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Nearly one thousand miles north of its spiritual home at Long Beach, two hundred miles south of Seattle and 40 miles from the city of Portland is a purpose-built hangar that houses perhaps the world”s most unique aircraft, Spruce Goose. Conceived during the Second World War as the prototype of a fleet of huge flying boats, the aircraft, stuck with a name despised by its innovator, is synonymous with that most strange of human beings, Howard Hughes, The Aviator.
Spruce Goose is big, very big. Compare its size with the Airbus A380. The Hughes H4 (its official title) has a wing span of 320 ft, a height of just over 79 ft and a length of 218.5 ft. The A380 comes in at 261 ft x 79 ft x 238.5 ft. It is resident at the Evergreen Aviation Museum instigated by Del Smith, founder of one of the world”s largest helicopter companies and air freight operators in memory of his son US Air Force Captain Michael King Smith tragically killed in a car accident in 1995.
And if you didn”t know that The Aviator had been released in a surge of hype (certainly) in the UK, you had obviously been away somewhere off the map for the Christmas holidays.
It”s a film not to be missed that can be missed. Far too long it slowly builds up to a crescendo. The sequence showing Hughes near fatal crash in the first of only two XF-11 in the Beverly Hills suburb of Los Angles is terrific and probably worth the admission money alone. What the picture does not show is that less than a year later Hughes successfully flew a second prototype of a fine aircraft that never went into production (see left). But that”s Hollywood! Providing you know the basic outline story the battle between Hughes Trans World Airlines (TWA) and Juan Trippe of Pan American Airways to break Pan Am”s overseas monopoly as the only US carrier allowed to serve overseas destinations is well done. Sadly the final outcome does not feature. TWA struggled on for ten years after Pam Am finally went under in 1991, although today there is another operator who uses the Trippe title.
Howard Hughes can be described as a weirdo with a developing paranoia for anything dirty. He never drank or smoked and after finally selling TWA became a recluse in a Las Vegas hotel he owned dying actually in the air in 1976 whilst being moved between hospitals. He was aged 71, but unrecognisable the authorities using 20 year old fingerprints to formally identify him. A sad end for a brilliant man, a sequence of events not revealed in the film dominated by Leonardo DiCaprio who through its 169 minutes degenerates in much the way Hughes must have done. Hughes, a true aviation man, would be proud of his lasting legacy. The Hughes Space and Communications company is the world”s largest manufacturer of commercial satellites. Hughes Electronics is owned by General Motors and Hughes Aircraft merged with Raytheon Company in 1998 and is now called Raytheon Systems Co. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has become the US”s second largest philanthropic organisation (after the Bill & Melinda Gates” Foundation), with an endowment of $11bn and annual spending of about $450m.
As for the film forget the opening sequence which shows a young Hughes with his mother. The movie really begins in the late 1920”s with the young Hughes spending $4m of family money in the silent film, Hell”s Angels. It”s WWI with a 75 aircraft private air force battling it out in the California sunshine. Three pilots were killed in the original filming. With Hell”s Angels nearly complete Jolson comes along with the first talkie, the Jazz Singer. The obsessive Hughes shoots Hell”s Angels again as a talkie. The Outlaw and countless other films follow but it is aviation that is the real interest of Hughes although he does find time to pursue Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett in what is said to be a very lifelike performance), Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale as a rather luscious nun like figure) and Jean Harlow (played by Gwen Stefani looking very blond and dim).
But Hughes (see here at the controls of Spruce Goose) wasn”t just a ladies” man, he was also transfixed by aeroplanes, an obsession that very nearly cost him his life. Hughes finally takes Spruce Goose into the air. But forget about how the film depicts it. The real aircraft only just gets out of the water and ”flies” for little over half a mile. He did get airborne. So will the Airbus A380 in not many weeks from now.