we'll have a theater showing films of its flight in the Long Beach harbor in 1947."
The flying boat -- an all-wood behemoth with a wingspan as long as a football field, eight engines, and a tail eight stories high -- has fascinated aviation buffs and engineers for years, even though it has been stored out of sight in a Long Beach hangar since its maiden flight 33 years ago.
Regarded as a milestone in flight history, the plane was built to carry 750 combat troops. It was originally ordered under an $18 million government contract, but was finished too late to be of any use -- and only after Mr. Hughes had invested an additional $10 million of his own money in the plane.
The Goose was launched from its relatively low profile into a cause celebre last May, when officials of the Summa Corp., the Hughes company that has been shelling out $500,000 a year just to store the aircraft, announced their intention to have the plane cut up.
The decision, made in the face of mounting financial pressures and official elbowing from the City of Long Beach, which had other plans for the land on which the plane was stored, capped a four-year search for ways to display the aircraft.
Among the more eyebrow-raising suggestions made to the Summa Corp. by interested individuals were recommendations that the flying boat be turned into a discotheque or converted into a replacement for Air Force One, the official presidential plane.
The decision to dissect the historic aircraft sent shivers of horror down the spines of many aviation enthusiasts. Under the wing of the Committee to Save the Hughes Flying Boat, they launched an all-out campaign which included rallies at the plane's Long Beach hangar, gathering some 50,000 signatures on petitions calling for preservation of the Goose, a massive media blitz including an apperance on the television program "Good Morning America," and a push to have the flying boat placed on the National Historic Register, a bid the committee expects will receive the federal government's approval sometime this month.
"Cutting up the flying boat would have been like cutting up the Kittyhawk if it was still around," says Bob McCaffery, a Los Angeles engineer who headed up the committee, which is still struggling to pay off debts incurred during its campaign.
"It was the forerunner of today's wide-bodied aircraft. It was way ahead of it's time -- everybody else said it couldn't be done," he adds.
Under the final agreement, reached as a result of contacts between the Wrather Corp., Summa Corp., and the Aero Club of California, a nonprofit group that will hold the title to the plane, any profits from the flying boat will be reinvested in its operations.