A squadron of vintage aircraft finds room to spread its wings in McMinnville.
Yes, billionaire Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose is here. And no, it isn’t all spruce (it’s mostly birch). It is insanely huge (the nearly 320-foot wingspan trumps that of a 747), but the Goose is hardly the coolest part of the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, in the heart of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Inside an imposing glass-enclosed structure, you’ll find a Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird—the fastest aircraft ever built (roughly 3.5 times the speed of sound)—and a model of a flying machine Leonardo da Vinci designed 400 years before a couple of brothers from Ohio flew their famous 12 seconds. (Yes, there’s a replica of the Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer.) There’s even an immense B-17 Flying Fortress; a tiny one-man Bede microplane you could build in your garage; a Sopwith Camel from World War I; and a menacing Cold War–era Soviet MiG fighter. When the new space museum wing opens next year, there’ll be a Mercury capsule and a 112-foot-long Titan missile, and there’s talk of a space shuttle arriving here, maybe the way the Goose did in 1993, by barges carrying the thing in pieces bigger than the average house.
But perhaps the coolest part of the museum is how it got its start. A local kid named Michael Smith was so captivated with flying that he became a pilot by age 16 and eventually joined the U.S. Air Force. The young aviation enthusiast put his capacious brain and considerable charm to work creating a flight museum with his dad, Del Smith, the CEO of the airline services company Evergreen International Aviation. In July 1990, five months after the Disney Corporation decided to discontinue its interest in exhibiting the Goose in Long Beach, Calif., Michael successfully bid to relocate and display the mammoth aircraft. With the museum’s centerpiece firmly secured and surrounded by a wine region ripe with tourists, interest in the fledgling institution began to rise. Today, this shrine to things that soar has become internationally renowned, attracting roughly 200,000 visitors a year.
With more than 80 historic aircraft on display, both inside and out, not to mention a tasting room (featuring Spruce Goose wines), the museum is far more than merely the home of the Goose, riveting as that craft and its creator are. It’s a whirlwind of energies—model-rocket camps for kids, a computer simulation flight lab, an IMAX theater—and a monument to both the courage of those who go aloft and the creativity of those who invent the means to do so. And attending to the entire scene are some 250 courteous volunteers who all appear to be retired military engineering geniuses.
You wish Michael could have seen it flourish so gracefully . . . but in 1995 he died in a car crash. The young pilot is gone; but his dream is very much alive, a place of wonder, a legacy to curiosity as wide as the vault of the sky.
Photography by Greg Vaughn
This article was first published in January 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.