Old barns drift by as I drive southwest on Highway 99W from Portland. I am in Oregon’s scenic Willamette Valley, and from Highway 18 I start looking for a huge new A-framed building nestled in a broad vineyard near McMinnville.  Following the signs, I drive up the curving access road until the high glass front of the building looms above me.  Staring out from behind the windows is the Spruce Goose.

Above: The Evergreen Aviation
Museum is designed around the
Spruce Goose, moved here
from Long Beach .

Below: Remember that this is an
airplane, not a supertanker.

Below: An inside view of the huge
Spruce Goose, looking toward the tail

Evergreen International Aviation, based right across Highway 18, owns and operates the museum.  The current building, completed in 2001, was designed around Howard Hughes' famous wooden aircraft.  Volunteer docents, many of them veteran combat fliers, inform me with facts and regale me with stories of the Goose and many other famous planes there.

Howard Hughes developed the Spruce Goose during World War II as a transport to get troops safely across the Atlantic while German U-boats preyed on helpless merchant ships below. The government required him to use only materials that would not deprive the war effort, so he built the enormous plane of wood, mostly birch.  The press nicknamed his creation the “Spruce Goose,” and Hughes reportedly hated the inaccurate moniker.

The Goose flew only once, with Hughes himself at the controls.  The war had ended by then, and the plane was stored for 33 years in its homeport of Long Beach, California before being put on public display there. In the 1990s it was acquired by Evergreen, and after a painstaking journey by cargo ship, river barge, and truck, the aircraft arrived in McMinnville for reassembling, repainting, and display.  The work was officially completed on December 7, 2001, but volunteer Mike Gerla explains that small tasks are still underway.  Visit www.sprucegoose.org for museum hours, admission, and special events.

Above: Volunteers Ross
Philippi and Mike Gerla tell
the author about the
SR-71's enormous jet engines.

The SR-71 Blackbird,
designed four decades
ago, is still futuristic
in retirement.

“It was a happy engine,” declares Ross Philippi, an expert aircraft restorer.  We stand next to an enormous jet engine that was removed from the museum’s SR-71 Blackbird for display.  Philippi deftly describes the incredible intricacies of the powerplant but says it was surprisingly reliable and predictable. Propelled by two of these engines, the 1960s spy plane flew at more than Mach 3.  At that speed, the Blackbird produced so much heat that it required a special fuel with a very high “flash point” to prevent it from exploding in the aircraft’s fuel tanks. “You could throw a bucket of that fuel on a campfire and put the fire out,” says Gerla, an old friend of Evergreen owner Delford Smith.  When the Air Force retired the costly-to-run aircraft in the 1990s, it still looked futuristic.  And here stands one, beautifully displayed in an Oregon vineyard.

At 80 years of age, Bob Parry still looks like a pretty tough guy.  The retired Air Force pilot escorted bombers over Germany in the Lockheed P-38 Lightning.  Later he flew through hurricanes in a cargo plane loaded with special sensors to measure the storms.  He tells me about the P-38 as I admire a stunning specimen in the museum’s west wing.  The Lightning’s twin Allison engines turn their propellers in opposite directions, eliminating the torque that makes single-engine fighters trickier to control.  “You’ve got to watch out for that torque during takeoff,” explained Parry, who flew many different planes.  Without such troubles, the Lightning was a dream to fly, he said.

WWII War Birds

Above: This P-38 Lightning
was in near-perfect shape
when the museum acquired
it from Harrah's Casino Reno.
I visited with volunteer docent
who flew them in WWII.

Left, top: The "J" model of the
famous B-25 Mitchell medium
bomber had machine guns
mounted in side blisters for
additional strafing potency. A
Russian Yak-50 fighter hangs
above the Mitchell.

Above: The famous F4-U
Corsair was called
"Whistling Death" by Japanese
pilots due to the high-pitched
whistle created by the powerful
fighter's air intakes as it
swooped in on its quarry.

Left, middle: The C-47 Skytrain
flew cargo and troops during
WWII, and many of its DC-3
brethren are still flying
passengers around the world.

Above: A British Spitfire Mk XVI
sits beside its German nemesis,
the Messerschmidt BF-109.
Few 109's survived the war.

Left, bottom: This P-40
Warhawk bears the famous
"Flying Tigers" paint scheme.

Evergreen Aviation Museum
500 Captain Michael King Smith Way
(off Highway 18)
McMinnville,  OR 97128

One thousand World War II veterans are leaving the scene every day.  Try to imagine the size of such a conflict.  Bob Parry, retired fighter jock, mentioned the statistic somewhat wistfully as he shared his memories. Our veterans are a treasure trove of stories and insights.  The gorgeous aircraft at the Evergreen Aviation Museum , with proper care, will be around a long time.  The heroes who flew them will not.  And here stands one in an Oregon vineyard.

— Photos and feature by Robert LaGrone, Las Vegas Correspondent.

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