In the heart of the Oregon wine country on the western side of the Willamette River valley, 35 miles southwest of Portland, the town of McMinnville is home to the Evergreen Aviation Museum, itself home to the Spruce Goose. The only example of Howard Hughes’ mega-plane is somewhat incongruously ensconced amid the rolling farmland of central Oregon. I’d been by here many times, but never stopped in. With a day off, and a gorgeous Spring day inviting a drive in the country, I figured I’d see what the museum was about.
I was also motivated by the fact that the museum is facing significant legal trouble. The original backing company Evergreen International Aviation collapsed in 2013, and creditors have been after the museum’s assets since. A Chapter 11 filing by the controlling Foundation has staved off foreclosure proceedings for the moment, but I figured I’d better see the museum before the lawyers divvied up the assets.
And the assets are substantial.
Admission is $25, and permits access to the museum buildings and one movie in the IMAX theater. The main building houses the main attraction Spruce Goose (H-4 Hercules), and the building was literally built around the aircraft. It simply dominates everything in a rather large structure, as might be expected from the largest airplane ever built.
There are numerous aircraft on the floor, and few suspended from the ceiling. Displays include general aviation, homebuilts, a number of trainers, aerobatic craft, WW II aircraft including a Mustang and a Corsair, and reproductions of WW I airplanes. There is an honest-to-God Bf-109 in flyable condition: one of the very few in the world. There’s also a DH-4 mail plane; the only example known to exist:
By the way, the propellers on the H-4 are the largest ever fitted to an airplane, but you’d never know it from the scale of the thing.
A B-17 is on the floor. Once operational; it’s being restored. There’s a separate charge to tour the bomber.
The tailplane span of the H-4 is longer than the wingspan of the B-17.
A surprising number of the aircraft are operational or nearly so. You can tell which ones are by the drip trays underneath the engines and other leakage points. There is a display of piston engines along one side. Quite amazing to see how compact an engine rated at 15o0 HP can be. That’s locomotive power in a package barely 6′ long and less than 3′ high.
The star of the show is, of course, the Spruce Goose. The museum procured the airplane on the condition that it would be the main attraction, and given it’s size and provenance, could hardly be anything but. That the aircraft is constructed almost entirely of wood is true, but it’s birch, not spruce, that makes up the structure. ‘Spruce Goose’ is the appellation given the machine by newspapers, probably because ‘Birch Bird’ didn’t have the same ring. Museum admission gains you admission to the entryway, but to go up to the flight deck costs extra. The museum found that the constant parade of visitors was literally shaking the aircraft apart, so a charge was instituted to reduce traffic and pay for maintenance.
From the entry you can view the length of the aircraft’s fuselage (although ‘hull’ is the more appropriate term for a seaplane of this magnitude). If you’ve been in a cave, the feeling is similar. It’s huge. There’s a mannequin placed about a quarter of the way to the tail for scale, and it seems small. If you want to go topside, the charge is $25 for groups of 1 – 4. There were a couple of other guys, so I asked if they wanted to split the admission charge; a proposal they agreed to. I went to the front desk to buy the ticket, and then there was some waiting for the next tour. It turned out the two gentleman were commercial pilots who’d flown a client into Hillsboro the previous day, and were doing a little sightseeing in their off-hours. I thought it would be interesting to get their take on the aircraft.
After passing through a glass door, the first thing is a giant HEPA filter. Howard Hughes germaphobia was well known, and he demanded that the cabin air be filtered. The stairway to the upper deck is a spiral staircase from a destroyer, and while not original equipment, doesn’t seem out of place. The upper deck is larger than some airplanes.
Looking forward from the rear bulkhead. The skin over the top is only 1/8″ thick, and pressing on it, it is. The structure is all wood, mind you. Directly behind me is the fuel distribution circuitry: essentially an analog computer. The equipment on the left are stations for flight test recording, while the two pilots are sitting up front. I sat in the copilots seat, and there are hatches in the overhead through which you can stick your head. When you do, you see that there’s a lot of airplane following you around. Nearly all the flight instruments and controls are on the pilot’s side. The pilot’s seat also comes with a tube to supply air directly from the HEPA filter. No other flight station is so equipped.
There are numerous dials and switches and such, but if you look at them, the array of instrumentation isn’t complicated, there’s just a lot of it with eight engines. The flight engineer’s station has a number of gauges related to engine performance for each engine, but one gauge had even the pros stumped. The BMEP gauge caused some head-scratching, and we all did what everyone does, and went to the phones (internet). There’s a flight manual in the cockpit, but all it did was confirm the gauge existed. No word on what it did. As best we could figure, the gauge was used to evaluate engine performance and set the engine (using the flight engineer throttles) to best performance for the conditions. As a side note, the throttles are marked with an ‘H’ or an ‘E’ depending on whether that particular engine generates electrical or hydraulic power.
