New orders for long-lasting U.S. manufactured goods rose for the third straight month in February and inventories posted their biggest gain since December 2008, government data showed on Wednesday.

The Commerce Department said durable goods orders rose 0.5 percent after an upwardly revised 3.9 percent increase in January.

Analysts polled by Reuters forecast orders rising 0.7 percent in February from January's previously reported 2.6 percent increase.

Orders were likely lifted by sturdy aircraft bookings, which offset another decline in orders for motor vehicles and parts. Non-defense aircraft orders rose 32.7 percent last month after a surging 134.9 percent in January. Vehicle orders fell 1.9 percent after a 2.3 percent drop the prior month.

Durable goods orders are a leading indicator of manufacturing activity, which in turn provides a good measure for overall business health.

New durable goods orders excluding transportation rose 0.9 percent in February after falling 0.6 percent the previous month. Analysts polled by Reuters had expected new orders excluding transportation to rise 0.6 percent.

Non-defense capital goods orders excluding aircraft, a closely watched proxy for business spending, rebounded 1.1 percent last month after a 3.9 percent fall in January. The increase was however below markets expectations for a 2.3 percent rise.

Durable goods inventories rose 0.3 percent, the biggest gain since December 2008, after gaining 0.1 percent in January. Shipments, which go into the calculation of gross domestic product, fell 0.6 percent in February after slipping 0.1 percent in January. Unfilled orders increased 0.4 percent, the largest gain since July 2008, after rising 0.2 percent in January.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)