Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum - The Spruce Goose
There are many reasons to visit the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, but only one that really matters. The Spruce Goose! The world's largest wood airplane, folly or masterpiece (or both) of crazed billionaire Howard Hughes. Every museum wants at least one exhibit worthy of a postcard, and the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum has the biggest one of all.
Which is a shame, really. The Spruce Goose overshadows -- literally -- all of the other planes in the museum, as well as its rockets and space ships and even its world's largest privately-held collection of machine guns. This museum has its access road painted like a runway, and its own vineyard, but it's difficult to get any attention with a bird as big as Spruce Goose in your nest.
Howard Hughes built the Spruce Goose during World War II. It was enormous because it had to carry 750 troops and all of their gear. It was wood because there wasn't much wartime metal to spare for something as big and crazy as Howard Hughes' airplane. It only made one, brief flight, and then Hughes hid it in a giant hanger, carefully maintaining it for almost 30 years so that it could fly again (it never did). It became a tourist attraction in the 1980s in Long Beach, California, next to the Queen Mary, under a giant aluminum dome. Then Evergreen bought the plane, took it apart, and hauled it to McMinnville.
"We'll have people come in and ask, 'Where is it?,'" said Philip Jaeger, the museum's director of operations. "We'll tell them, 'Look up.' And they'll say, 'Holy cow!'"
The Spruce Goose's wings, the longest in history, stretch overhead to the ticket counter and far away to the other side of the building. A Flying Fortress bomber, a DC-3 passenger plane, and dozens of other vintage aircraft are parked on the floor -- they're all nice, but they're pipsqueaks compared to the Spruce Goose. Some of the smaller planes probably could use the Goose's wings as a runway.
Walking inside the Spruce Goose is like walking inside a giant packing crate. Clomp, clomp, clomp; everything -- floors, walls, ceiling -- is muffled and creaky because it's wood. The plane's critics labeled it The Flying Lumberyard for a reason.
Up on the flight deck, we were surprised at just how roomy the Spruce Goose is, especially after a lifetime of traveling in cramped commercial airliners. Down in its vast belly, the view toward the tail is like staring into the gullet of an immense Sandworm from Dune. Philip pointed to beach balls lying between the plane's ribs and said that Hughes packed hundreds of them into the wings and tail as a precaution against crashing at sea. "Howard was paranoid that he'd sink," Philip said. "He probably bought every beach ball in Southern California."
Nestled under the plane's left wing tip is the museum's gun collection, with dioramas of GI paratroopers, San Juan Hill, and a boy's bedroom packed with weaponry. The exhibit reminded us of a similar good-old-days bedroom that we'd seen in the NRA Museum -- which turned out not to be a coincidence. Philip said that the NRA had "finalized the exhibit design" of the bedroom and its oversized, gun ownership-favoring quotes from true Americans such as Davy Crockett and Walt Disney.
We walked across the parking lot to a twin of the Spruce Goose building, which holds Evergreen's many space exhibits. There's a V-1 and V-2 rocket, a lunar lander, a Soviet lunar rover, and a big hunk of the Berlin Wall (We wouldn't have reached the moon if we hadn't been chasing the commies). Soviet and American spacecraft hang from the ceiling. Parked next to a supersonic spy drone is the X-38, the "space station lifeboat" that was never launched because it cost too much ("Sorry, astronauts," said Philip). Sunk into a pit in the floor -- because it's simply too big -- is a towering Titan missile. Its subterranean launch control room can recreate a five-minute countdown and blast-off at the push of a button.
The space building is less crowded than the Spruce Goose's because its star exhibit has yet to arrive -- a genuine Space Shuttle. Evergreen has a ghostly Shuttle outline in its brochure with the words, "Coming Soon!" Philip said that the museum's confidence comes from its location ("They want one on the West Coast.") and its state-of-the-art climate-controlled facilities -- although you'd think that a Space Shuttle, if anything, could survive imperfect storage.
We asked Philip why a jumbo jet was parked on Evergreen's lawn, and he showed us a scale model of the museum's latest project: the Evergreen Water Park. The 747 will be hoisted onto the roof and turned into the world's largest water slide, with multiple tubes snaking downward out of its emergency exits. It's is the kind of recycling that we like to see, and we wouldn't mind if Evergreen did the same with some of its other exhibits as well. Forget swords into plowshares, let's turn our old bombers and spacecraft into thrill rides! That would be worthy competition for the Spruce Goose.
Update: The 747 Water Slide opened with much fanfare in 2010. The Space Shuttle, unfortunately, went to Los Angeles in 2012.