not the Spruce Goose...
  • not the Spruce Goose...
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On a recent visit to Portland, Oregon, I found myself unexpectedly with an extra day in my itinerary. So, being an aviation buff and former flight engineer in the Naval Air Reserve, it was a no-brainer to visit the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.

For me, part of the draw was that I knew McMinnville had been put on the map back in 1950, when it made national headlines for UFO sightings and two famous photos by a farmer and his wife. The nation was mesmerized with what appeared to be authentic documentation of interstellar travel, and now – over 60 years later – the photos have yet to be proven as a hoax and the mystery continues.

But I digress: my real goal was to check off an item on my life list of “things I must do,” which was to see one of the best aviation museums on the planet.

Located on Highway 18 across from the McMinnville Municipal Airport, the museum complex is only an hour drive from Portland. However, it’s located in an area where I would least expect to find it – amidst pinot noir vineyards and farms of turkey producers. And maybe some abandoned UFO. In short, it’s in the middle of nowhere.

I turn off of Highway 18 toward what seem like giant hangars – only bigger. And then I do a double take, as it seems the road leading to the complex is an airport runway.

Glancing around to make sure I didn’t take a wrong turn, I realize that this is all part of the aviation experience. Very cool. As I drive closer to the museum, I see an array of jets, tanks and helicopters displayed on the grounds.

The Aviation museum complex consists of three monstrous buildings. One houses aircraft, including the original Spruce Goose, while the next is dedicated to space flight. The third contains the IMAX cinemas. (A fourth building – the one with a Boeing 747 on the rooftop – is the recently opened waterpark and H20 museum featuring 10 slides, four of which exit directly from the fuselage of a 747. Admission is separate.)

Aviation Museum

With over 200 aircraft and exhibits ranging from military aircraft and helicopters to commercial and private aircraft, this is indeed a world-class collection. Admittedly, if for no reason but sheer size, the centerpiece is the Spruce Goose – a flying boat built entirely of wood due to wartime rationing of metals.

The largest warplane ever constructed, it was flown only once on November 12, 1947, by Howard Hughes. Hughes managed to fly it for a mile at an altitude of 70 feet along the Long Beach coastline before it succumbed to the laws of aerodynamics.

Unfortunately, it’s next to impossible to convey the size of this plane with a camera. But if you must try, the best vantage point is by climbing the stairs to the second floor – right before the gift shop. Here you’ll get the best view of the Spruce Goose and see how massive it really is.

Another “check-off” is the B-17 bomber, best known for its ability to dodge anti-aircraft fire during World War II and for successfully conducting daylight raids against Germany.

But one of my favorites was the somewhat obscure exhibit on international smokejumpers. Filled with facts and datelines, it gives an excellent portrayal of their important role in fighting forest fires.

Space Museum

The space museum is located at the other end of the parking lot from the aviation museum, adjacent to the IMAX, and showcases an array of rockets, engines, crew compartments and lots of fun facts about space flight. Plus the actual Space Shuttle will soon be coming to rest here, too!

For now, my favorite is the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, a high-altitude strategic reconnaissance plane that flew at speeds over 2,000 miles per hour. One of the world’s fastest aircraft, it also set an sustained speed altitude record at 85,069 feet – flying too high for surface-to-air missile systems to track and destroy. It’s incredible to think that this former stealth secret is now on public display.

Don’t miss the Titan II, a large booster rocket that began as a missile and was then used to launch NASA’s Gemini astronauts. The best part is the exact replica of the Vandenberg Air Force Base launch room, where you can experience a simulated launch sequence.

No Time for IMAX

With so much to see in each museum, I easily lost track of time and spent several hours more than I originally anticipated. So I had to forgo the IMAX movies on this visit. (It gives me a good reason to come back.) I did hear from many visitors that the movies are well worth the separate admission price: $11 for adults, $10 for seniors and $9 for youth.

However, I did save time for a glass of the 2008 Spruce Goose Pinot Noir Reserve, served at the tasting rooms located in both the Aviation and Space museums. You can also purchase bottles of favorite wines from Evergreen Vineyards. (So that’s why there are so many vineyards surrounding the property!)

In summary, be sure to save a full day for the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum. It’s the “Disneyland” of aviation and should be on the bucket list for any veteran, aviator, WWII buff or space nut.

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