Ever heard of McMinnville, Oregon? We hadn’t either until a fellow RVer we met in Maine last summer dropped the name. The city of approximately 34,000 people became known for its vineyards and wineries. Although those still draw regulars and visitors alike, McMinnville gained a bigger claim to fame in 1993 when it received shipment of the Spruce Goose.
I had heard my dad mention the Spruce Goose many times while growing up. Having taken a number of cruises out of Long Beach, California, I knew the Spruce Goose no longer resided there, as its former public hangar dome is now Carnival’s cruise terminal. But I didn’t know where the plane had moved to and had never laid eyes on it.
When we learned it was only 1.5 hours from our campground in Eugene, Oregon, we had to go see it for ourselves.
What is the Spruce Goose?
The Spruce Goose is the world’s largest wooden airplane. The brainchild of shipbuilder Henry Kaiser, the “flying boat,” as it’s sometimes called, was created to transport troops and cargo to the Atlantic Ocean during WWII.
Businessman, engineer, film producer, and pilot Howard Hughes, one of the richest people in the world in his lifetime, designed and built the eight-engine behemoth. Its wings span nearly 321 feet. It weighs 300,000 pounds empty. And it stands more than 79 feet tall.
Because of war efforts, Hughes was unable to secure any metal for the project, so he resorted to wood, using the design of a wooden boat as his guide. Contrary to popular belief, the bulk of the plane consists of birch, not spruce. Only the engines, electronics, and screws are not made of wood.
Five years after the building project got underway, Hughes sat in the cockpit behind the yoke to test the flying boat on the water of Long Beach Harbor. After two runs of getting the plane up to speed, Hughes wanted to prove that his mammoth creation could indeed fly. On the third test run, he lifted the plane and kept it in the air for about one mile before landing on the water.
Moving a Colossus
Because the war had ended, the plane never saw flight again. It sat in a hangar for 33 years. After Hughes died in 1976, the Wrather Corp. moved the aircraft into a domed hangar near the Queen Mary in Long Beach, where both could be seen by spectators. Disney acquired the Wrather Corp. but, after finding the attractions not profitable, decided to cut ties with them.
Bids started pouring in from locations wanting to create a permanent home for the Spruce Goose. The proposal by Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville won, and plans were drafted to transport the flying boat from Southern California to Midwestern Oregon.
The massive plane was disassembled and transported in pieces by barges up the West Coast to Northern Oregon. From there, the barges floated the Columbia and Willamette rivers to Portland, Oregon, where the aircraft parts were stored until water levels allowed the structures to float the Willamette River without crashing into any bridges. Several months later, the pieces arrived in McMinnville, delivered by truck the last 7.5 miles.
A Visit to Evergreen Museum
After nearly eight years of restoration to put all the pieces back together, Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum opened to delight young and old with close-up views of Howard Hughes’ flying boat. Seeing the mammoth marvel dwarfs all other planes in comparison. To think it was actually able to lift off is astounding.
We enjoyed touring the expansive museum and learning more about the plane and its history, but especially seeing it up close. We even walked into a portion of the cargo area, where Plexiglass allowed us to look to the bow and aft of the plane. For an additional $30, up to four people can take a 15-minute tour of the cockpit. We opted to forgo that.
Although the Spruce Goose is the main attraction at Evergreen Museum, the gallery houses numerous other aircraft, from a replica of the Wright Flyer to planes from the Golden Age to warbirds and more.
Our $22 admission also granted us access to the Space Museum in another building. It takes visitors on a journey from the beginning of the space age through the Apollo missions and even includes a to-scale lunar module. We found the secondary hangar mesmerizing. It also included a sleek SR-71 Blackbird plane and an A-10 Warthog.
If you’re ever near Salem, Oregon, a trip to the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum is well worth the visit. We learned new things and found the innovations there inspiring.
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This is the travel blog of full-time RVers Bob and Lana Gates and our truck, Gulliver, and fifth wheel, Tagalong.