As part of the fee, you can have your picture taken on the flight deck, complete with a replica Howard Hughes fedora. Yes, they wipe the hat between uses.
The rear of the upper deck allows access to the wings.
The guide supplies a flashlight so you can see to the end. It’s a long way. A person can easily walk upright for most of the length. There’s a hatch in the rear bulkhead for access to the rear of the wing.
After the H-4 tour, I’d thought Id’ seen pretty much what the museum had to offer. There are some outdoor displays, mostly military jets from the 60’s and 70’s. There’s a MiG-29, which has an astounding 65,000 feet-per-minute climb rate. That’s . . . that’s insane. There’s also Russian armor for some reason.
Maybe they need targets.
While wandering around the outdoor displays, I found that there’s a sister building to the ‘Spruce Goose’ home housing the museum’s space collection. I didn’t know about this, and was somewhat dismayed because I made the discovery with less than an hour to go before the museum closed. I debated coming back another time, because the collection (minus the ‘Goose’) was the equal of the other building, but forged ahead.
The other half of the museum houses the jet and space collection. There’s a lot to see here, and the centerpiece is a Titan II ICBM (the launch vehicle for the Gemini program) set upright in silo configuration. This particular Titan II was the last to be manufactured. There’s also a Redstone rocket, the launcher for Mercury. I built paper-towel tube models of US launchers as a child, so very cool to see the real thing. The building exhibits are primarily devoted to the American and Russian space programs, and there are a number of US and Soviet military jets on display. Many of the displays feature flown items like crew suits, food, and even experimental nosecones when US engineers were figuring out ablative materials. You can touch something that’s been in space, and that’s cool. The Russians are well-represented, as they should be. The feeling is that the museum looks to honor that which should be honored, and the Russians are often given the limelight in the displays. Going to space is no easy thing, and only three nations have achieved a manned presence. Perhaps Evergreen can include some Chinese exhibits in future.
I grew up on Apollo, and I’ve been to Johnson Space Center in Houston, but Evergreen has something I didn’t know existed. Apparently the Saturn V had a ring below the third stage that controlled stages one and two.
That’s actual hardware. Not flown, of course, but still the real deal. The ring is packed with hydraulic and electrical systems that controlled staging for the launcher. Fascinating stuff. The engine is a third-stage engine from Apollo.
Speaking of hardware, the museum made a bid for a Space Shuttle when they were decommissioned. With only four to go around, and McMinnville having only 35,000 people in a rural area, there was no real chance they’d get an Orbiter. They did get a couple of pieces. On display is a hold-down bolt that attached the Orbiter to the fuel tank (smaller than you might think), and a tire. From the condition of the tire, it looks like flown equipment. They didn’t get the whole ship, but they got a few pieces. Sort of like saint relics in the Middle Ages.
In the same building there’s a decent helicopter display of Army and Navy choppers. My father flew helicopters in the Army, notably the Huey (officially Iroquois) in Vietnam, and the H-34 Chickisaw. The H-34 has the engine in the nose, and my father remarked how it took some getting used to with the weight forward of the cockpit.
Evergreen has an SR-71, something I did not know.
This particular plane last flew in 1996, and the display includes the various ‘black boxes’ (actually white) the airplane carried on missions. The craft on the left is a Mach 3.5+ drone carried on the back of the ‘Blackbird’, and in one instance destroyed the launching craft on exit, killing the crew. Of interest was the SR-71 ‘start cart’:
There are two Buick 425 engines in there to generate electrical power to start the plane. After the mid-60’s, parts for those engines became scarce, so the Air Force used Chevy 350’s.
There are engines:
Included are passenger aircraft turbojets and turbofans (the large turbofan on the left is from one of Evergreen’s 747’s) on the left, a P&W F-100, the J-58 which powered the ‘Blackbird’ and the engine I wanted to see, the P&W J-57, which, like the Chevy 350, has powered just about everything.
For some reason there are a couple of cars here.
Not that they’re out of place, just unexpected to see them. The Eagle in the foreground was flown by museum founder Micheal King Smith as an Oregon Air National Guard pilot.
On the way home, there was an example of why this is a great place to live:
A view from Bald Mtn Road looking over the Willamette Valley with Mt. Hood on the horizon. I love living here.
There’s a not so subtle inkling that Evergreen Aviation Museum is about God and Country. There are inspirational sayings painted about from Emerson to Hill. There’s a church on the grounds, and a grove dedicated to Scouting. There are worse things to swear allegiance to, and few better. If you have an interest in aviation, the museum can easily take a day. It’s not hard to see a ‘Wine and Wings’ tour, if you want to tour the Oregon wine country with the museum. If you’re in the Portland area, the museum might just be worth a trip.