If you are an airplane buff, find yourself glued to The History Channel, or just enjoy chatting with story-telling veterans and you happen to be in Oregon, head straight to the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Trust me, it will be an absorbing, unexpected few hours.
My week in Portland found me piling into the car with the family, heading west out of the city through the West Hills until the cookie-cutter McMansions yielded to small town storefronts, signs to wine tastings, and vineyards. Out here in the historic town of McMinnville resides the recently expanded Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, home to the largest airplane ever to fly – Howard Hughes’ “Spruce Goose.”
The Spruce Goose is the draw of the museum and even my knowledge of Hughes’ obsession with building the largest airplane did not prepare me for its size. The fuselage stretches from one end of the hangar to the other, its wing span sheltering dozens and dozens of historic fighters in a protective embrace. I climbed up the steps into the belly of the giant beast, designed to carry multiple tanks at once. Sadly, the Spruce Goose only flew once, a quick 17 second flight on November 2, 1947, before being retired as too expensive and impractical for military use.
Across the parking lot sits another hangar, home to a comprehensive Space Museum charting the Space Race. I am already intimately acquainted with the American space program, but the corresponding timeline of the Russian space program was a fascinating learning experience. The first woman in space? Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova in 1963.
Frankly, it’s amazing I have never been to this museum. I am an amateur World War 2 airplane buff. Much of my childhood involved hunching over plastic model kits and hanging my creations from my bedroom ceiling. A B-17 approached my bed for a bombing run. The Stuka careened towards my books. A German Me 109 and a British Spitfire reenacted the Battle of Britain above my desk. I trooped to air shows with my father and dreamed of one day soaring into the skies myself.
A seed of my wanderlust planted with each model.
So Thursday I walked into a huge hangar, overflowing with historic planes crowded together, almost on top of each other. Immediately, as my eyes lit upon a full-scale replica of the first jet fighter, Nazi Germany’s Me 262, a volunteer pounced. He regaled us with the stories of each plane, including the shadowy past of the B-17 bomber, once used by the CIA. Its files are still classified. Another volunteer beckoned me over the protective rope line to duck underneath the P-38 Lightning’s wingspan for a peek at the tail rivets, a tiny clue into the history of its production. A veteran, once a mechanic for the P-38’s hydraulics during World War II, let me be up close and personal with my favorite fighters, including the German Me 109, which now resides next to a strange bedfellow – a British Spitfire, its arch nemesis during the Battle of Britain.
But the moment I fell in love with the enthusiastic, affable veterans and airplane enthusiasts who make up the Evergreen volunteers came when one veteran, without prompting, opened up the Grumman Avenger so I could peek inside. As my eyes grazed over the controls and innards, he described the pivotal role the Navy’s bombers played in the Battle of Midway, when the US Navy sunk 4 Japanese aircraft carriers, completely reversing the tide of the war in the Pacific to America’s advantage.
Yes, the airplanes are the stars in this museum, many kept in flyable condition by Evergreen’s mechanics, but they are humble and quiet, slumbering beneath the great hulk of the Spruce Goose. It’s the volunteers, old friends with these retired flying machines, that bring their stories to life.